Explore our history: St. Joseph Lighthouse tours
When you walk the Tiscornia Beach shoreline, look over the bluff or simply go for a drive along Lake Michigan in St. Joseph, you can’t miss the two St. Joseph Lighthouses. Visitors know them as the black and white outer lighthouse, and the iconic red and white inner lighthouse, our two navigational aids standing firm in a sometimes-ferocious Lake Michigan. Locals have at least one photo in front of the pair, if not several. You can’t think of St. Joseph or Benton Harbor without picturing their iconic North Pier Lighthouse duo. Did you know you have the incredible opportunity to discover their importance firsthand? Take a St. Joseph Lighthouse Tour to learn about our local heritage and walk to the top of the Inner Light tower!
Lighthouse tour information
It’s actually very easy to learn about the lighthouse! The inner lighthouse is open for a free introductory tour through the main level and the exhibit inside. Experiences that grant more access beyond that are ticketed. The information reflects the 2023 summer season, visit the Heritage Museum Lighthouse Tour website for more information. Tours may be canceled weather permitting for the safety of our guests.
Memorial Day Weekend (May 26, 2023) - Labor Day Weekend (Sept. 4, 2023)
Friday: Noon-5 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-5 p.m.
Guided walking tour & upper level climb: Friday-Saturday, 1 p.m. or 3 p.m.
Inner Lighthouse upper level climb: Available all public hours
Private tours: May 15-Oct. 15 by appointment
Main level introductory tour and exhibit: FREE
Guided walking tour & upper level climb: $10/person
Inner Lighthouse upper level climb: $10/person
Private tours: $20/person
Why two lighthouses?
Our volunteers are often asked why we have two lighthouses on the North Pier. These two towers work together to form a range system. With a nearly 22-foot difference in height, the two lights are both visible simultaneously to boats out in the lake. When the two lights appear aligned directly on top of each other, the ship is also aligned with the mouth of the river and can sail safely between the two piers.
St. Joseph Lighthouse History
The iconic North Pier lighthouses we see today are more than a century old. They are the most recent in a long line of St. Joseph lighthouses that stretch back to 1832. In fact, St. Joseph was the site of the second lighthouse ever built on Lake Michigan. It might be odd for us to picture it today, but for much of St. Joseph’s history, there was one lighthouse in town on the bluff and one lighthouse out on the pier – not to mention lighthouse keepers who had long walks to tend to both!
The St. Joseph River is a large and strong waterway that offered early European and American settlers access to both inland Michigan and Indiana, as well as a shortcut to the Kankakee River and the Mississippi River basin. However, the shallow and shifting mouth of the river ensured that sailors would need some help navigating its waters.
1832 - The first lighthouse in St. Joseph was built on the bluff. It was a round, conical, brick tower that probably looked a lot like Ohio’s Marblehead lighthouse, although there are no surviving images known. By the 1840s, Congress had authorized dredging the harbor and the construction of North and South Piers in Lake Michigan.
1846 - The first pierhead lighthouse was built on the South Pier.
1859 - The 1832 lighthouse on the bluff is replaced. That new lighthouse stood on the bluff just north of the present-day Curious Kids’ Museum. The pierhead lights saw their own share of updates throughout the 19th century, too – the 1846 light was replaced in 1871, moved to the North Pier in 1881 and replaced again in 1885!
1880s - Lighthouse beacons and improved piers weren’t the only safety measures put in place for mariners. In the 1880s, the first fog bell was installed on the North Pier lighthouse and replaced in the next decade with a steam-powered fog signal and an extra building on the pier to house the equipment.
1904 - A storm nearly demolishes the 1885 lighthouse! By the turn of the 20th century, it was clear that wooden lighthouses were no match for Lake Michigan’s fury, especially in the winter.
1906 - Construction on our current steel lighthouses begins on the North Pier, with a much larger Inner Light that could also house the fog signal.
1924 - The lighthouse on the bluff in town was decommissioned due to the automation and satellite navigation that replaced a need for lighthouse keepers and lighthouses.
1955 - The decommissioned lighthouse is demolished to make way for the parking lot now on its site. The demolition was met with outcry from local citizens and former lighthouse keepers alike who envisioned a museum dedicated to the Twin Cities’ (St. Joseph and Benton Harbor) maritime heritage.
Present day - The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center is proud to bring their vision to life, albeit at a different lighthouse. Thanks to the Lighthouse Forever Fund and recent restoration, the North Pier Inner Light is now open to the public for tours. These tours are staffed by knowledgeable guides who are excited to share with you how the lighthouses fostered the Twin Cities’ development.
While the lighthouses of the past are no longer all here, they made St. Joseph’s and Benton Harbor’s development possible. These are the beacons that guided ships full of fruit, manufactured goods and tourists through the Twin Cities, with especially heavy traffic in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
You can learn more about them at the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in downtown St. Joseph.