Port Sanilac Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Port Sanilac, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the opening of navigation into Lake Superior through the Sault Lock in 1853, and an increasing number of vessels being launched to service the increasing commerce, the number of vessels coasting Lake Huron's southwestern shore increased dramatically throughout the 1860's. While the 1825 Fort Gratiot Light served to mark the entrance to the St. Clair River at the foot of the lake, and the 1848 Pointe Aux Barques Light guided vessels around the tip of Michigan's "Thumb," the intervening 75-mile stretch remained unlighted, with vessel masters running blind along a forty-mile stretch of coastline beyond the range of visibility of either of the two Lights.

With pressure from maritime interests, the Lighthouse Board first broached the need for a Coast Light along this stretch in its 1868 annual report to Congress, requesting an appropriation of $30,000 to cover the cost of establishing the station at an as yet undetermined location. While the Board reiterated the request in each of its four subsequent annual reports, Congress appears to have been unconvinced of the need for the station, as no appropriation was forthcoming. However, convinced of the need for the Light, the Board continued to push for funding, even increasing the amount of the requested appropriation to $40,000 in its 1873 annual report.

While the establishment of the Sand Beach Harbor of Refuge Light in 1875 reduced the length of unlighted coastline by approximately sixteen miles, 30 miles of dangerous coastline remained unlighted, and the Board continued to push for the funds on an annual basis. Congress finally responded to the Board's seemingly incessant pleas in 1885. However, they were evidently wary of the requested costs, as the amount of the appropriation was arbitrarily reduced to $20,000, a mere half the amount requested.

Selecting Port Sanilac as the optimal location for the new station, a site selected on high ground at the head of the small bay. With steps underway for obtaining title to the chosen site, Eleventh District Engineer Captain Charles E. L. B. Davis set about creating plans and specifications for construction of the new station. Amazingly, Davis' plans called not only for a station which could be built within the tight limitations of the budget, but also managed to create a design that was both unique and architecturally significant in its elegance.

Contracts specifying a completion date of October 15, 1886 were awarded for materials and construction, and the iron work for the lantern and stairs delivered at the Detroit lighthouse depot on October 1, 1885. The construction crew arrived at Port Sanilac on June 7, 1886, and with only four and a half months remaining to complete the project, work at the site began at a feverish pace. By the end of June, it was reported tat the cellar had been excavated, the dwelling walls were almost half raised, the timber and stone foundation for the tower installed, and all construction materials had been delivered to the site.

Click to view enlarged imageCaptain Davis' design called for an octagonal brick tower standing 14 feet in diameter at the base, gracefully tapering vertically to a diameter of 9 feet below the gallery. Instead of supporting the gallery with a series of corbels as was the custom, twelve successive courses of bricks were laid so as to stand proud of the course immediately below, creating a flared "stair-stepped" support for the gallery. Four windows were let into the flared area to create a watch room from which all quadrants of the horizon could be observed. Atop the gallery, a prefabricated octagonal cast iron lantern was erected, and outfitted with a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris. Equipped with a brass reflector on one of its segments, the lens was installed in such an way that the brass reflector blocked the lens on the landward side, directing the light out in a 300 degree arc across the water. Seated at a focal plane of 69 feet, it was calculated that the light would be visible for a distance of 13 miles at sea.

Click to view enlarged imageThe dwelling was located to the south of the tower, with the two connected by a covered passageway which also housed the single entrance to both structures. The gable end walls of the two story brick dwelling extended vertically above the roof line, and featured a stair-stepped detail at their upper edge which mirrored the stepping of the tower gallery support. Erected atop a full cellar, which served double duty for the storage of both household goods and lamp oil, which was stored in a separate purpose specific room.

Richard W Morris, was promoted to the position of Acting Keeper of the new Light after serving four years as the Second Assistant at the Thunder Bay Island Light, and moved into the new dwelling on October 6. The construction crew completed their work on October 13, and Morris climbed the tower to exhibit the light for the first time on the evening of October 20, 1886. Without no fog signal, brand new quarters and situated in close proximity to the growing town, Port Sanilac likely seemed an "Sweetheart" assignment to Morris after the rigors of life on Thunder Bay Island, and doubtless Morris and his family quickly settled into a comfortable routine.

To better differentiate the light from the lights of the town behind the tower, the characteristic of the light was changed to fixed red on July 15 1889 through the installation of a ruby-colored glass chimney over the lamp. 

Click to view enlarged image Prior to the 1870's, either sperm whale or colza oil had been used for the lamps in US lighthouses. Minimally flammable, and prone to congealing at lower temperatures, the oil was stored within the dwellings where it would stay warm and its viscosity low. However, with the change to the significantly more volatile kerosene, a number of fires had broken-out at stations around the nation, and the Lighthouse Board embarked on a project of erecting stand-alone oil storage buildings at all of the nation's lighthouses through the 1880's and 90's. To this end, a 360-gallon brick oil storage building was constructed at the station in 1889. Standing 11 feet 10 inches by 16 feet 4 inches in plan. While the Lighthouse Board had two standard plans to which such structures were normally built, they thoughtfully modified the plan to include extended gable end walls with the stair-stepped design to mirror those on the dwelling itself.

Keeper Morris resigned from lighthouse service on May 1, 1893, and was replaced by William H Holmes, another Thunder Bay Island alumnus, who was promoted to the position after serving almost six years as First Assistant at the island station.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the availability of reliable electric power in the town which was growing up around the Light, the station was electrified in 1924. With electrification, the characteristic of the Light was changed on the opening of the 1925 navigation season through the installation of an 18,000 candlepower incandescent electric lamp and electronic timer and switching mechanism. Thus equipped, the light was set up to exhibit a triple flash every 10 seconds, with a resulting increase in visibility to 16 miles at sea.

William Holmes passed away in 1926, and was succeeded by his wife Grace. However, Grace would only tend the light for two years, as electrification had rendered the services of a full-time keeper unnecessary, and the position of Keeper of the Port Sanilac Light was abolished for ever in 1928.

At some time thereafter, the station buildings passed into private ownership, while the Coast Guard maintains access to the tower and lantern, which continues to house the original 1886 Forth Order lens.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Port Sanilac on a beautiful Friday Spring afternoon found the marina in front of the lighthouse bustling with activity. Boat owners busy preparing their proud craft for what had all the earmarks of being an unseasonably warm weekend, the marina crew busy bringing boats out of water storage, and trucks carrying stone out onto the breakwater.  An island of calm in the midst of all this activity, the Sanilac Light sat observing everything going on around it as it has for the past one hundred and fourteen years.

Port Sanilac is a beautiful little village, tight on the coast of Lake Huron, and features a number of quaint, older buildings, likely contemporary to the lighthouse.

We walked out on the breakwater to the point at which the trucks were unloading their stone, and could go no further. We then walked into the marina and took a couple of photographs from the docks. Unfortunately, the Port Sanilac museum, which is located in a large house south of town on M25, was closed until summer. Thus, unable to add to our limited knowledge of the history of the lighthouse, we have a good excuse to return again!

Finding this Light

From the traffic light on M-25, go east one block to Lake Street and turn right (south) two blocks. The Light sits on the East side of the street, and there is a public breakwater parking area immediately to the South of the Light.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1867 - 1909 
Lake Carrier's Association annual reports, 1910 - 1928
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1986
Personal visits to Port Sanilac, May 2000 & September 2002
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

Terry Pepper. This page last updated 12/02/2007

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