1905 Keeper's House

Built 1905; in service 1905-1970

Location: 4500 East Grand Lake Road, Presque Isle, Michigan 49777

The original Keeperʼs House at Presque Isle Light Station, built in 1870, served as home to the Keeper, Assistant(s), their families, and staff required for operation of the steam-driven fog signal. The place must have been really crowded!

In 1905 an additional residence was built and occupied first by the principal Keeper and his family, and later by U.S. Coast Guard personnel. When the New Light was automated in 1970, the Coast Guard left, and the 1905 House was occupied by a series of caretakers until 1998, when ownership of the Light Station property was transferred to Presque Isle Township. In 1999 the Presque Isle Township Museum Society began a six-year renovation of the 1905 House. Many hundreds of hours of volunteer labor were needed to restore the building to its original appearance and turn it into a museum of lighthouse life and lore. For days and hours when the Museum is open to  visitors, click here.

When You Visit

Our 1905 Keeperʼs House Museum sits across the lawn from the 1870 Tower and Keeperʼs Dwelling. From the front porch you will have a striking view of Lake Huron framed by a swath of open land running to the lake shore. This treeless corridor is visible in old photographs and apparently allowed the Keeper to sit on his porch and log in the vessels transiting this area of Lake Huron.

None of the homeʼs original furnishings remain. Keepers owned their furniture and took it with them when they left. However, members of the community and the Presque Isle Township Museum Society have donated or loaned many fascinating artifacts, and other items have been purchased. On display is furniture, art, books, china, kitchen equipment, and many other articles typical of the museumʼs 1915 target era. Exhibits are rotated frequently for the benefit of returning visitors.

There is no entrance fee. However, donations are always welcome and help maintain the Museum. Please use caution on the concrete steps in front of the 1905 House; they are challenging “antiques” not built to modern architectural standards.

White textured brick on the side of the 1905 Keeper's House.

History of the 1905 Keeper’s House

On April 28, 1904, Congress allocated $5,000 for construction of an additional residence at Presque Isle Light Station. A year later, on April 27, 1905, the Detroit-based USLHT Amaranth, a wooden-hulled, steam-powered, double-screw lighthouse tender operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, put into North Bay to off-load construction materials. A contractor named Jerome Louzon was in charge of the project, and used a crew from Alpena. Construction began at mid-summer and was completed in the early fall.

By 1905 Alpena had become a major producer of cement, and the 1905 House is built of cement block from a hand-tamped machine designed by the Besser Manufacturing Company in Alpena.  Interior finish is wet plaster on lath. Floors are birdseye maple, and trim appears to be Douglas fir or a similar wood. By analyzing paint samples, restoration workers were able to match wall colors used in 1905. The original roof was replaced with a metal roof about 1995. In all major respects, including furnishings and decoration, the house looks as it did about 1915.

Although originally intended for the Assistant Keeper, by the time the 1905 House was ready for occupancy, it had been designated for use by the principal Keeper and his family. Thomas Garrity, a bachelor, was the first Keeper to reside there. His sister Kathryn (Kate) lived with him. At his retirement in 1935 Thomas was succeeded by Elmer C. Byrnes and his family, who transferred from Point Iroquois Light Station on Lake Superior, west of Sault Ste. Marie.

Modern conveniences were slow in arriving on the Peninsula. At the start, heat was supplied by two fireplaces and a kitchen wood stove on the ground floor, and by small stoves upstairs. In 1911 a boiler and radiators were installed. Nearly three decades later, in 1940, electricity was finally run to the house. That same year indoor plumbing replaced the outdoor privy, and one of the four bedrooms upstairs was converted to a bathroom.

Keeper Byrnes witnessed the transition in lighthouse management as the Coast Guard assumed control from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. After Elmerʼs retirement, USCG personnel served as keepers. They lived in the dwelling until 1970 when the light was automated and an on-site keeper was no longer needed. For the first time in a century, the Presque Isle Light Station and the 1905 House were Keeper-less!

In 1973 the Light Station was leased to Presque Isle Township to serve as a public park. Over the next 25 years, the 1905 House was successively occupied by three different families–the Van Wagnen, Sandford, and McGee families–who served as caretakers for the Township. Then, on June 16, 1998, the property was deeded to the Township, with the agreement that it would be maintained as a not-for-profit public park. The Presque Isle Township Museum Society, formed in 1998 as a Michigan nonprofit corporation, began renovation of the 1905 House in May 1999, and completed the work in July 2005. The Museum soon opened to the public.

Repair and maintenance is an ongoing responsibility. During the period 2012-13 the Township — with substantial financial support from the Museum Society — undertook restoration of the front porch, stairs, and railings, all of which were rebuilt according to the original architectural plans. At the same time the 1905 House's windows were repaired and the exterior of the building was painted

Elmer C. Byrnes, Keeper 1935-1954

Elmer Byrnes, Keeper at the New Light from for 19 years, was a respected member of the Presque Isle community. He was also a colorful figure. A prohibition era photograph in our archives shows the Keeper on his boat, ready to patrol the Huron coastline. As a federal officer, he is armed with a pistol, apparently as protection against bootleggers. Life at Presque Isle could be exciting from time to time!

Elmer is also typical of lighthouse keepers throughout the country and across the years — men and women who maintained their aids to navigation by day and night, in fair weather and foul, in sickness and in health, often living in isolation, and sometimes doing their duty at the risk of their lives. By their dedicated service they protected the people who made their living or traveled on the seacoasts, lakes, and rivers of the United States. Their memory burns as brightly as the lights they tended.

Elmer C. Byrnes was born July 26, 1887, the son of Patrick and Julie Smith Byrnes. The family of six (Elmer had two sisters and a brother) lived at Copper Harbor, then, as now, a small village at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out into Lake Superior on Michiganʼs Upper Peninsula. Copper Harbor was, and still is, one of Michiganʼs most isolated communities. Even today, only a handful of people remain in town during the winter.

In 1914 Elmer married Jule Georgiana Calverly, an Irish schoolteacher from Calumet, Michigan, another Keweenaw village. A few days after their wedding the couple moved to Point Iroquois Light Station at Brimley, a few miles west of Sault Ste. Marie. Elmer served as First Assistant Keeper until 1917, when at age 30 he was promoted to principal Keeper.

Timeline of the Keeper’s House

April 28, 1904   Congress allocates $5,000 for construction of Keeper’s House

April 27, 1905   Building supplies delivered by the U.S. lighthouse tender Amaranth

May 1905 — September 1905   Construction is completed

1911   Furnace and boilers installed

1939   Electricity and plumbing installed, one bedroom converted to a bathroom

1970   U.S. Coast Guard automates light and personnel move out of House

1973 — 1998   House is occupied by a series of caretakers

1999 — 2006   Presque Isle Township Museum Society volunteers restore the House

U.S. lighthouse tender Amaranth

In 1905…


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