The area just to the north of Port Huron has a rich history. Noted as a strategic chokepoint, the mouth St. Clair River was the gateway to the northern lakes and the rich fur and lumber trade. Shipping on the Great Lakes increased in the 1820s and Congress recognized the need for a navigational aid at the mouth of the St. Clair River. This is how Fort Gratiot was established.
A Guide Into the St. Clair River and the Lower Lakes
The current tower of the Fort Gratiot light was built in April 1829 by Lucius Lyons. It was situated north of an older tower light that has collapsed into the St. Clair River after a violent storm the prior November. The tower was constructed of brick to a height of 65 feet. In 1862 the height was increased to 82 feet to match the focal point of a new 4th order Fresnel lens. In 1867 the light was changed to flash in order to distinguish the light from nearby railroad signals. Starting operations on the Great Lakes in 1829, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in Michigan.
The Ft. Gratiot Lighthouse Campus Grows
In 1871 another building was built to house a fog signal. A few years later a new lightkeepers house was built after the original house was destroyed by fire. It was large enough to house two families, the lighthouse keeper, and his assistant.
The lighthouse was almost wiped out by the famous “White Hurricane” storm in November 1915. Waves 30 to 40 feet high crashed on the tower and threatened to undermine the foundation of the structure.
Home of the Coast Guard
In 1932 the US Coast Guard Station was built on the campus. A few years later in 1939, Congress merged the U.S. Lighthouse Service with the Coast Guard. Three acres of land was purchased by the government and operations from lifeboat Station Lake View Beach was moved to the campus. A new barracks was built to house the personnel. The old Station lake View Beach was abandoned in 1946. The USCG used these barracks until 2004 when a new station was built on the south side of the campus.
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse Today
The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse operates today has a county park and is open to the public. The park campus includes the Light Keeper’s Duplex, Fog Signal Building, Single Keeper’s Dwelling, former Coast Guard Station, Equipment Building, and a three-bay garage. Tours of the town of the lighthouse are available May through December.
The automated light tower is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. The light can be seen from 16 miles out into the lake. The green light flashes for one second every six seconds. In 1971 the Light Station was declared a National Historic Monument. The US Coast Guard’s mission includes Search and Rescue, Maritime Law Enforcement, Ice Rescue, and Recreational Boating Safety. The area of responsibility is Lower Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, three smaller rivers, and two man-made harbors on Lake Huron.
Related Michigan Lighthouse Reading
- Lighthouses of Michigan’s Upper Thumb
- The Lightship Huron
- The Haunted Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse
- The Ruins of the Charity Island Lighthouse