New Presque Isle Lighthouse (1870)

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

Winter at New Presque Isle Lighthouse, 2019

by Tom Sovereign People’s Choice award AND First Place Jurors’ Award 2020 PITMS Lighthouse Photo Contest

Built 1870; in service 1871-Present

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

The New Lighthouse, Briefly
By 1868 the Keeper’s House for the lighthouse at Presque Isle Harbor was in such dire need of repair that plans for renovation were drawn up. The estimated cost was $7,500. But these plans were shelved. Instead, the U.S. Lighthouse Service decided to build a new light at the tip of  Presque Isle Peninsula. In July 1870 Congress appropriated an additional $28,000 which, with the $7,500 already earmarked, was sufficient to cover the cost of this $35,500 project.

Construction of the tower and keeper’s house was completed in time for the New Light to go into service for the 1871 shipping season. Almost 150 years later, the New Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation.

This 113-foot-tall lighthouse has a diameter of 19 feet 3 inches at ground level and 12 feet 4 inches at the parapet. Designed by Army Engineer Orlando M. Poe and William Raynolds, the lighthouse is one of nine “Poe Lights” on the Great Lakes (ours is the only one on Lake Huron). The design is easily recognizable in the four windows evenly spaced below the lantern room and in the handsome and functional wrought-iron brackets supporting the gallery.

A Third Order Fresnel lens surmounted the tower for over 130 years and could be seen more than 25 miles out in Lake Huron. The restored lens is now on exhibit in the original (1870) Keeper’s House.

Installation of a steam-operated fog horn in 1890 increased the number of people working at the Light Station. To house additional personnel, a second, detached Keeper’s House was built in 1905 close by the tower. It now serves as a museum operated by the Presque Isle Township Museum Society.

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

Late Afternoon Sunburst, 2020

by Timothy Payne Jurors’ Honorable Mention 2020 PITMS Lighthouse Photo Contest

When You Visit
The Presque Isle Light Station is situated at the north end of Presque Isle Peninsula, one mile beyond the Harbor and its Old Lighthouse. This 99-acre facility is owned by Presque Isle Township and operated as a park and museum.

Presque Isle’s New Light is open to the public from spring until fall. Weather permitting, adults and children 42 inches or taller in height may climb the tower. Children under age 12 must be accompanied by an adult, and must meet the 42-inch height requirement. Revenue from tower climbs and Gift Shop sales is used to maintain the Lighthouses at Presque Isle.  Please note that ours is the tallest lighthouse on the Great Lakes that can be climbed by the public.

View from the towerThe view from the tower is spectacular. On a clear day you can see northeast across Lake Huron to Great Duck Island, which sits off Manitoulin Island which, in turn, forms the north side of  Canada’s Georgian Bay. To the south you can see the limestone quarry beyond Lake Esau and the Rockport docks where massive lake freighters put in to be loaded. To the west you can see deep into Presque Isle County.

The original (1870) Keeper’s House now serves as a visitor center, museum, and Gift Shop.  Access to the tower is through the Gift Shop. A special attraction here is the Third Order Fresnel (pronounced fra-NELL) lens. This lens was removed from the tower in 2003, held in storage for nearly a decade, and then restored and put on display in 2012. It is truly an engineering marvel!

The new Keeper’s House, built in 1905, sits nearby and is operated as a museum. Skillfully restored in the late 1990s by volunteers of the Presque Isle Township Museum Society, the 1905 House preserves the original interior finish — including floors of Birdseye maple  — and is decorated with artifacts dating to about 1915. By touring the 1905 House, you can better see how the light keepers lived.  Greeters are available to explain the home’s history, renovation, and furnishings.

Garrity Hall, named for first keeper Patrick Garrity and his family, is used for township events. At the north end of the peninsula, where the fog horn was once located, a large picnic shelter affords an excellent view of Lake Huron. Another side road from the lighthouse leads to North Bay, the body of water just across the Portage. This is an especially good place to watch the sunset.

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

A History of the 1870 Lighthouse
Lighthouse EntranceIn the years after the Civil War, commercial traffic on Lake Huron and the other upper Great Lakes increased exponentially. The safety of both crew and cargo on vessels plying the lakes made improved aids to navigation a priority. This trend, plus deterioration of the lighthouse facility at the Harbor, led to a decision to build a new coastal lighthouse at the north end of Presque Isle Peninsula.

In July 1870, Brig. Gen. Orlando Metcalfe Poe outlined plans for Presque Isle’s new lighthouse. Few men have had greater impact on the Great Lakes. A West Point graduate, Poe became topographical engineer for the survey of the Upper Great Lakes. Early in the Civil War, after helping Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan organize the defense of Washington, D.C., Poe was given command of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. In 1863 he was instrumental in defending Knoxville, Tennessee, against a Confederate siege. The following year Gen. William T. Sherman selected Poe as his chief engineer. He served in this position during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In 1865 he was appointed chief engineer of the U.S. Lighthouse Board, and in 1870 he was made Chief Engineer of the 11th Lighthouse District (Upper Great Lakes). In this role he was involved in the design of nine “Poe-style” lighthouses, among which is the New Lighthouse at Presque Isle. In 1883 he served as Superintending Engineer for the improvement of harbors and waterways on Lakes Huron and Superior. In this capacity he assisted in the development of the St. Marys Falls Canal and, in what would be his greatest achievement, he designed and built the first Poe Lock as part of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie. This engineering feat allowed access to the Upper Great Lakes by steel-hulled freighters and, in turn, made possible America’s modern steel industry.

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.

New Presque Isle Lighthouse Iron Watch Room 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.

New Presque Isle Light StairsThose 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 our 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. It is a wonder to behold!

New Presque Isle Light Tramway 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. The USCG continues to own the Fresnel Lens.

In 1870…

  • The U.S. Flag has 37 stars.
  • Ulysses S. Grant is President.
  • Jan. 3 — Construction begins on the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • Jan. 25 — Gustavus Dows patents the first soda fountain.
  • Feb. 5 — The first motion picture is shown in a Philadelphia theater.
  • Mar. 30 — The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing African-Americans voting rights, becomes law.
  • April 2 — Victoria Woodhull is the first woman nominated for President.
  • Jun. 26 — Christmas is declared a federal holiday.
  • Sep. 18 — Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser is named by Henry D. Washburn.
  • Oct. 21 — Postcards are first used in the U.S.
  • Nov. 27 — A New York Times story christens baseball “The National Game.”