Walking Through Centuries: A Port Huron History Lesson

Walking Through Centuries: A Port Huron History Lesson

When I visited Port Huron for a MittenTrip this summer, it was clear that this is a place with a special relationship to its surrounding waterways. Bordered by the beautiful shores of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River, and split down the middle by the Black River, much of life in Port Huron involves being on or near water.

This provides Port Huron with an abundance of incredible scenery and leisure, but it has also made this an important geographic location. The joining of the waterways, along with the close proximity to Canada, has established Port Huron as a natural hub for activity over land and water for centuries.

This combination of beauty and importance has contributed to a long, rich history, and Port Huron has made great efforts to preserve the memories of this heritage. Historic plaques, buildings, and signs are seemingly everywhere, but the city also has several living museums that provide a look at the past you can actually visit and explore.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse

Port Huron, Fort Gratiot Light, Lake Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Gratiot Light shines across Lake Huron and St. Clair River one hour before sunset until one hour after sunrise. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The original Fort Gratiot for the US Army was built on the north shore of the St. Clair River, near where it meets Lake Huron, during the War of 1812. Although the fort itself was barely used and often abandoned for long stretches, the government recognized the importance of this stretch of water as shipping traffic increased. Congress approved funds for Fort Gratiot Light to become the first lighthouse in Michigan in 1823.

The original Fort Gratiot Light was completed in 1825, standing 32 feet tall at what is now the base of the Bluewater Bridge. However, the first lighthouse was poorly designed and built, sagging and crumbling into the river by 1828.

Port Huron, Fort Gratiot Light - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse stands out majestically along the shore of Lake Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Fort Gratiot Light then became the second lighthouse in Michigan (and since, the longest standing) when its replacement was finished in 1829. A significant improvement, and farther north to be more visible, the new lighthouse stood 65 feet tall until it was raised to its current height of 82 feet in 1862.

Several other facilities were built to support function of the light, including an equipment garage, keeper’s house, fog signal housing, and others – all of which are now being repurposed. For example, the keeper’s house is being refurbished into a museum, while the equipment garage holds an office, gift shop, and restrooms. Other buildings are used as staging and prep areas for events and weddings, which happen regularly on the 5-acre lighthouse campus.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse catwalk, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
The catwalk of Fort Gratiot Lighthouse provides a great view of Port Huron and Bluewater Bridge. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The light is fully automated and supervised by the US Coast Guard, who has a station next to the lighthouse that you can see from the catwalk. The lighthouse grounds, including an access point to the sandy Lake Huron beach, are open to the public year-round. Guided tours and a climb up the tower are available daily during the summer, as well as weekends in the spring and fall.

Edison Depot Museum

Thomas Edison Depot Museum, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Thomas Edison Depot Museum, once surrounded by railyards, now sits under Bluewater Bridge. Photo by Joel Heckaman

After Fort Gratiot Light debuted and the first new settlement took shape in the 1820s, Port Huron started to see considerable growth. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, which propelled a huge lumber boom in the 1830s. Then, after Michigan achieved statehood in 1835, mining booms for copper and iron from the Upper Peninsula in the 1840s led to an even greater need for shipping and hauling – much of which was passing through Port Huron.

This led a young Thomas Edison’s family to move to the area in the mid-1850s, around the time the Grand Trunk Railway extended a line from Detroit to Port Huron. The area that now includes downtown shops, beaches, and boardwalks was once full of docks and railyards, including the train station where Edison got his first job selling newspapers and snacks to commuters.

Already an entrepreneur in spirit, Edison quickly realized the value in supplying the news and created his own newspaper. He used a staging area in one of the baggage cars to set up his own printing press, and he would often personalize the features to cater directly to his captive audience.

Grand Trunk Railway Car, Thomas Edison Depot Museum, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
A refurbished Grand Trunk Railway car shows Edison’s work space and laboratory setup at Thomas Edison Depot Museum. Photo by Joel Heckaman.

Edison was also already deeply interested in science, and he eventually moved his chemistry set from the family basement to his on-board work area so that he could spend more time experimenting. This didn’t turn out well, as an unexpected reaction started a fire. The conductor rushed in to extinguish the flames, but not before famously throwing Edison and his chemistry set off the train.

The original train station where Edison worked, now under the Bluewater Bridge, was refurbished and opened as the Thomas Edison Depot Museum in 2001. It features a walking timeline of Edison’s young life in Port Huron, as well as exhibits featuring some of his most famous inventions.

Thomas Edison Depot Museum phonograph, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
A 1915 Edison Phonograph and a 5000W light bulb at Thomas Edison Depot Museum. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Outside, a restored Grand Trunk baggage car sits on a stretch of tracks, featuring a setup similar to what Edison used to print his newspaper and perform his experiments. Inside, original phonographs, telegraphs, and motion-picture projectors are on display, which the docents can demonstrate when they’re not too busy.

Thomas Edison Depot Museum is open daily during the summer, as well as weekends during the fall and spring.

Huron Lightship

Huron Lightship Museum, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Huron Lightship was retired in 1970 and converted to a museum on the St. Clair River. Photo by Joel Heckaman

While Edison was spreading news and ideas on land, shipping by water was continuing to grow – both in traffic and in the size of the ships. The waterway at Port Huron is notoriously difficult to navigate, especially the rapid St. Clair River, which now has a flow rate more than double Niagara Falls. The southeast end of Lake Huron is not much easier, as a shallow ridge of sand known as Corsica Shoals causes many problems of its own.

Additional guidance was needed for reliable safe passage, and the US Lighthouse Service (later merged with the US Coast Guard) commissioned buoys and a lightship for the area. Lightships are exactly what they sound like – aquatic lighthouses for areas where it is impractical to build a permanent structure.

Three different lightships served at Corsica Shoals, starting with the first (officially LV-61, since the ships sometimes changed locations and names) in 1893. LV-61 was one of several ships damaged in a large storm in 1913, but it held its station until replacement was necessary. In 1921, LV-96 transferred south from Poe Reef (near Mackinac) and became the first to bear the Huron name.

Huron Lightship, Great Lakes, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Huron Lightship has been maintained as a working vessel, but it also includes small exhibits such as this homage to Great Lakes ships. Photo by Joel Heckaman.

The final vessel we now know as the Huron Lightship, LV-103, was launched in 1920 for service around Mackinac and Northern Michigan before settling into its permanent role in 1936. Most lightships were red, but because Huron was stationed at the location of a black buoy (opposite a red buoy) in a shipping channel, the hull was painted black to avoid confusion.

The Huron Lightship remained at the Corsica Shoals until 1970, just a few months shy of 50 full years of service. By 1940, Huron was the only remaining lightship on the Great Lakes, and it was the only one to keep its station for the duration of World War II.

After retirement, Huron was presented to the City of Port Huron, and it is still functional to this day, though it is permanently moored in place along the St. Clair River. It has since been added to the State Register, listed as a National Historic Landmark, given a State Historical Marker, and converted to a museum that is open daily during the summer and weekends in the fall and spring.

Have you climbed Fort Gratiot Light or sailed the Huron Lightship? Let us know which one was your favorite in the comments!