WSW: A Glimpse of a Light House Keeper and His Times

May 4, 2015

Captain William Donahue in the South Haven Lighthouse
Credit WMU Archives and Regional Collections

How did a lighthouse keeper spend his time in South Haven in the 1870's? Logbooks shed some light on that time and are being digitized at Western Michigan University. 


The books came to Western Michigan University Libraries from the Van Buren County Historical Society. Some of the books can be viewed here. Others are still being converted to a digital format. Western's Director of Archives and Regional History Sharon Carlson says changes in technology have made it easier to preserve historical documents. 

Cover of South Haven Lighthouse Log Book

The Coordinator of Metadata and Digital Resources Marianne Swierenga says the log books include some beautiful descriptions of the weather written by the lighthouse Captain James Donahue. Carlson says the books also offer a look into activity at the lighthouse and Lake Michigan and Donahue's life. She says the weather records are being examined by classes at Western which are investigating climate change. 

Captain Donahue was a civil war veteran. Carlson says he was badly injured in the war and was an amputee. She says that reflects the time when veterans were often offered government jobs. Carlson says there may be more to learn about people working with disabilities at that time. Carlson says there are also interesting nuggets about gender issues. When Donahue was unable to fulfill his duties as lighthouse keeper his wife would fill in for him. 

Communication Coordinator for Western's Libraries Lou Ann Morgan says says it's a long process to digitize and put records on line, so Western's library picks its projects carefully. Carlson says materials are picked for digital conversion based on their educational value and interest by the general public.