South Haven Pierhead Light, MI
“Mr. Donahue, we appreciate your service to our country, but we question your ability to carry out the duties of a lighthouse keeper. The position requires strength and coordination, which would be very difficult for a person crippled like yourself.”
James Donahue read the letter and crumpled it in his hand before tossing it into the fireplace. After regaining his composure, he penned these words to the Lighthouse Board.
“Gentlemen, it is true that I was twice injured in the war, the second time losing a leg in the Battle of the Wilderness, however, I am not crippled, as you assert. I am capable of carrying out any and all duties required of a lighthouse keeper and will gladly prove it to you if you will give me the opportunity to serve my country in this manner.”
The Board relented, and James Donahue won his appointment as a lighthouse keeper in 1874, assigned to South Haven Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. The lighthouse was built at the end of a pier that marked the entrance to the Black River. During Donahue’s thirty-five year tenure, the pier was extended twice – from 75 feet to 200 feet and then to 400 feet, each time moving the lighthouse farther away from the shore and the keeper’s dwelling.
An elevated wooden walkway extended from the shore to the lighthouse to keep the keeper from being washed off the pier by waves. Donahue made his way across the walkway every day in all types of weather – wind, rain, or ice. He personally constructed a handrail to aid his progress in reaching the tower safely.