As the world’s largest freshwater man-made harbor, the port of Harbor Beach, Michigan, is an ideal stopping point for sailors making their way up to Lake Huron’s shore. Harbor Beach offers sailors and boaters a welcome break and an ideal provisioning point with its protected port and town that’s steps away from the Marina. If you find yourself with a few extra hours, there are some great little site seeing short and interesting trips. Some are within walking distance, while some will require an Uber ride from dockside.
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#1 Harbor Beach Lighthouse
If you’re in the harbor on a Saturday and have $20, you can get a tour. It’s a 10-minute boat ride and guided tour of this Spark-plug light located at the tip of the break wall. You can access four of the six levels of this working light and get a taste of local history—plan on taking about one hour for the entire tour. If the weather is ideal, the best advice is to take your best pictures on the ride back with the sun higher in the sky. The fee covers the lighthouse trip and entry to the museum.
#2 Grice House Museum
The home is a prime example of a mid-19th century working home in the days before electricity. With its period kitchen, parlor, sewing room, and bedroom, you can imagine what life was like in the late 1800s. There are collections and artifacts of local maritime history, history of the Great Lakes, and early lumbering in Harbor Beach. This home was constructed in 1874 by James G. Grice and is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
On the grounds, there is a one-room schoolhouse from the early 1900s The school is furnished with desks, books, and the stove typically found in one-room country schools of that era.
The Grice House is a short walk from the Harbor Beach Marina on the north end of town. Tours for the museum are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hours: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday – 1-4 pm, Saturday – 10 am-4 pm, Sunday – 1-4 pm, and by appointment by calling 989-479-3363. Admission is $5.
#3 Frank Murphy Museum
One of the most famous individuals in the Thumb, Frank Murphy was one of Michigan’s most notable and accomplished politicians. He was the Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan, Governor-General/U.S. High Commissioner of the Philippine Islands, Attorney General of the United States, and finally a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Born in Harbor Beach in 1890, he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and returned to Harbor Beach to practice law early in his career. Frank Murphy was a national defender of civil rights. He was an author to the descent position of the Supreme Court in the Korematsu vs. the US case, which upheld the legality of Japanese internment camps during WWII. Murphy called the decision “legalization of racism.” A plaque highlighting his famous position is outside the museum.
The Frank Murphy Memorial Museum south of the Marina on Huron Street next to the Visitor’s Center at 142 S. Huron Avenue. Tours for the museum are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hours: Tues-Fri: Noon-4pm, Sat-Sun: 10 am-4 pm, and by appointment. Admission: Adult: $2 / Child: $1
#4 Pointe Aux Barques Light House
This is well north of Harbor Beach but worth the drive. The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse ranks among the ten oldest lighthouses in Michigan. It is an active lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard remotely, located in Lighthouse County Park on Lake Huron near Port Hope, Michigan, in Huron County. “Pointe aux Barques” Francois for ‘Point of Little Boats,’ a descriptor of the shallow shoals and reefs that lurk beneath these waves, presenting a hazard to boats as they round Michigan’s Thumb. This historic landmark marks the opening of Saginaw Bay. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse only on Memorial and Labor Day weekends.
#5 Hunter’s Bar
This institution has been keeping Harbor Beach, Michigan, served with ice-cold beer since 1938. It’s like stepping back to when the area was considered ‘up north” with its rustic and rugged and knotty pine and casual, comfortable atmosphere. Considered to have the best fish in the area and the “Flying Cheese Sticks” Good craft beer selection. Known as more of a local bar but a favorite biker stop.
#6 Kayak The Harbor Beach Harbor
Rent a kayak for a few hours and check out the lighthouse, harbor, and even a few nearby sunken ships. The wreck of the George H. Waud is a short distance from the kayak launch at James H. Lincoln park. To the south is the Dorcas Pendell and John Wesley shipwrecks
History of the Largest Man Made Harbor on the Great Lakes
In 1871 shipping in the Great Lakes was nearing its height. Over 30,000 trips were made past the eastern Thumb shore. However, there were no harbors in which ships could take refuge during the fall storms that were common across the region. The 80 miles between Port Huron and Saginaw Bay’s mouth is described as a long stony beach along a cliff-lined shore with boulders and dangerous ledges. Ships steered a course 2 to 3 miles offshore, where they risked being fully exposed to the weather. In 1871 it was one of the busiest stretches for shipping in the entire upper lakes.
In 1871 Congress allocated $1,000,000 of a harbor of refuge within the 150 miles between Port Huron and Thunder Bay at Alpena. A survey was commissioned in May of 1872 to test the lake bottoms holding power. The Lake Survey Steamer, Ada began bottom testing at Point aux Barques and headed south. For 30 miles, the steamer stopped every tenth of a mile and dropped an 820-pound anchor to test holding capacity. Not happy with the results, the Ada tested an additional twenty miles of shore and found that the area off of Sand Beach and Port Hope as potential sites.
Sand Beach’s site was chosen not because it was any better than Port Hope but because it required 3,000 feet less break wall.
The area around Sand Beach in 1872 was pretty remote, even for the pioneering standards of the time. It had no merchants and no manufacturing except a few shingle makers. In 1873 the area became the site of one of the most ambitious harbor projects on the Great Lakes. This project was known as the “Harbor of Refuge at Sand Beach.” When it was completed, the town sprung up with a railroad station and post office supporting the harbor.
Harbor Beach has a rich history. In 1883 when the harbor was completed, Harbor Beach became the largest freshwater port in the world. This one mile by three miles long port with 650 acres of anchorage was enclosed by three break walls with two entrances. One is the north and the other at the east. This enabled shipping protection in the 150-mile lake run after leaving Port Huron. The city later became home to major industries, including a starch and power plant.
Harbor Beach, Michigan is also home to a continuous Life-Saving Service / Coast Guard presence since 1881. A Life-Saving Service Station was established in Sand Beach then replaced in 1909. In 1935 a new Coast Guard Station was built offshore. Today the USCG is manned year-round by Coast Guard personnel.
- Essayons: a History of the Detroit District, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers By John W. Larson