Port Sanilac Lighthouse
Beautiful, Even After 130 Years
If heavy clouds hover over the horizon threatening a storm to come, no matter how dark it gets, the Port Sanilac Lighthouse will guide anyone out on the lake to shore. It’s been that way since 1886.
“When you’re there in the winter and the winds start kicking up, you get a real sense of what it was like when there was a keeper there carrying kerosene up the stairs to the light, doing his job” said Tim Conklin, who has owned the lighthouse and its attached caretaker’s house with his wife, Ian Aronsson, since the 1990’s when she inherited it. Until the lighthouse was electrified in 1929, the caretaker would lug the fuel up the stairs to the tower to keep the light burning… quite a feat.
Aronsson’s grandfather Carl Rosenfield, founder of Carl’s Chop House in Detroit, bought the property from the government in 1928 for $4,000 after it was decommissioned. Back when the government originally sold the lighthouse, it didn’t have the kind of historic connotation that it does now,” Conklin said. They just sold it as surplus government property. (the Detroit News)
A Family Affair
Vessel traffic on Lake Huron increased by leaps and bounds during the 1860’s after the opening of the Sault Lock. Lake ship crews appreciated the Fort Gratiot and Pointe aux Barques lights, but were wary of the 75-mile gap between the two stations. In 1875, the Sand Beach light narrowed that gap by about 15 miles, but the Lighthouse Board continued its annual request to Congress for a new lighthouse to lend guidance to the forty miles of shoreline where the other lights could not be seen. Port Sanilac was the perfect spot.
Eleventh District engineer Capt. Charles E.L.B. Davis spearheaded the Port Sanilac lighthouse project, designing every element of the station on a meager budget of $20,000 with an even crazier construction timeline of less than five months. June through mid-October, 1886, crews worked feverishly to construct the 59-foot tower and two story brick residence with full basement that included a special room for the dangerous lamp oil that provided light for the tower’s Fourth Order Fresnel lens. Both structures had a unique and unusual stair-step design that would be mirrored in the next decade on the separate oil storage building, which removed the ever-present danger of oil fire from the basement of the connected buildings.
Port Sanilac’s first lighthouse keeper was Richard W. Morris, who had been second assistant at the Thunder Bay Island light for four years. He brought his wife, Sarah, and children, Blanche and Bert, along to the new assignment in October of 1886. Morris resigned in May of 1893 and moved on to another lighthouse-related assignment.
Port Sanilac’s second keeper was William Henry Holmes, who had been the first assistant keeper to Capt. John Sinclair, Jr. on Thunder Bay Island, while Morris had been second assistant. Holmes, a former federal lifesaver, was married to Capt. Sinclair’s daughter, Grace. Grace’s mother and Keeper Morris’ wife, Sarah, were sisters. The fact is, Morris had generously resigned his position so that his niece and her husband, Grace and Will Holmes, could move to a lighthouse assignment where their children could attend school onshore. Thunder Bay Island is more than sixteen miles off the Alpena coast. During the school year it would have been impossible to shuttle children back and forth to attend class. The only other option would have been to separate Holmes from his family. Grace and their children would have lived in Alpena and Will would have been out on the island for days on end. Will’s older sister had just died and he and Grace had taken her infant daughter, Gracie, into their home, so the prospect of separation would have been daunting for the young family, which also included older children, Hattie and Lewis Holmes.
Capt. Holmes and Grace ran the Port Sanilac lighthouse like a tight ship from 1893 through his death in 1926. The Captain battled neuritis for eight years and there were many nights before the electrification of the light in 1924, when Mrs. Holmes lugged the oil up the tower steps herself; once at dusk and again at midnight. Her grandfather was a lighthouse keeper, as was her father, and her husband joined the family business after they were married. Grace had lived her entire life in lighthouses and knew as much about operating one as any man. It’s no surprise that the lighthouse service chose her as custodian of the Port Sanilac light the final two years before it was completely automated in 1928. Even then, Grace remained right next door for the better part of the rest of her life, keeping watch.