Fort Gratiot Lighthouse: Michigan’s oldest lighthouse
Fort Gratiot was built in 1814 during the War of 1812 to guard the juncture of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron. Named after the engineer who supervised construction, Charles Gratiot, Fort Gratiot would be occupied on and off until 1879.
However, with a surge of vessel traffic on Lake Huron in the early 1800s, the need for a Light Station to guide vessels through the water way became very important, and in 1823 Congress approved the funds to build the first lighthouse in Michigan and the second oldest on the Great Lakes.
A first lighthouse built in 1825 but, along with the poor design and construction, the original tower was built in a bad location and during a severe storm in 1828 it collapsed into the river. In 1829, a new lighthouse was built north of the military fort by Lucius Lyon, who later became one of Michigan’s first U.S. Senators. The new location made it easier for ships to spot as they entered the rapids at the head of the St. Clair River.
Originally 20 meters high, the white painted brick tower was extended to its present height of 25 meters in the early 1860s.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in July of 1976, and the old lighthouse is believed to be “haunted” by the friendly spirit of a former caretaker named Robert Hanford, often affectionately referred to as “Lighthouse Bob”. He died on June 4 2010 at Port Huron Hospital. He was 84.
He was the keeper and biggest supporter of Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, where he led thousands of people through tours of the oldest Michigan lighthouse for 20 years.
Born on July 7, 1925, Bob came to Detroit by lake passenger steamship in 1934.
According to a biography published in a Port Huron Museum newsletter, Bob enlisted in the US Coast Guard in 1943 and entered training for amphibious warfare. Bob took part in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, then the amphibious landings at Iwo Jima on February 15, 1945 and Okinawa, April 1, 1945, in the waning but bloodiest days of the Pacific War.
When he returned to Michigan and joined the Detroit Police Department in 1947, where for several years he was a motorcycle patrolman. He later rose to the rank of detective. His work included the investigation and prosecution of narcotics cases and local organized crime figures. He moved to the Port Huron area in 1975.
As member of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, Bob assumed the duties of lighthouse keeper in 1988, leading tours of the Fort Gratiot Light Station for delighted school children and other visitors. He also performed light maintenance at the tower, sweeping the tower down, washing windows and removing spider webs.
It was very obvious he loved the Light Station and what he was doing: dressed in a period-correct US Lighthouse Service uniform, Bob would proudly share the history of the station’s construction and service life as a major aid to navigation, as well as stories and artifacts from the site and the keepers who preceded him. His dedication was admirable, considering the oppressive Michigan summer heat and humidity in which he often worked in that full uniform.
Only one other man served as lightkeeper of the station longer than Bob, Frank Kimball, who kept the light from 1894 to 1924, a span of 30 years.
Though his health slowed him in recent years, Bob still continued to lead tours with the assistance of volunteers. The Lighthouse was closed to public tours in 2008 due to the potential danger of visitors being struck by pieces of brick that are being shed by the 25-meters tall light tower.
Bob fell April 15 as he was leaving a medical clinic. He broke a hip and some fingers and had surgery the following week. Unfortunately, as is often the case with someone in advanced age, it is often difficult to recover from such injuries, and Bob passed away few days later.
Still today, a Coast Guard station and the lighthouse watch over one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Weather permitting, the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is one of the few operating lighthouses that allow visitors to climb the tower and step out onto the catwalk for a breathtaking view. There is also a public beach and park on the property, known as Lighthouse Beach.
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Images from web – Google Research