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.
During the nearly 21 years they served at Point Iroquois, Jule and Elmer had four children: Betty, Robert, Nan, and Elmer Junior. Sadly, as a teenager Junior was killed in a hunting accident.
The family transferred to Presque Isle Light Station on February 3, 1935. Less than a year later, on January 24, 1936, Jule died following a series of strokes, just one month shy of her 49th birthday. She is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena. Elmer subsequently married Flora LaChance, teacher at the schoolhouse formerly located at the intersection of East Grand Lake Road and County Highway 638.
Late in life Betty Byrnes Bacon published her fond memories of growing up at Presque Isle Light Station. For example, she noted that the Lantern Room of the New Light, towering more than 100 feet over Lake Huron, was a wonderful place for a teenage couple to “bill and coo” in privacy under a brilliant moon.
There was sadness, too. During World War II Robert Byrnes served as a paratrooper in Europe. He was killed in action shortly before the end of the war — the second of Elmerʼs sons to die — and is buried in France. Daughter Betty married Henry Bacon and lived at Fallbrook, California. She died in 1993. Daughter Nan married John Mason and lived at Washington, D.C., until her death in 2004.
Elmer Byrnes retired as Keeper of the New Lighthouse in 1954. He died of an intestinal hemorrhage on September 4, 1956, at age 69. Following services at St. Anne Catholic Churchin Alpena, Keeper Byrnes was interred in Bay View Cemetery at Brimley, Michigan, where he began his career as a lighthouse keeper.
Keeper Byrnes — or more properly, a wonderfully lifelike effigy — greets visitors to the 1905 House, and sometimes scares the daylights out of impressionable children! His brief recorded commentary provides an orientation to the museum and to lighthouse life illustrated by the scores of articles on display. The Presque Isle Township Museum Society hopes that all lighthouse keepers are honored by this lovingly assembled and faithfully tended exhibition.
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