Morning Light, by Clint Douthitt

First Place Jurors’ Award 2020 PITMS Lighthouse Photo Contest

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse (1840)

Built 1840; in service 1840-1870

Location: 5295 East Grand Lake Road, Presque Isle, MI 49777

The Old Lighthouse at Presque Isle, Michigan, was built to mark the entrance to Presque Isle Bay and its Harbor. During the quarter-century after the War of 1812, increasing ship traffic to and past Presque Isle led Congress in 1838 to appropriate funds for a lighthouse. It was built two years later and today is one of the oldest surviving lights on the Great Lakes.

The Old Light’s tower — 30 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter at the base — consists of a conical section (the bottom two-thirds) made of stone, with a round brick section above. The deck is made of soapstone with leaded mortar. The original lantern room and light apparatus no longer exist. A new lantern room was built in the 1960s to house a Fresnel lens acquired from another lighthouse. By the late 1930s the two-story Keeper’s House, also built in 1840, was structurally unsound and had to be replaced. A new building, consisting of one story with a loft, was erected on the original foundation.

The Old Light is located just north of the State Harbor, which is considered one of the best harbors of refuge on Lake Huron. This facility is owned by Presque Isle Township and operated as a park and museum. Visitors may climb the tower for a modest fee. Please note that tower climb income helps maintain the facility and is greatly appreciated. For days and hours when the Old Light is open to visitors, click here.

Oh, yes — there are persistent rumors that the Old Lighthouse is haunted. We place no great stock in these tales. However, many people say that curious things happen at the Old Light…

When You Visit

When you visit, you will find Presque Isle’s Old Lighthouse (1840) sitting on the north arm of Presque Isle Bay, opposite Crystal Point, the Bay’s south arm. The Bay — with its harbor of refuge and marina, operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — is located at the south end of Presque Isle Peninsula, at the place called The Portage. Native American, and in time European, travelers used this little neck of land to avoid paddling around the peninsula.

Patrick Garrity Sr., Presque Isle’s longest-serving lighthouse keeper, greets you as you enter. In August 2012 Presque Isle Township dedicated a statue of Patrick, Keeper of the Old Light from 1861-70, and then of the New Light from 1870-1903. His wife and four of their children also served as lighthouse keepers. According to Coast Guard records, the Garrity family’s years of service, taken together, make them the second longest serving keeper family in U.S. history. Patrick’s statue — created in high carbon steel at Moran Iron Works in Onaway, Michigan, by sculptor Dawn Barr of Cheboygan — honors not only Patrick’s service, but also the dedication of all Great Lakes lighthouse keepers.

The lighthouse sits near the water with its detached Keeper’s House directly behind. You may climb the tower, weather permitting. A circular staircase of well worn stone takes you up to the lantern room where a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens is in place. This perch affords a lovely view of Presque Isle Bay, the Harbor, North Bay, and Huron’s rocky shoreline.

Close by the lighthouse tower is the bell which once hung in the clock tower of Old City Hall at Lansing, Michigan’s capital. When the hall was demolished, Francis Stebbins acquired this piece of Michigan history and brought it to the Sunrise Shore. The bell weighs 3,425 pounds, making it considerably larger than Philadelphia’s 2,080-pound Liberty Bell. You may ring the bell, which can be heard at quite a distance. Nearby, a set of stocks— the kind used for punishment, not investment! — offers an unusual here’s-what-I-did-last-summer “photo op.”

The Keeper’s House serves as a visitor center, museum, and gift shop. The docent on duty will be happy to discuss the park’s history, and to point out the many artifacts on display. The exhibit is changed periodically for the benefit of repeat visitors. Prominent among these artifacts are photographs of the Old Lighthouse and its Keeper’s House from the 1930s when the property was more or less a wreck.

The Old Lighthouse Park is a splendid spot for a picnic lunch or an hour with a good book. On sunny days you can sit next to the tower and watch freighters making their way up- or down-lake. These boats will be headed for the limestone quarry just south of the Harbor, or the quarry at Rogers City (the world’s largest), or cities from Chicago to Duluth.

A History of the 1840 Lighthouse

On July 5, 1838, the year after Michigan gained statehood, Congress appropriated $5,000 for construction of a lighthouse at Presque Isle. An advertisement inviting proposals for this project ran in the Detroit newspapers on July 10, 1839. Sixteen days later Abraham Wendell, U.S. Superintendent of Lighthouses for this district, and Jeremiah Moors, a Detroit architect and builder, signed an agreement to “build and complete in all respects agreeable to the specifications [for a lighthouse] contained in said advertisement for proposals for the sum of $5,000.00.”

In the late summer of 1839 A.E. Hathon surveyed the Lighthouse Reservation at Presque Isle. Later surveys would show that the point opposite the lighthouse property, now called Crystal Point, was the center of harbor activity during this period. On September 4, 1840, John Scott certified that construction of the lighthouse had been completed according to contract. On September 23 Henry Woolsey was appointed first Keeper, with his annual salary set at $350.

Woolsey served until his death sometime in 1847. He was succeeded by George Murray (1847-48), Stephen V. Thornton (1848-53), and Louis J. Metivier (1853-61). On July 15, 1861, upon being commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Garrity Sr. took up his duties, becoming the Old Light’s fifth and last Keeper.

By 1868, less than 30 years after construction, the original Keeper’s House was rapidly deteriorating. Plans to renovate the dwelling and attach it to the tower were drawn up. It is possible that the $7,500 price tag for this project helped trigger reassessment of the Light’s suitability as an aid to navigation. In July 1870 Congress appropriated an additional $28,000 for construction of a new, taller lighthouse at the north end of Presque Isle Peninsula.

In February 1871 notice was given to mariners that the new Presque Isle Lighthouse would go into service for that year’s shipping season. Patrick Garrity Sr. and his family moved up the road to the New Light, where he would serve for an additional 30 years. Mary, Patrick’s wife, served as Assistant Keeper, and in time four of their children also took up the profession.

With the 1840 Light extinguished, a Range Light was constructed in 1870 to safely guide mariners into Presque Isle Harbor. In 1903 Anna Garrity, daughter of Mary and Patrick, would become Keeper of the Range Light at Presque Isle Harbor, making her one of a small, select group of female keepers on the Great Lakes. A statue of Anna has been erected at the Range Light to honor her service.

After being decommissioned, the Old Lighthouse seems to have languished in disuse for over a quarter century. In 1897 it was sold to E.O. Avery, the highest bidder. Later it was owned briefly by General Duffield, and then sold to Bliss Stebbins. In 1930 Bliss Stebbins sold the property to Francis B. Stebbins. In the late 1930s Francis demolished the original Keeper’s House and built a new dwelling on the original foundation. At his death in 1969 the property was inherited by his son James Stebbins.

Over the years the original lantern room was dismantled or destroyed. In photos from that time the tower looks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow fame! As the U.S. Coast Guard automated its lighthouses, many unwanted lenses were either destroyed or sold. In 1961 Francis Stebbins purchased a surplus Fourth Order Fresnel lens, most likely from the South Fox Island Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. To house this artifact he commissioned Fred May, a Grand Lake resident, to construct a new lantern room. This structure was hoisted into place atop the 1840 tower and the horseman was no longer headless!

On November 14, 1964, the Old Light was listed on the Michigan Register of Historic Places, and a state historical marker was dedicated on June 19, 1965 (Site No. P24577). On April 11, 1973, the 1840 Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Ref. No. 73000957). In 1995, with funding provided by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and several private donors, the property was purchased by Presque Isle Township for use as a park and museum.

In 1840…

  • The U.S. Flag has 26 Stars.

  • Martin Van Buren is President.

  • January 4 — Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s “Boy Governor” elected in 1835 at age 23, leaves office.

  • January 19 — U.S. Naval officer and explorer Charles Wilkes discovers Antarctica.

  • February 10 — Queen Victoria of England marries Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg-Gothe.

  • June 20 — Samuel Morse patents his telegraph.

  • Summer of 1840 — Douglass Houghton, Michigan geologist, finds copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula and sets off the first great mining boom in U.S. history.

Douglass Houghton (Portrait courtesy of the University of Michigan)


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Presque Isle Township Museum Society
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