Keeper’s House Museum (1905)

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

1905 Keeper’s House

at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse, Presque Isle, Michigan

Built 1905; in service 1905-1970

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

The 1905 House, Briefly
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. See our Visit page for days and hours the museum is open to the public.

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.

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 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 Houseʼs windows were repaired and the exterior of the building was painted.

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

Elmer Byrnes (1935-53)

Listen to Light Keeper Elmer Byrnes (1935-53) as he shares information on Presque Isle’s maritime history!

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.

In 1905…

  • The U.S Flag has 45 stars.
  • Theodore Roosevelt is President.
  • Jan. 25 — The 3,106 caret Cullinan Diamond is found in South Africa.
  • Jan. 31 — At Daytona Beach an automobile first exceeds 100 mph (161 kph).
  • May 15 — The City of Las Vegas is founded.
  • Sep. 27 — Albert Einstein publishes a paper with his E=mc2 equation.
  • Oct. 5 — The Wright Brothers’ third airplane stays in the air for 39 minutes.
  • Dec. 28 — The NCAA is founded.