Fort Gratiot  Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Port Huron, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The entrance into the St. Claire River from Lake Huron had long been deemed of strategic importance. Named after General Charles Gratiot, the engineer in charge of its construction, the Fort Gratiot military outpost was established at the entrance to the river in 1814, and ensured the security of vessels making the passage.

With the surge in vessel traffic on Lake Huron in the early 1800's, the need for a lighthouse to guide vessels into the river and away from the shallows at the River entrance became a matter of increasing importance. In response to this need, Congress appropriated $3,500 to construct a lighthouse "near Fort Gratiot, in Michigan Territory" on March 3rd of 1823.

Click to view enlarged imageThe contract for construction of the lighthouse and keepers dwelling was awarded to Captain Winslow Lewis of Massachusetts. Lewis was the inventor of the patented Lewis Lamp, which the Fifth Auditor had universally adopted as the primary source of illumination in the nation's growing inventory of lighthouses. A staunch supporter and ally of the Fifth Auditor, Lewis had branched out into the business of lighthouse construction, and as the frequent low bidder, was being awarded a growing number of contracts to fulfill the nation's need for navigational aids on the East Coast.

Lewis sub-contracted the construction of the tower and keepers dwelling that would become known as the "Fort Gratiot Light" to Mr. Daniel Warren of Rochester New York. Work commenced on the structure, but appears to have been running far beyond the scope of the original bid, since Congress appropriated an additional $5,000 for the project's completion on April 2, 1825.

With the completion of construction on August 8th of that year, Fort Gratiot Light held the honor of becoming the first lighthouse in the State of Michigan.

Click to view enlarged imageRufus Match & Jean B. Denoyers served as temporary keepers until the selection and appointment of a permanent keeper. The new tower stood 32 feet in height, with a diameter of 18 feet at the base, tapering to a diameter of 9 feet at its top. The lantern room was equipped with one of the customary Lewis Lamp systems. George McDougall, a former Detroit Lawyer of some ill repute was selected as the lights' first official keeper, and arrived to take responsibility for the station in December of that same year.

Click to view enlarged imageEven with the major cost overrun, it became quickly apparent that the structure was both poorly designed and constructed. McDougall's reports indicated that the stairs were so steep that they had to be climbed sideways, and the trapdoor into the lantern room was barely large enough for a man to squeeze through. While McDougall no doubt reported with truth on this situation, it must be noted that he was reputedly a short man with a weight in excess of 300 pounds, and as such hired an assistant to perform all of his tower work!

During the summer of 1828, McDougall further reported that the tower was cracking, and had begun to settle in such a manner that it was leaning noticeably toward the East. Finally, reports from mariners indicated that the tower was both poorly located and illuminated, since they found that its' feeble light was virtually invisible until their vessels were almost at the mouth of the River.

As a result of continuing erosion at the foot of the tower caused by the swift current in the river, the footings of the tower became so severely undermined that the tower finally toppled to the ground during one of Huron's infamous November storms in 1828. Congress acted swiftly, and on April 2nd of 1829, appropriated $8,000 for the construction of a new, improved lighthouse.

Click to view enlarged imageThis time, the bid for construction was awarded to Lucius Lyons who was the Deputy Surveyor General of the Northwest Territory at the time, and would later go on to become one of Michigan's first US Senators. Lyons crew began work immediately, and completed the reconstruction in December of that same year. The new brick tower was 74 feet in height, and 25 feet in diameter, and the lantern was once again outfitted with one of the universal Lewis Lamp systems, which was fueled by whale oil, brought in on the Erie Canal.

Click to view enlarged imageSoon after its' establishment, the new US Lighthouse Board determined that the Lewis Lamps universally accepted by the prior Pleasonton administration were significantly inferior to the French Fresnel lenses being adopted throughout the rest of the world. After conducting successful trials of the new lenses in a few East Coast lights, the Board decided to upgrade all lenses throughout the system. As a result, the Lewis Lamps were removed from Fort Gratiot in 1857, and the tower was refitted with a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens, which had an intensity of at least four times that of the old Lewis lamps.

As lake shipping continued to rise dramatically in the early second half of the century, it was determined that the Fort Gratiot Light needed further upgrading. To this end, in 1861 the Government increased the height of the tower to 82 feet, and the Fourth Order Fresnel was replaced with a larger Third Order Lens, showing a fixed white light. The old Fourth Order lens was taken to Saginaw and installed in the Saginaw River Lighthouse.

Click to view enlarged imageThe growing amount of railroad traffic in Port Huron created confusion for many mariners when the locomotive headlamps were seen to shine as brightly as the Fresnel in the lighthouse. The problem was remedied in 1867, when the "fixed white" lens at Fort Gratiot was swapped with the "fixed varied with a flash" lens from the Pointe Aux Barques light.

The original keepers dwelling was of wooden frame and clapboard construction, and unfortunately burned to the ground in 1874. A brick duplex was added to the site to provide quarters for the keeper and his family along with the assistant keeper and his family.

Fog signals have long been an integral part of the story at Fort Gratiot Light. The first such unit was installed in 1871. A second steam-powered diaphone fog signal unit was added in 1880, and both were replaced by a steam-powered diaphone system housed in a brick building in 1901, which still stands today.

Fort Gratiot Terry PepperThe tower was again severely threatened during the great freshwater hurricane of 1913, when it was almost washed from its foundation. After weathering this storm within the tower, Captain Frank Kimball, the keeper at the time, was quoted as saying "I watched waves as high as 30 to 40 feet pounding on the lighthouse, and I think if the storm had lasted another hour the lighthouse would have been wiped-out." In order to help protect the foundation from such future poundings, Kimball installed a three-foot high brick and mortar retaining wall around the lake side of the tower the following year. This wall is still standing today, and has become an integral feature of the tower landscape.

In 1933 the tower was outfitted with a green DCB-24 Aerobeacon, and was completely automated. With a range of 18 miles, the DCB-24 exhibited a one half second flash in every 15 seconds. The optic has now been changed to a Vega rotating beacon which exhibits a similar characteristic.

The five acre lighthouse grounds and all associated buildings were transferred to St. Clair County through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2010. The county entered into a partnership with the Port Huron Museum, and the partners began restoration in 2011.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Fort Gratiot Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Seeing this Light

The light station grounds are open to the for public throughout the summer season with tours of the tower and station buildings scheduled throughout the day. Information on open hours and programs available on the Port Huron Museum website here or by telephoning 810-982-0891.

Terry Pepper. This page last updated 09-02-2012

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