By Kathleen Knowles
In a day and age when schools across the country are eliminating history from the curriculum, museums have become more important than ever. Saint Clair County is fortunate to have a series of excellent museum sites located right here in the city of Port Huron.
Included in these sites are:
Carnegie Center Museum
Thomas Edison Depot Museum
Fort Gratiot Light Station
Military Hospital Museum
In the following series of articles, you will be given a history of each site as well as photographs of some of the fabulous exhibits available to the public. These articles are not intended to replace an actual tour of these extraordinary museums, but rather to provide Blue Water Healthy Living readers a glimpse of the history and culture available in the Blue Water area. Everyone is encouraged to visit these museums for a fascinating journey into Port Huron’s past and culture.
Part 1 Thomas Edison Depot Museum
Without a doubt, Port Huron’s most famous resident has to be
Thomas Alva Edison. Today, a museum located at 510 Edison Parkway in Port Huron, Michigan is dedicated to the life of one of the most successful inventors in history. He was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio, the seventh child of Samuel and Nancy Edison.
His father was Canadian and his mother an American. Sam took part in a rebellion against the Crown. He left Canada, considered a traitor. The Edisons came across the border through Port Huron and moved to Milan, Ohio where Thomas Edison was born. Had it not been for the rebellion, Tom may very well have been born a Canadian.
Milan was a canal town. When the railroad came through in 1854, it almost completely decimated their shipping business. The Edisons moved to Port Huron, an up and coming railroad town with a lot of industry. They purchased a house for $2500.00, a 3,300-square-foot home overlooking the Saint Clair River. It was located where the Edison Shore Condos now stand. The Edisons owned the home outright, but not the property it was built on. In 1865 the Hartsuff brothers, both generals, came calling. They wanted the Edisons out of the house so their father could have the home. Despite their ownership, the Edison family was presented with a letter of eviction.
Samuel Edison refused, telling them he would not be evicted from his own home. They told him if he went quietly, they would give him three hundred dollars. Sam complained it would not even pay for the doors and windows of his house. They then offered him $250.00 to be paid immediately and $250.00 in ninety days. The dispute went all the way to the Secretary of War, who assigned a general to look into it. Unfortunately, the general assigned was one of the Hartstuff brothers trying to evict them! Sam talked it over with his wife, and the couple decided they would take the money since they did not want to end up with nothing.
In 1870 the home was left unattended and burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Over a century later an archaeologist found the cellar as well as evidence of Edison’s laboratory. Investigators concluded the fire was caused by arson.
In his early life, Edison did not attend school but only a few months. He was taught reading, writing and arithmetic by his mother. Edison’s education also included teaching himself much by reading books, a passion he would retain all his life. He would later join the Young Men’s Society in Detroit to gain access to the large library and reading rooms. “I didn’t read a few books, he said, “I read the library.”
Tom Edison was a mischievous, curious lad who read constantly. When he began experimenting with chemicals, he would read the books on experiments and conduct them himself to be certain the results did indeed agree with the books’ authors. Not taking the word of those who did the experiments, he had to see the results for himself.
Edison kept a chemical laboratory in his bedroom in Port Huron. Due to the nature of his experiments and the chemicals involved, his parents insisted he move his lab to the basement. In order to discourage those from tampering with the chemicals, and unwilling to allow anyone the knowledge of what was in the bottles, they were all labeled “Poison!” However, Edison had a system of identifying them. Each bottle was labeled with a number. He kept a log of the numbers and what was in every bottle.
Young Edison began working at the early age of twelve. From 1859 to 1963, he sold his newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, vegetables, fruit, cigarette, cigars and candy on trains which he traveled between Port Huron and Detroit.
Using his access to the railroad, the boy conducted experiments in a laboratory which he set up in the back of the baggage car. As a result of one of his experiments, a fire started on the train. The conductor “boxed his ears.” Edison would later claim it was in part the reason for his hearing loss. He was thrown off the train along with his experiments and chemicals.
While working for the railroad, a small boy was playing on the tracks. Thomas, or Al as he was known, pulled three-year-old Jimmy McKenzie from in front of a box car, which was rolling towards the boy, before he would undoubtedly have been killed. That incident would change his entire life. The boy’s father was so grateful for Edison having saved his son’s life, he offered to tutor Tom in morse code, which the young man had been trying to learn on his own with little success. Edison spent four days a week for the next four months in Mount Clemens learning morse code under McKenzie’s tutelage.
Edison left the railroad and got a job in downtown Port Huron in Walker’s Jewelry Store as a telegraph operator.
Despite the name, it was actually a general store. He only stayed at Walker’s for a few months due to a dispute about wages, after which he went to work for Grand Trunk Railway in Stafford, Ontario. Once again he did not stay on the job very long. In fact, his time there was so short, Tom didn’t even find a place to live. He stayed at the station.
Edison moved around after that, working as a telegrapher in numerous cities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
He did not stay at any of these jobs very long. Edison would use their tools (sometimes breaking them) and conduct his chemical experiments. At one point acid spilled, ate through the floor and damaged his boss’s desk below him. He was fired from that job.
In 1868 Edison arrived in Boston and got a job with the Western Union Company. In his spare time, he designed an electronic voting recorder for tallying votes in the legislature. After receiving a patent, the legislature was not interested as they did not want votes counted quickly. In 1869 he moved to New York City and invented the Universal stock ticker. The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company paid him $40,000.00 for the rights. He quit working as a telegrapher and began devoting all his time to inventing.
Thomas Edison was responsible for acquiring a record number of 1,093 patents (some jointly), which included such famous innovations as the phonograph, the light bulb and one of the earliest motion picture cameras. These inventions are on display at the Thomas Edison Depot Museum.
In 1977, the Thomas Edison Depot was listed in the National Historic places.
The Birth of The Thomas Edison Depot Museum…..
Grand Trunk built the Port Huron Depot in 1858. It is the actual structure where Thomas Edison worked selling his newspapers, and whatever he felt would earn him money. The Peerless Cement Company acquired the property and used the depot for office space.
The City of Port Huron then acquired land from The Peerless Cement Company which included the parcel where the Thomas Edison Inn was built, as well as the Depot and what is now Edison Shores. Donald Reynolds (who own St. Clair Inn at the time) purchased the property from the City of Port Huron, where he had plans to build the Thomas Edison Inn. Marcia Haynes had the foresight to have restrictions placed in the deed. The agreement was that Reynolds would clean up the depot to make it usable as a building for $200,000.00. However the most important restriction she requested turned out to be a decision that ensured the future of the Depot Museum. If Reynolds was ever to sell the Thomas Edison Inn, the depot property would revert to the City of Port Huron. Reynolds did indeed sell the inn; the Depot went back to the people, and today is operated by the Port Huron Carnegie Center Museum. If it had not been for the restrictions Marcia Haynes had demanded, the Thomas Edison Depot Museum may not have existed today as we know it.
The Edison Depot Museum became the second Port Huron museum to open on February 11, 2001. It houses many displays depicting the life and inventions of Thomas Edison. Outside the museum on a set of railroad tracks rests a baggage car, much like the one Edison traveled on. Inside is a recreation of the mobile chemistry lab and printing shop that the young inventor once maintained so many years ago. Also inside is the “Wizards Shop,” where visiting groups may take part exploring Edison’s scientific principles.
The Light Bulb…..
There is no doubt the invention that has most affected our lives is that of the incandescent light bulb, and probably most associated with Edison with the first public demonstration of his invention in December of 1879. It would revolutionize the manner in which the world lighted their homes and businesses.
However, it is only one of many fabulous displays at the museum. One can actually see and listen to one of the earliest phonographs!
If you are a movie buff, there is a display of Edison’s invention of the motion picture camera.
These are but a few of the displays of Edison’s life and inventions.
On October 17, 2004 Thomas Edison Days were celebrated in Port Huron. It commemorated the 125th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. Mickey Rooney returned for the celebration. The movie, “Young Tom Edison” was released in 1940 with Mister Rooney in the starring role. The movie featured Thomas Edison’s early life as a boy while living in Port Huron. Along with Mister Rooney, eleven of Edison’s descendants attended the celebration.
Today, the Thomas Edison Depot Museum is open to the public from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. It is dedicated to the life and inventions of Port Huron’s most famous resident. Workshops are held. Tours and Field Trips can be booked. If you have not already visited the Museum, don’t wait! Do it today. Go back in time and discover the creativity and the successes that made Thomas Alva Edison one of the greatest inventors of all time. Follow his life as a boy living in Port Huron and some of his inventions that play an essential role in our society today. You won’t be disappointed!
The Thomas Edison Depot Museum
Port Huron, Michigan 48060
(Located below the Blue Water Bridges)
Closed for the season November 2018 to April 2019
Available for group tours and venue rental year around
Open Year Round or Group Tours
Call (810) 982-0891
*Thank you to Margaret Aiken, Dave Dazer, Marcia Haynes, Jill Secory Moore and Joe Ann Burgett, who all contributed to this article.
*All pictures by the writer are pictures of actual Museum exhibits.