The Holland Harbor Lighthouse, affectionately known as Big Red, reigns as the most photographed lighthouse in Michigan. But what many folks don’t know is that Big Red wasn’t always red.
“The lighthouse used to be yellow and purple. In 1956, the U.S. Coast Guard sandblasted the tower and painted it bright red, satisfying a requirement that all navigational aids on the right side of a harbor entrance must be red,” says John Gronberg, president of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission and a member of the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance. Thus began Holland’s love affair with their famous Big Red icon.
That love affair came close to ending in 1971, when the U.S. Coast Guard declared the lighthouse was surplus, and said it could no longer justify the expense of maintaining and repairing the old light.
As one who spent his summers playing in the shadow of the lighthouse, Gronberg joined the Holland Harbor Historical Lighthouse Historical Commission’s board of directors, a group whose goal was to save the lighthouse, in the 1980s. That group of passionate citizens crafted the name Big Red as a way to generate awareness of the lighthouse’s possible demise. And it worked.
In 1978, the Coast Guard granted the lease of Big Red to the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission, of which Gronberg’s mother, Hester, was a founding member. Thirty years later, in 2008, the commission was granted a quit claim deed for the lighthouse through the National Lighthouse Preservation Act.
With ownership, the lighthouse commission jumped at the opportunity to share Big Red’s history.
Holland was founded in 1847 by the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte, a Dutch pastor, who knew Lake Michigan access was critical for the fledgling community to flourish. However, Black Lake (now called Lake Macatawa), which could offer that access, was silted in. Van Raalte petitioned both Michigan’s governor and the U.S. Congress for funds to build a much-needed channel. When those funds didn’t come, the settlers banded together and in the late 1850s, armed with pick axes and shovels, they hand-dug a channel to Lake Michigan that was deep enough to float barges.
Between 1866 and 1872, federal money finally came through, and in 1870 the first lighthouse was built using those federal funds — 20 years before Holland Harbor was finished. The current lighthouse, which was electrified in 1932, has guarded the harbor for more than 100 years.
There were only four lighthouse keepers over the years and all of them lived ashore while tending to the Holland light each day. The last keeper retired in 1940, after the U.S. Lighthouse Bureau was abolished and all lighthouses came under the auspices of the Coast Guard.
Big Red has captured the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Artists sketch it; boaters, kayakers, canoers, and sailors glide past it; and visitors to Holland State Park delight in it from across the channel.
Walkers, and joggers often climb the 200-plus steps to the top of Mt. Pisgah, a towering sand dune rising 157 feet above the state park, for a bird’s-eye view of the famous icon. Locals and visitors snap pictures, and barge and tugboat deckhands wave to sunbathers as they pass by on their way to drop off or pick up loads of limestone, aggregate, or scrap iron at commercial enterprises located on Lake Macatawa.
“The Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission maintains the structure and records of Big Red, and relies on contributions of local residents, visitors, and friends to do so,” Gronberg says. “The lighthouse is typically repainted every 10 years at the commission’s expense. About three years after it was last painted (in 2009), the paint job began to fade and Big Red started to turn pink.”
Two local companies, Lamar Construction and Repcolite Paint, stepped in and donated their services to restore the lighthouse to its famous brilliance.
“We also maintain an American Flag at Big Red year ’round. The flag is larger in the summer and smaller in the shoulder seasons. We light the flag so it can remain up 24 hours a day, and we try our best to raise and lower it per the instruction of the governor’s office,” Gronberg says. “Mariners use it as an indication of wind direction and velocity. If we go bare pole, we hear about it quickly. We use between eight and 10 flags each season.”
Today, thanks to dedicated supporters such as Gronberg, the public’s love affair with Big Red continues.
Holland Harbor Lighthouse