By Sharon Remington
At the Coast Guard Equipment Building/Gift Shop, I was greeted by a kind and friendly man – Mike Popelka. While the retired Coast Guard cook and I chatted, Mike made the morning coffee and went about his daily routine. By the way, the coffee was awesome!
While I set up, the General Manager of the Fort Gratiot Light Station, Lauren Nelson, arrived. Lauren and Mike along with countless volunteers give tours at the buildings in the park including the Fort Gratiot lighthouse. This, of course, is just one of Lauren’s many responsibilities. She is sharp and very knowledgeable about the Fort Gratiot Light Station including everything pertaining to it.
The Fort Gratiot lighthouse is the main topic of our interview.
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S. Remington: On a weekly basis how many people visit the Fort Gratiot Light House?
L. Nelson: It really depends on the time of year, in July we’ll maybe have 400 people come through, and that’s people that are just stopping in the store to use the bathroom or to shop. You have people who are going on the tour at all the buildings, things like that.
S. Remington: What other buildings are there on the grounds?
L. Nelson: This is actually a county park, they have a partnership with the Port Huron Museum to operate it on a daily basis. We have the Coast Guard equipment building, built in 1938. The keeper’s house which is a duplex. The single keeper’s dwellings which had three keepers in the 1930s. The fog signal building and of course the lighthouse.
S. Remington: What year was the lighthouse last refurbished?
L. Nelson: It’s a work in progress. The Friends of Fort Gratiot Light Station is the non-profit arm. We raise a lot of money for the restorations of the buildings here. The tower itself was renovated in 2012, it took them two years to complete.
S. Remington: What kind of changes have there been made, if any, through the years to the lighthouse?
L. Nelson: Because this is Michigan’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1829, there have been a lot of changes. I can give you the whole history but you would be here for an hour, (she chuckles). Recently, we’ve worked on renovating most of our buildings. The first was the tower, it took two years. The inside of the fog signal building and just finishing the Keeper’s House. We are restoring that to a 1930’s time period. The next major project will be the Coast Guard Cruise Quarters, built in 1932. The Coast Guard completely took over all the lighthouses in the United States in 1939.
S. Remington: What is the purpose for the lighthouse?
L. Nelson: When it was built it was meant to mark the entrance Lake Huron into the St. Clair River. You have a very busy intersection of water because if you have to get anywhere into the upper Great Lakes you have to come through here. It’s really dangerous. There are three Great Lakes emptying into the St. Clair River—That’s a lot of water! All the lighthouses are navigational aids. In Michigan, at one point there was a lighthouse every 40 miles along the coast. By the time you would lose sight of one, the next one would come into view. They are landmarks to inch your way up the coast. Obviously, now we have radar, high-tech and all these things and lighthouses are not as important as they once were. But it is still comforting to know that lighthouses are still used as navigational aids.
S. Remington: My question: Is the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse staffed or automated?
L. Nelson: The lighthouse is automated. It’s got a little light sensor that will turn on if it gets dark. Sometimes on a really stormy day when the sky darkens it will turn on like say at 2 pm, which is a reassurance that’s what it is supposed to do and that’s ok. However, the Coast Guard only takes care of the light at the top.
S. Remington: What do you have to know to work at a lighthouse?
L. Nelson: The Coast Guard actually moved onto this site in 1932. They built the Cruise Quarters there. Before that, they had been at the Lifesaving Station which was just a few miles up the coast. This is getting into some in-depth history, but the Internal Revenue Service Cutter Service and the Life Saving Service merged in 1915. They were actually two separate things when they merged in 1915 and became the Coast Guard.
S. Remington: I’m not at all familiar with how it lights up. Can you help me out with this?
L. Nelson: Some of our other lights we had originally were a Lewis lamp, which is an array of candles with reflective bowl behind it. The Fresnel lenses came in the 1820s. It consisted of Prism’s that magnified the light. It could reach 15-17 miles out. In the 1930s an electric light, similar to those seen at old airports were being used. Then, until 2015, The Halogen bulb was used. Since 2015, it has been changed to the LED light and can be seen for approximately 14 miles.
S. Remington: How many steps/stairs are there inside the tower of the lighthouse to the top?
L. Nelson: There are 94 to the top of the tower.
S. Remington: How often do you climb the tower?
L. Nelson: Along with our volunteers, we do tours every 1/2 hour-7 days-a-week. Sometimes once a day, or it can be six times a day.
S. Remington: How do mariners distinguish from one lighthouse to another along the coast?
L. Nelson: Each lighthouse has a little different look to it. You know you’re looking at the Fort Gratiot Light Station if you see the tall white tower with the brick duplex behind it. It’s a landmark you get to know when traveling these lakes. At night each has its own unique light signature. Our light is a green flash every six seconds. Boats have charts which have all the signatures of the light flashings. And sometimes with directions on what to do when you see that lighthouse.
S. Remington: Why are lighthouse’s positioned the way they are?
L. Nelson: It really depends on what its purpose is. Our lighthouse is to mark the St. Clair River. The position is right at the furthest east point possible to mark the river in order to see it. Others mark shallow areas, reefs, shoals, and things of that nature.
S. Remington: What makes a lighthouse so intriguing?
L. Nelson: I haven’t figured that one out yet! It is different for everyone. For me, it’s the logistics and technology that make it so interesting. Some people like ghost stories, others like keeper’s stories, romantic, or it can be a safe harbor thing. When you figure it out let me know, will you?
S. Remington: Can you give me a couple of facts about our topic that are not commonly known to the public?
L. Nelson: The first one I’d like to tell about is that we are the oldest lighthouse in Michigan. However, we are not the first. The first Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was built not even a ½ mile down the street (she points south of us) right under the bridge. It was built in 1825. It actually fell over in 2and1/2 years. It was poorly built. Many lighthouses in the 1820s were built very quickly, also it was not a good location. It was only about 35 feet tall and meant to mark the entrance from the lake into the river. But because it was so short and its position, you couldn’t see it until you were in the river. That’s OK- That it fell over. Because now we have this lighthouse, which is still standing after 190 years.
Fort Gratiot Light Station
Port Huron, MI 48060
Open Daily – June 10 – September 2
Weekends – May, June, October, November, and December
Open year-round for group tours! Call 810-982-0891 Ext. 118
For additional information on the Fort Gratiot Light Station, check out Blue Water Healthy Living’s video completed by GBS Media by clicking here.
My name is Sharon Remington. I graduated with the Charter Class of Sterling Heights School In 1973. College courses include psychology, interior design, and computers. After working a variety of jobs, I then went on to graduate from the Fashion School of Beauty. I became a licensed Nail technician and worked in Shelby Township. In 2002 I had an opportunity to move to the Blue Water area and have been loving it ever since! One of my passions is volunteer work. Currently, I am an Ambassador for an area senior independent living.
The setting is a community of residents all living under one roof. I call it a mini-resort. The people come from all walks of life are friendly and a pleasure to be around. Some of my interest include water, gardening, crafts, poetry, animals and long walks. I also collect nautical articles from different places I visit. I look forward to being a part of Blue Water Healthy Living Magazine. My goal is to bring material that is appealing to its reader’s.