Macomb CountyJune 26, 2012
Group works to restore Lake St. Clair lighthouses
By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer
LAKE ST. CLAIR — The waves of the St. Clair Flats, near the mouth of the St. Clair River, uppercut the bow of Chuck Brockman’s motorboat, then let it fall back to the water’s surface.
“I was hoping it would be calmer near the opening,” said Brockman, 78, wearing a navy-blue baseball cap bearing the stitched words “Save Our South Channel Lights.” The back of his khaki T-shirt beckons people to “Save Your Heritage”
He takes his eyes off the rough water only to point out different iconic locations along the route to the open lake: The Old Club, The South Channel Yacht Club, and the Sans Souci bar, which Brockman said translates to “without a care.”
“It’s got quite a bit of history,” he says while passing each of the locations.
As Harsens Island and Canada’s Walpole Island Indian reservation end and the river opens to Lake St. Clair, the two South Channel lights come into view.
The more than 150-year-old South Channel Range lighthouse stands erect while its front light, about 100 yards south of the lighthouse, leans atop a decaying foundation.
“They used to call them the Twin Sisters,” Brockman said, circling the taller South Channel Range Light.
He ties his boat to the lighthouse’s base, fighting the current that pulls and then pushes the boat toward the seawall. He methodically climbs the steel ladder and pulls himself atop the grassy base like he’s done a “multitude of times,” he said.
Brockman is a lifelong boater, and for as long as he’s been traversing St. Clair River to Lake St. Clair, the two lighthouses have fascinated him.
For the past decade, he’s led an organization working to save them from collapsing into the Lake St. Clair. And he’s far from alone on the endeavor.
Since starting the Save Our South Channel Lights organization with his late wife, Scotty, in 1998, he’s accrued 250 members — some as far away as Arizona — and a team of seven directors.
Brockman said that nobody in the organization is paid for their work or reimbursed for mileage. Instead, its volunteers and donors are driven by a lifetime of boating and swimming with the two lights standing like distant skyscrapers.
“Everybody loves a lighthouse,” he said of why the group draws such interest. “Everybody needs a light in the darkness.”
SOSCL Director Gary Strobel spent summer days at his great uncle’s cottage on Harsens Island. He got involved in SOSCL through a friend.
“In today’s society, we have a tendency of tearing down structures that were important to us,” Strobel said. “These lights were built well before Lincoln was president.”
With donations and grants, the organization has put more than $800,000 into the two lighthouses, and Brockman feels the project of his life is 95 percent complete.
What’s left is straightening the front light and replacing its eroding foundation. Strobel said the front light’s condition is dire, leaving the organization to believe it is one severe winter away from falling into the lake.
To pay for the repairs, SOSCL currently is seeking a $60,000 historic match grant from the state.
To come up with the other $60,000, SOSCL is holding an Aug. 7 fundraiser aboard two Clinton River Cruise ships.
The two ships will leave MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township at 7:30 p.m and travel to the two lighthouses.
On that night, Brockman will be lighting the beacon atop the northernmost lighthouse for the first time in more than 100 years
The lights were activated in 1859 in order to better regulate increasing ship traffic along the St. Clair Flats, according to a SOSCL documentary. Before the lights were constructed, ships were forced to anchor in the bay northeast of the flats, Anchor Bay.
After the lights were built, captains navigating into the flats lined their ship with the front light and the lighthouse. When both lights appeared as one, it meant the ship was on course for the South Channel between Harsens and Walpole islands.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1907, and for the rest of the 20th century, the two lights deteriorated. Vandals stripped the place.
Growing up a lover of boats and of Lake St. Clair, Brockman used to fish for walleye between the two lighthouses with his father. “My dad’s boat didn’t leave the dock without me on it,” he said.
He remembers climbing aboard the South Range lighthouse and walking up the circular, dilapidated iron stairwell inside the brick structure.
“I was one of the bad guys,” he said, referring to trespassers.
After marrying Scotty more than 40 years ago, they bought a house on Harsens Island and spent summers there. At least once a week, they’d take their boat out to the lighthouses.
It was on one of their trips to the lights that they decided the South Channel lights needed to be saved and they’d lead the charge. Together they formed SOSCL in 1998, and a couple of years later, they bought both lights from the state of Michigan for $1.
When Scotty died in 2001, it created an even stronger drive in Brockman to save the lights.
“She was the go-getter,” Brockman said, standing on the lighthouse’s newly built, cloverleaf-covered foundation. “She would be the one putting out tables for the different events, but she didn’t like the limelight. She loved just being there and helping and making sure it is saved.”
In 2004, SOSCL raised enough money to build a new seawall for the front light. Since then, the organization also reconstructed a historically accurate foundation and lantern room for the South Range lighthouse. The iron steps ascending the lighthouse were falling apart and had to be recast.
Last year, Boy Scouts built a wooden fence, which they painted white, to surround the foundation and added a historically accurate outhouse, which hangs off the edge of the foundation.
Because the organization has not retrieved blueprints for the lights, the builders had to reconstruct everything by eye in order to keep it historically accurate.
Despite looking back and seeing his own life develop around the two brick structures, Brockman says it is more important to save the lights for the sake of Lake St. Clair’s history.
“I love Lake St. Clair,” he said, slowly descending the stairs back to his boat, bobbing from the wake a 1,000-foot freighter that passed by. “That’s probably it in a nutshell.”
He’s not alone in seeing his life evolve between the two lights.
“Every summer, I fell in love with them,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who plans to attend the fundraiser.
As part of the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division 30 years ago, he patrolled the water and islands surrounding them. “It is without question the great urban center of the Great Lakes,” Hackel said. “There all sorts of reasons that people go out there,” Hackel said.
And it’s been that way for generations, as made apparent by the brass nameplates set on most of the lighthouse’s iron stairs. Many of them are testimonials to the memories the lights have witnessed.
“Here his heart lives on,” says one from a daughter about her father.
“First taught his three sons boating here,” says another.
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