By Jim Bloch
In December 1829, crews wrapped up construction on the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. The light itself was probably not illuminated until the spring of 1830, since most lighthouses of the era did not operate during the winter, according to Dennis Delor, coordinator of special events and the historian of the light station, part of St. Clair County Parks and Recreation since 2010.
In other words, 190 years ago, at this time of year, Michigan’s oldest operating lighthouse got its start.
That also makes it the second oldest operating light on the Great Lakes, after Marblehead on Lake Erie.
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The light was appropriately named. Just to the south, where Baker College Culinary Institute is today, sat the U.S. Army outpost Fort Gratiot, a stockade structure built under the guidance of engineer Charles Gratiot in 1814 to protect the headwaters of the St. Clair River. The army occupied the fort 1814-1822 and off and on 1828-1879. The actual fort was a continuous presence during the first 50 years of the light’s operation.
“It was a marshy, wet part of the county,” said Delor of the light’s location.
Creeks cut across the property and wetlands served as a swampy boundary between land and water. A 1,200 acre Chippewa reservation bordered south side of the Black River not far west of the St. Clair River.
The government had constructed a lighthouse in 1825 about where the Blue Water Bridges are today, but it was poorly constructed and toppled into the river in a storm in 1828.
To increase its visibility from the lake, the government acquired land to the north for a new light. The new tower was built by general contractor Lucius Lyon for $4,445 plus $55 for the new light. He apparently was not happy with the quality of the locally produced bricks for the tower and did not pay the bill, but he used the bricks anyway. Lyon later became the first Michigander to represent the state in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
During the Civil War, with Michigan iron ore increasingly valuable and with its transport by freighter from the Upper Peninsula critical to the war effort, the government built the light tower taller, from 65 to 82 feet, to enhance its visibility.
To support the new height, multiple layers of brick were added to the inside of the tower, essentially creating a new inner cylinder. The walls of the newly fortified tower were now 12 feet thick at its base, four to six feet below ground, tapering to two-feet thick at the top. At the same time, the pine staircase that spiraled up the tower was replaced with a steel staircase.
The Great Fire of 1871 — which burned forests, huge tracts of deforested land and cities across the state, including Port Huron, where 50 people died — created massive amounts of smoke that drifted over Lake Huron and lingered. To help mariners in such situations, the government installed a steam whistle to act as a fog signal at the north end of the light station.
After the Great Fire of 1881 swept across the Thumb, a second fog signal was added and directed toward the river. In 1900, a permanent brick building was constructed to house both signals and their boilers, complete with fire-proof tin roofs and ceilings and a 25-foot chimney, which still stands on the property.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the lighthouse came during the Great Storm of 1913.
When the storm hit on Nov. 7 and continued to rage for three days, lightkeeper Frank Kimball and his wife took shelter in the tower, which they figured was the strongest structure on the site. Kimball reported waves crashing into the tower 35 feet off the ground. He estimated that the lighthouse would have toppled if the storm had lasted another half-hour.
In 1905, a massive concrete revetment wall, eight feet tall and six feet thick at its base, had been built into the ground at the water’s edge to protect the tower against giant storms. The huge waves, some as high as 40 feet, had the unintended effect of washing out the sand between the concrete wall and the tower; four feet of the light’s stone foundation was exposed.
To prevent such a recurrence, the government added the current hurricane wall that curves around the tower, a popular place for visitors to sit.
The lighthouse has always been a destination for tourists, Delor said. An 1895 photo shows four men enjoying a walk on the beach in front of the tower; a 1915 photo shows two well-dressed women in front of a fountain that had been moved to the site from downtown.
Delor said the light station today is likely the top tourist attraction in the county.
The site is open to visitors daily from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. at no charge. The station includes the Light Keepers Duplex (built in 1874), the Fog Signal Building (1900), the Single Keeper’s Dwelling (1932), the former Coast Guard Station (1932), the Equipment Building (1939), home of the gift store, the tower and Fort Gratiot Hospital (both built in 1829).
The restoration of the site — PARC is nine years into a 25-year plan — has been paid for entirely with grants and gifts, many of them sponsored by Friends of the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse.
Tours of the buildings and a tower climb are offered by the Port Huron Museum, May-December at a cost of $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and students and $25 for families