|Fort Gratiot, MI|
Description: Lighthouses and forts are often neighbors as important waterways needed to be clearly marked and well defended. Fort Gratiot, a stockade fort, was built in 1814 to guard the juncture of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River and is named after Charles Gratiot, the engineer that supervised its construction. On March 3, 1823, Congress provided $3,500 for the Secretary of the Treasury to have a lighthouse built near Fort Gratiot in Michigan Territory and added another $5,000 to this amount on April 2, 1824.
Keeper McDougall wasted no time in writing William Woodbridge, Customs Collector at Detroit, concerning the tower’s deficiencies. “I find the third stairs in going up in some places so steep as to compel me to force up sideways,” McDougall complained. Then, after ascending a nearly perpendicular ladder, there was an eighteen by twenty-one-and-a-quarter-inch trap door through which, “with very great difficulty,” McDougall had to squeeze. Once in the lantern room, there was barely space for McDougall “to walk around the lamps without rubbing.” The lighthouse was reportedly not only poorly built but poorly located, being too far south for boats on Lake Huron to see it.
During the summer of 1828, Keeper McDougall reported that the lighthouse had cracks in its walls and was leaning to the east. The following September a great storm blew with great fury for three days and nights and eroded vast amounts of the shore. The lighthouse was undermined, and before repairs could be made, it toppled over in November.
Congress appropriated $8,000 on March 2, 1829 for a new lighthouse, and a $4,445 contract for a tower and dwelling was awarded to Lucius Lyon, who later served as one of Michigan’s first senators. Located north of the original tower, the second Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was built of brick and stood sixty-nine feet tall. The total cost of the new structures came to $5,001.48, and the remainder of the appropriation was carried to the surplus fund.
Though George McDougall was listed as keeper, due to gout and other infirmities, he was forced to employ a helper to look after the light. In 1838, Lieutenant James T. Homans noted that during the thirteen years McDougall had been keeper, he “received strong encomiums of praise form masters of vessels navigation the upper lakes.” During his visit, Homans noted that several glass panes in the lantern room were broken, damage which Keeper McDougall attributed to “gulls or other wild fowl that abound in this neighborhood.”
Following an appropriation on March 3, 1871, an eight-inch steam fog whistle was added to the station. The fog signal was finished in time to be of service during the thick and smoky conditions that resulted from the Port Huron Fire, Peshtigo Fire, and Great Chicago Fire, all of which broke out on October 8, 1871.
An assistant keeper was assigned to the station to help with the extra burden of running the fog signal, and on June 23, 1874, Congress provided $10,000 for constructing the present brick duplex for the keepers and their families. A circular iron oil house, with a capacity of 360 gallons, was added to the station in 1891. The characteristic of the light was changed in 1893 from a fixed white light varied by a white flash every two minutes, to a fixed white light varied by a white flash every minute.
The dwelling and fog signals were connected to the city water main in 1896, and in 1898, sewer pipes were laid from the dwelling to the river. A new brick fog signal building, measuring twenty-two by forty feet, was finished in July 1901. After a spate of accidents at the head of St. Clair River, the Lighthouse Service decided in 1911 to also sound the fog signal at Fort Gratiot whenever fog existed in the river and Lake Huron was clear. Previous to this change, vessels had no means of anticipating fog in the river until they were already fighting its rapid current.
On September 25, 1914, a different fog signal characteristic of a five-second blast every minute was introduced to indicate when there was fog on the river. An auxiliary air diaphone fog signal was installed at the station on May 10, 1920 to sound the five-second blast indicating foggy conditions on the river, while the steam whistle, which was changed from an eight-inch whistle to a six-inch whistle in 1915, continued to sound the regular three-second blast every twenty seconds when it was foggy on Lake Huron. In 1927, it was decided that the steam fog would only be sounded when there was fog on the lake and the river was clear, while the air diaphone would sound when there was fog on the river, regardless of conditions on the lake.
A powerful storm struck Lake Huron on November 9 – 11, 1913, tearing away the timber cribwork, meant to protect the shoreline, and nearly undermining the lighthouse. The lakeside boundary of the station was lined with new timber and cement cribs of sufficient strength to defy future onslaughts, and timber cribs were extended a short distance out into the water in several places to trap the sand cast up by the waves to build up the shore.
The longest-serving keeper at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was Frank E. Kimball, who retired on September 1, 1929 at the age of seventy. Keeper Kimball entered the Lighthouse Service in 1882 and in 1894 became head keeper at Fort Gratiot, a position he held for thirty-five years. Kiimball was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for having the model station in the district in 1918.
A single dwelling for the keepers was added to the station in 1933 at a coast of $5,738. An electric oscillator fog signal replaced the steam whistle in 1934, the same year the tower’s light was changed to green. In 1941, fog signal operation at the station was changed so that the fog signal only sounded when the river was foggy. Mariners could also radio Port Huron Coast Guard Station to obtain fog reports for the river.
In 2004, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The City of Port Huron submitted an application for the lighthouse and was recommended as the new owner, but the official transfer was delayed pending cleanup of hazardous materials by the Coast Guard. After learning that roughly $4 million was needed to restore the light station, the city council rejected the deed offered by the federal government, however, in April 2010 the commissioners of St. Clair County agreed to accept ownership. The deed for the property was transferred from the federal government to the county in September 2010.
In July 2011, the Port Huron City Council voted 6-0 at a special meeting Monday to pay National Restoration, based in Keego Harbor, $332,900 to restore the 182-year-old lighthouse. Though the lighthouse is owned by the county, the city controlled $680,000 in grant money and matching funds earmarked for the lighthouse. The county used $40,000 of the money it had to replace the roofs of the fog signal building and an equipment building. A grand re-opening of Fort Gratiot Light Station, which had been closed to the public since 2008, was held on May 19, 2012.
From 1875 to 1882, the Lighthouse Board noted in its annual report that Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was old, leaky, and should be replaced. Fortunately, the request for $25,000 for a new lighthouse was not granted, and thanks to a thorough restoration of the station in 2011, Michigan’s oldest lighthouse will likely be around for many years to come.
Head Keepers: George McDougall (1825 – 1842), William Church (1842 – 1843), Eber Ward (1843 – 1845), Nathan (William) Wright (1845 – 1849), Elijah Crane (1849 – 1850), William H. Taylor (1850 – 1853), Elihu Granger (1853 – 1857), Elijah Burch (1857 – 1859), Peter McMartin (1859 – 1861), Eber Lewis (1861 – 1864), John W. Vanhorn (1864 – 1865), David W. Cooper (1865), W. H. Sutherland (1865 – 1866), John W. Vanhorn (1866 – 1869), John Sinclair (1869 – 1881), John Sinclair, Jr. (1881 – 1882), Israel T. Palmer (1882 – 1894), Frank E. Kimball (1894 – 1929), John E. Smith (1929 – at least 1940), William Wilkinson (1946 – 1950).
Located in Port Huron on the shore of Lake Huron near
the entrance to the St. Clair River and just north of the
Blue Water Bridge. The lighthouse is owned by the St. Clair County. Grounds/tower open during tours.
The lighthouse is owned by the St. Clair County. Grounds/tower open during tours.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Bob Hanford, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, served as "keeper" of Fort Gratiot Lighthouse from 1998 until his passing in 2010. Dressed in a navy blue keeper's uniform, Bob gave tours to visitors and school children while regaling them with stories about the site and its keepers. Keeper Hanford also performed light maintenance of the tower, washing windows, removing spider webs, and sweeping the stairs. It's unfortunate Bob didn't live to see the lighthouse restored and re-opened to the public, but he would be proud of the improved condition of the structure.
See our List of Lighthouses in Michigan
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.