Fort Gratiot Light

Aug. 6, 2019

Fort Gratiot Light, Port Huron Michigan

The first lighthouse constructed in the state of Michigan, north of Fort Gratiot.  First structure built in 1825, but collapsed into the river during a storm.  New lighthouse built in 1829 built north of the military fort in a better sighted location at the head of the St. Clair River.


Station Established: 1825
Year Current Tower(s) First Lit: 1829
Operational? YES
Automated? YES 1933
Deactivated: n/a
Foundation Materials: DRESSED STONE/TIMBER
Construction Materials: BRICK
Markings/Pattern: WHITE
Relationship to Other Structure: SEPARATE

Historical Information:

As early as 1823, the government recognized the importance of protecting commerce on Lake Huron and, on March 3rd of that year, Congress appropriated $3,500 to construct "a lighthouse near Fort Gratiot, in Michigan Territory". Winslow Lewis, a Massachusetts contractor specializing in lighthouses was awarded the contract and he, in turn, contracted Daniel Warren of Rochester, New York to build the light tower and keeper’s dwelling. April 2, 1825, Congress appropriated an additional $5,000 for the project and on August 8th, it was completed. The tower rose 32 feet above ground level and was 18 feet in diameter at the bottom and 9½ feet at the top. It was the first lighthouse constructed on Michigan shores.

Rufus Hatch and Jean B. Desnoyers operated the light until December 2nd when George McDougall of Detroit arrived. McDougall had been appointed as official keeper after pulling some political strings. He was a large man, weighing over 200 pounds and finding that the specifications for the lighthouse varied considerably from what actually existed, he reported his dismay to William Woodbridge, then Collector of Customs at Detroit. Woodbridge would later become Governor of Michigan and a Senator, but as Collector of Customs, McDougall would inform him that the stairs were so steep that they had to be ascended sideways and the trap door, measuring 18 inches by 21¼ inches was barely large enough to squeeze through.

The light had other problems also. It was not only poorly located, not being visible until boats were too near the river’s mouth, it was poorly constructed. During the summer of 1828 the walls began cracking and the tower sagged toward the east. Erosion, caused by the current was also eating away the ground and after a violent three-day storm in early September, the tower was so severely damaged that in late November it collapsed completely. Immediate steps were taken to erect a new structure, at a better location. $8,000 was appropriated for the project by an Act of Congress, March 2, 1829. Lucius Lyon, who later became a U. S. Senator was awarded the contract in April. The structure was 74 feet high and 25 feet in diameter, constructed of brick and completed in December, 1829. In 1861, the height was increased to 86 feet and in 1874 a brick duplex was added for the keeper and his assistants. The structure still stands today. McDougall remained keeper until his death in October, 1842. Since he was constantly bothered by gout and numerous other ailments, an assistant keeper was always employed by him to do the actual work. Reuben Hamilton performed the work for many years, being paid directly by McDougall since the government did ot authorize an assistant keeper until June, 1870. Today’s light is completely automated, has a range of 8 miles and flashes for one half second every 15 seconds.

151 years after the first light was exhibited at Fort Gratiot, a silent sentinel still beams out to guide a new generation of Lake Huron mariners. In 1971, the Michigan Historical Commission named Fort Gratiot Light a historic site. As Port Huron grew and the St. Clair River became a popular spot for tourists and recreational boaters, lifesaving operations, which for years had centered around the Lake View Beach Station, began a gradual shift southward.

In 1931, 3½ acres of land adjoining Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was purchased by the government and on April 13, 1932, the Coast Guard opened the Port Huron Station. Originally, the station consisted of a main building, boathouse and lookout tower with crew quarters, breakwater and fog signal added later. Among the duties assigned to the Port Huron Station was the responsibility of providing supplies and transportation to the men aboard the Lightship Huron. The Lightship’s station had been established in 1893 on Corsica Shoals, replacing a somewhat ineffective gas buoy. Three vessels bore the designation as Huron Lightship from 1893 to 1970. The first of these was a wooden-hulled vessel, painted red with the words "Corsica Shoals" painted white on her sides. Officially listed as Lightship No. 61, she served from September 1893 until 1921. During the November storm of 1913, in which at least 12 ships and 200 lives were lost, the lightship was torn from its moorings and forced onto the Canadian shore near Point Edward. She was replaced in 1921 by Lightship No. 96, the first vessel to actually be called Huron Lightship.