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Bright Idea: California’s Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Helps Light Lake Havasu to Lessen Accidents

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Although a river runs between them, members of California’s Chemehuevi Indian Tribe (a Mojave term meaning “those that play with fish”) have teamed up with non-native partners on the Arizona side of Lake Havasu to light the lake and cut down on navigational hazards involving the waterways deceptively deadly curves and bends.

They’ve done so in a creative way --- by installing solar-powered replicas of famous lighthouses as safety beacons for nighttime nautical skippers. “We started about 12 years ago when I volunteered to build a lighthouse for our marina to cut down on maritime accidents,” says Bob Keller of the non-profit Lake Havasu Lighthouse Club. “That first effort was the inspiration to do more and to-date, we’ve built and placed 21 of the structures.”

Lighthouses from all over have been replicated. On the Arizona side of the water are smaller versions of East Coast lighthouses while the California coastline is home to West Coast navigational beacons and the thousand-acre island in the middle of the lake plays host to replicas from the Great Lakes region.

“We have three already installed on the 30 miles of Colorado River frontage belonging to the Chemehuevi tribe --- and a fourth has been approved and awaits installation,” says tribal Vice Chair Shirley Smith.

Involving the tribe in the project was an easy sell. “I have a fondness for lighthouses,” Smith says. “I collect small-scale replicas as a hobby and visit the real ones in other states, so I promoted the involvement of our tribe.”

The whole project has been adopted by many. “They’ve become a tourist draw as well as a safety measure,” Keller says. An Arizona Department of Tourism/Northern Arizona University year-long survey of area visitors showed 29.8 percent of the people who came to Havasu came because of the lighthouses—or visited them once they found out about them. “The City and the Chamber of Commerce loves us and every time we dedicate a new one, it’s on the front page of the local newspaper.”

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Dedications of new structures have become a community event, generally in October to coincide with the annual London Bridge Days Parade, the 41st celebration of which will take place on October 27th of this year.

Designs for the reduced-size replicas inspired by famous lighthouses of the U.S. and Canada are approved by the Coast Guard with locations authorized by the state as part of a master plan to light the lake’s problem areas.

Lighthouse #1, on the edge of the breakwater near the marina entrance emits an amber flash every second. The prototype was built around an existing light pole using 110 volt electricity for power, but electrical access is limited on the island and at other points, so solar keeps things lit with minimal maintenance that simply requires a light change every 5 years.

Depending on artistic whim and structural requirements, the lighthouses run from 17 foot tall to 30 feet in height. Some built with 2x4 frames and covered in stucco go together quickly and easily. Others take a bit longer, like the solid concrete 20-foot-tall Buffalo Lighthouse that required every Sunday for a year to build forms, mix cement, and pour it by hand.

Another replica is all brick. “One of our members was a mason who wore out a $250 saw cutting all the block needed,” Keller says.

Still another structure is a smaller one, not a replica of a lighthouse, but a 10-foot-tall kiosk lighthouse along Bridgewater Channel in London Bridge Beach that displays information. The kiosk’s six glass doors feature descriptions of the lighthouses that visitors can’t easily travel to (10 of the 21 are easily visited by car).

Havasu’s lake is 30 miles long and with two sides to the waterway and an island in the middle, there’s room to add more working navigational beacons. So don’t be disappointed if your favorite lighthouse (there are in excess of 15,000 worldwide) isn’t copied yet because construction is still continuing.