Patrick Garrity, who had been keeper of the old Presque Isle Lighthouse since 1861, moved his wife Mary and six children a mile north in time to display the fixed white light from the new lighthouse at the opening of navigation in 1871. Amazingly, less than a year had elapsed from the time that funds were provided until Presque Isle Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on Lake Huron, was placed in operation. Patrick and Mary’s three sons, John, Thomas, and Patrick, would all become keepers as would Anna, one of their three daughters.
Patrick Garrity was assisted in his duties by his wife Mary from the time the new light was established until the position of assistant was eliminated in 1882. Thomas Garrity was appointed his father’s assistant in 1884 and served until 1887, when he became keeper of the nearby Presque Isle Harbor Range Lights. After two men outside the family served as assistants, Patrick H. Garrity was hired to assist his father in 1890. In 1891, Thomas Garrity, who was still keeper of the range lights, swapped positions with his sixty-three-year-old father so he wouldn’t have to climb the tall tower’s many stairs.
Patrick H. Garrity served as his brother Thomas’ assistant until being appointed head keeper at Middle Island Lighthouse in 1905. John Garrity then took over the role of assistant keeper at Presque Isle Lighthouse and served until being transferred to Lake Superior in 1914. Katherine Garrity lived with her bachelor brother Thomas at Presque Isle for many years and was employed by the government at a salary of $10 per month to display storm warning flags from a tower erected not far from the lighthouse.
The Lighthouse Board recommended a fog signal for Presque Isle as early 1870, but funds were not available until a $5,500 appropriation was passed on March 2, 1889. After the steam-barge Ruby delivered materials and a working party to Presque Isle on July 13, 1890, a forty-two by twenty-two-foot fog signal building was erected that summer to house a ten-inch steam whistle. The outside walls and roof of the building were corrugated iron, while the inside was lined with sheet iron. A 2,240-foot-long tramway for delivering the coal needed for the steam fog signal was constructed from the boathouse on the northern tip of the peninsula, to the tower, and then east to the fog signal building on the shore. Also in 1890, a brick oil house capable of storing 360 gallons was built. The ten-inch steam whistle was established on September 17, 1890, and during a typical year, it was in operation for about 300 hours and consumed around twenty tons of coal.
On September 16, 1901, the steamer Hudson foundered off Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula in a furious gale, taking twenty-five crewmembers down to their deaths. One of these crewmembers apparently had time to write a message and place it in a bottle, as the following summer Keeper Thomas Garrity discovered a sealed bottle in the water near Presque Isle that held the following note: “Steamer Hudson, off Keweenaw point, rolling like a ball, and all hands ready to give up the ghost.” The steamer John M. Nicol passed within a half-mile of the Hudson, which had distress signals flying and was listing badly, but its captain dared not stop to aid the crew of the Hudson who were clinging to the port rail, as his own vessel was leaking badly and in danger of sinking.
In 1902, the Lighthouse Board suggested that an additional dwelling be built at Presque Isle:
This is an isolated position, there being no town within 30 miles, and no other house except that of Presque Isle Harbor Range within 5 miles, so that additional accommodations for dwelling purposes cannot be rented. The present dwelling at this station is adapted for but one family. This station marks the turning point for vessels bound up and down the lake. The care of the steam fog signal makes the presence of an assistant keeper necessary. Hence, an additional dwelling should be provided for the use of that assistant keeper. The dwelling can be built upon the light-house site.
As Patrick H. Garrity, Jr. was serving as first assistant at this time to his brother Thomas, a new dwelling was not critical, but Congress provided $5,000 for its construction on April 28, 1904. By the end of June 1905, the walls of the first floor of the dwelling were up and the second-floor joists were in place. The new eight-room, gambrel-roofed residence, built 100 feet south of the lighthouse, was completed on September 15, 1905 and subsequently occupied by Thomas Garrity, the head keeper. When a second assistant keeper was added to the station in 1909, he was obligated to share the old residence with the first assistant.
Fire twice threatened the station while Thomas Garrity was in charge. In October 1908, he was forced to abandon the station and flee for his life when the Metz Fire swept through the area. Another devastating fire occurred in 1911 and prompted Keeper Garrity to telegraph for the assistance of a lighthouse tender and crew. To save the station, many of the surrounding trees were cut to create a fire line, and hoses were used to battle the blaze. According to a newspaper account, the fire was so intense that “all humus or vegetable matter was burned off, and the small amount of soil mixed with the rocks was destroyed.” The forest service teamed with the Bureau of Lighthouses to replant the region by using mattocks to create small impressions in the rocky terrain into which were placed a seedling and what little soil could be scraped up.
On September 25, 1912, the intensity of the light at Presque Isle was increased by changing its illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor.
Thomas Garrity remained in charge of Presque Isle Lighthouse until his retirement on February 1, 1935, and during his lengthy tenure, he was awarded the lighthouse efficiency pennant at least three times for having the model station in the district. The Garrity family was in charge of New Presque Isle Lighthouse for sixty-four years and had five of its members serve at the station. Few families can match the lightkeeping legacy of this devoted family.
Elmer Byrnes was transferred from Point Iroquois Lighthouse to take the place of Thomas Garrity. When the Coast Guard took control of the country’s lighthouse in 1939, Byrnes elected to remain a civilian keeper. Betty Byrnes enjoyed her childhood growing up at lighthouses where her father served. During her time at Presque Isle, Betty and her siblings hatched a scheme to earn a little spending money. The Byrnes children decided to hang out in the station’s parking lot and when tourists would arrive after tour hours, they would say it was a shame the lighthouse was closed, but that just this once they would take them up in the tower. The children made decent money in tips, but when their father discovered the source of their new-found wealth, he grounded them for a week. Accepting gratuities for tours was strictly forbidden, and Keeper Byrnes was afraid he could lose his job.
During a violent storm in the spring of 1936, the Byrnes family was awakened by the loud throbbing of a diesel-powered ship. As the main shipping channel was far offshore, the ship had to be either off course or in trouble. It proved to be the latter, and a nearly submerged grain carrier soon rounded the point and entered North Bay. A few days later, hydraulic pumps were used to transfer the ship’s wet grain to shore, where the mounds of free feed soon attracted all kinds of ducks and birds. Warm weather caused the grain to ferment, and the Byrnes children discovered a new form of entertainment. “We teenagers,” Betty recalled, “watched with amusement as the birds reacted to the combination of high-proof alcohol and the mating season in almost human ways.”
In the 1950s, the Coast Guard constructed a concrete block garage on the station grounds and removed the fog signal building and oil house, which were no longer needed. The station was automated in 1970 and leased to Presque Isle Township in 1973.
After visiting new Presque Isle Lighthouse and feeling it could use a little attention, Dan McGee convinced Presque Isle Township to let him look after the grounds. Dan soon realized a formal organization was needed to care for the property so he and a few friends formed the Presque Isle Lighthouse Historical Society. With his wife Marianne, Dan worked at the lighthouse from 1979 to 1995, giving tours and running a gift shop. He also built a fascinating steam-whistle display in a gazebo on the lighthouse grounds.
At some point, the Coast Guard had used improper paint on the lighthouse that caused the outer surface of the bricks to spall. To prevent someone from being injured by falling pieces of the damaged bricks, the area around the tower was roped off. After learning that a Coast Guard admiral was giving a speech in the area, the historical society sent a delegation to solicit his help in restoring the lighthouse. Not long thereafter, the Coast Guard allocated $100,000 to refurbish the tower’s brickwork, and between 1988 and 1989, the tower’s outer layer of bricks was removed and replaced with new glazed bricks. The lighthouse was turned over to Presque Isle Township in 1998.
In May 2003, the Coast Guard removed the deteriorated third-order Fresnel lens from the lantern room. An $87,500 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was used along with admission funds from the lighthouse to hire a company to refurbish the lens in 2005. When the work was done, the township wanted the lens placed back in the lantern room, where it had been safe for 130 years, but the Coast Guard thought it best if the lens were placed on display. Michigan’s senators attempted to pass legislation that would allow the lens to return to the lantern room, but instead a bill signed by President Obama in October 2010 required the Coast Guard to conduct a study to determine the future of the lens. Submitted to Congress a year later, the study concluded that due to cost and historical significance issues the lens could not be placed back in the tower. After having been in storage for nearly a decade, the lens was placed on display at the lighthouse in late 2012.