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.