With respect to Presque Isle, in July 1870 Gen. Poe outlined plans for Presque Isle’s new lighthouse. He provided an estimate “…amounting to $35,494.52 for lighthouse and keepers dwelling [at Presque Isle]… Previously an appropriation for re-building the keepers dwelling [at the 1840 site] amounted to $7,500 — out of that appropriation, the brick required for the new structure has been purchased and delivered upon the ground… Additional appropriation for this project is now pending before Congress amounting to $28,000.00 + 7,500.00 = $35,500.00.”
“The estimate submitted covers the cost of the building, but not the Fresnel lens,” Poe concluded.
Congress acted that same month, allocating the additional $28,000 to construct the New Light. Poe quickly requested “The Steam Barge Mannington to tow 2 scows to bring everything requested for construction.” The work moved forward at a brisk pace, and the new light was lit at the start of the 1871 shipping season. Moreover, the project came in under budget. On August 21, 1871, Poe returned $700.35, the unexpended balance of the congressional appropriation.
The Poe design is practical, durable, and uncommonly graceful. The New Light rises 113 feet from the base to the ventilator ball atop the Lantern Room. The tower sits on a limestone foundation 9 feet 8 inches below ground level. The conical structure is 19 feet 3 inches in diameter at the bottom, and 12 feet 4 inches in diameter at the parapet. This is a double-walled tower. At the base there is an outer wall 24 inches thick, a 31-inch air space, and an inner wall 8 inches thick. At the parapet the outer wall is 16 inches thick, the inner wall is 8 inches thick, and the two are separated by a 4-inch air space.
The wall is surmounted by a round iron watch room and a ten-sided cast iron lantern room. Here the Third Order Fresnel Lens was located, providing a focal plane of 123 feet above the mean low water level of Lake Huron. Its light could be seen up to 25 miles out in Lake Huron. The tower has eight windows. Four of these windows, pleasingly arched and evenly spaced immediately below the lantern room, are an element common to all the lighthouses based upon Poe’s design. The handsome but functional wrought iron brackets (corbels) that support the gallery and catwalk form a second common trait.
There are nine “Poe Lights.” Presque Isle (1870) is the only one on Lake Huron. Lake Michigan boasts five — Michigan’s 104-foot South Manitou Island Light (1871), Michigan’s 107-foot Little Sable Light (1868), Illinois’ 113-foot Grosse Point Light (1874), Wisconsin’s 108-foot Wind Point Light (1880), and Michigan’s 78-foot Seul Choix Light (1895). Two others are on Lake Superior: the 87-foot Au Sable Light (1874) is situated in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, while the 86-foot Outer Island Light (also built in 1874) is located in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Those who wish to climb the tower may do so, weather permitting. It’s quite an adventure. The spiral iron stairway with pipe railing includes 138 steps. This is the tallest lighthouse on the Great Lakes which is open for the public to climb.
A two-story Keeper’s House, vintage 1870, is attached to the tower by a 16-foot enclosed walkway. Measuring 24 x 28 feet, this structure housed all lighthouse personnel, including families with children, for 34 years. Overcrowding led to construction of the 1905 Keeper’s House. During the period from 1940-52, both dwellings were modernized with the addition of electrical service and indoor plumbing.
The original Keeper’s House is now home to the Township's Gift Shop, museum displays, and provides access to the tower. It also furnishes display space for the Fresnel Lens. Invented in France by Augustin Jean Fresnel (pronounced fra-NELL), these lenses were used in the U.S. starting in the 1840s. The “order” (first through sixth) describes the power of the lens. The New Light’s Third Order lens was removed from the tower in 2003, kept in storage for nearly a decade, and then renovated and placed on display in 2012. The USCG continues to own the Fresnel Lens. It is a wonder to behold!
At the beginning, an oil-fired lamp supplied the light at the top of the tower. The keeper had to carry oil up the stairs each day, and trim the lamp’s wick. (Lighthouse keepers were known as “Wickies.”) In 1871 a brick oil house was built to maintain the Station’s fuel supply. It was demolished in 1961. In 1898 an existing tramway was extended 120 feet to the boat landing on the Peninsula’s point. Used to move supplies from shore to storage, this little “railroad” was rebuilt in 1900 and remained in service until replaced with driveways in the late 1930s. A cistern house, which supplied water to the buildings, was built in 1898 and demolished 60 years later in 1958.
In 1890 a steam-operated fog signal, manufactured by Variety Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio, was installed on the Peninsula’s point, where the picnic pavilion now stands. This fog horn required wood for fuel, and additional personnel to supply firewood and tend the boiler. About 1903 an Assistant Keeper was hired, mainly because of the fog signal, at a cost of $5,000 per year. Use of the signal was eventually discontinued. In 1968 the building housing the horn was demolished and, most unfortunately, the horn was stolen.
In 1960 a five-bay garage with workshop and office was built to replace a small log barn dating to 1870. This eventually became Garrity Hall. Named for Presque Isle’s legendary Keeper, the Hall contains a meeting room, kitchen, bathrooms and storage. It is used primarily for Township events and a place to greet groups touring the Lighthouses at Presque Isle.
When electrical lights replaced oil-fired lamps, and the fog signal was decommissioned, the number of personnel manning the Presque Isle Light Station was greatly reduced. Keepers now lived in the 1905 House. In 1939 the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of the New Light and the Station became a USCG facility. Elmer C. Byrnes, who began his service as the Keeper in 1935 as an employee of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, continued on as a civilian lighthouse keeper for the Coast Guard. After his retirement in 1954, USCG personnel served as keepers and maintained the 1905 House as their barracks.
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. Soon thereafter the Presque Isle Township Museum Society was organized as a Michigan nonprofit corporation. Between 1999 and 2005, the Museum Society undertook an extensive renovation to transform the 1905 Keeper’s House into a public history museum that tells the story of the light keepers who served the Presque Isle Lighthouses.
The tower brickwork was restored in 1988-89 at a cost of $99,000. On July 6, 1991 a State Historical Marker for the Presque Isle Light Station was formally dedicated (No. L1563). On June 16, 1998, the Light Station’s 99-acre parcel and structures were conveyed to Presque Isle Township for use as a park.