The Rich History, Beautiful Presence, and Promising Future of Port Huron #MittenTrip

The Rich History, Beautiful Presence, and Promising Future of Port Huron #MittenTrip

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Port Huron, it’s the Bluewater Bridge. What they don’t tell you is that it’s actually two bridges, one with traffic heading in each direction, with the original span built in 1938 and another that opened in 1997.

During my MittenTrip, I learned that Port Huron itself is divided as well. The more obvious separation is the geography, which is split almost evenly into north and south halves by the Black River.

After the Army constructed Fort Gratiot at the north end of the St. Clair River during the War of 1812, many of the soldiers fell in love with the area and built the southern half of Port Huron into what is now Old Towne. Many original buildings are still standing, and the main road retains its historic name — south of the Black River, it is Military Street.

North of the Black River, through Downtown, that same road is named Huron Avenue for an equally historic reason. Port Huron’s unique access to international land and water has remained geographically important for centuries, with much of the town’s identity and history tied to its ports and the lake that gives it its name.

View of the Black River waterfront in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman
View of the Black River waterfront in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Port Huron’s location along several large waterways does more than make its history fascinating — it also provides Port Huron with an incredible natural beauty. Anyone familiar with the Great Lakes knows how special their shores are, and Port Huron is also bordered by the unbelievably blue St. Clair River. Add in an abundance of well-kept parks and a generous cover of trees, and nearly every corner is picturesque.

Many Port Huron residents enjoy its charm, cherishing the slow pace and quiet afternoons of a tourist-friendly beach town with a rich history. Others see Port Huron as a city ripe with opportunity, looking to add their ideas to its long history of innovation and cultural importance. The gap between them is the less visible divide, and fortunately they have found ways to work together.

The city finds a balance between maintaining the small-town feel while also offering exciting new events and businesses, and this allowed my MittenTrip to include the best of both worlds.

Friday

The first day of my MittenTrip started the same as many do – waiting for Rush Hour traffic on I-696 to disperse. Once it cleared, I drove northeast to where I-94 and I-69 converge and end at Port Huron. Dale Merrill, of the Blue Water Convention and Visitors Bureau, had agreed to meet me for dinner, and we decided on Lynch’s Irish Tavern. He and his wife were eagerly awaiting my arrival, and we had plenty to talk about with our shared interests in music, marketing, higher ed, and plenty more.

The night was off to a great start, and it only got better as everything on the menu looked delicious, the fried salmon bites I ordered blew me away, and then an Irish folk band took the stage to entertain us for the evening. Just as I had ordered a Short’s beer off the list of local selections, Dale introduced me to a local named Ralph, who had been commemorated with his own Short’s beer – Ralph Whistler – thanks to a video of him from 1984 that went viral on YouTube a few years ago.

ThumbCoast Brewing, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
ThumbCoast Brewing brews and serves great beer in the heart of Downtown Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

After I wished Dale and his wife goodnight and gathered my notes for the weekend, I decided to make stop at ThumbCoast Brewery. I chatted a bit with the bartender while I ordered a flight of their craft brews, and she introduced me to the owner, who had been the one to greet me on my way in. She told me all about the joys and struggles of running a brewery, the stories behind the names of their beers, and their plans to expand their operations and distribution. She was excited about the future but wary of the hurdles in a vacation town, and we both smiled as a large group came in for a couple drinks before last call.

As I started to walk back to my car, I noticed a friend sitting on the patio at Lynch’s. She was in a production of Hamlet that I was planning on seeing the following night, and two of her castmates were with her at the bar. The theatre troupe was brand new, and the performance space was inside a theatre building that was being refurbished, so there had been conflicting reports on whether the show would happen or not. As I stopped to chat, I was relieved to hear that they had just gotten everything confirmed earlier that day. They were excited to finally host an opening night, and we laughed together as they shared stories of facing the typical “hell week” (the rehearsals directly leading up to the show) while refurbishing, or in some cases actually building, the theatre.

Bluewater Bridge, DoubleTree Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
View of the St. Clair River and Bluewater Bridge from the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Before long it was time for us all to go get some rest, and I made my back north to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. Many know this as the Thomas Edison Inn, one of the nicest hotels in the region, and it was apparent from the moment I parked that it was still true regardless of the name. The concierge was cheerful and friendly despite the late hour, and she handed me a warm cookie as she gave me directions to my room.

After a few twists and turns to the elevator and down the hallway, I wondered what the view would be like from my window. It turned out that I didn’t have a window, instead, I had a sliding door to a patio with a direct view of the Bluewater Bridge, looking gorgeous with its bright blue lights against the dark sky. I sat on the patio and ate my cookie with a large grin as I listened to the rushing water of the St. Clair River below and the trucks gliding across the bridge ahead.

Saturday

After a wonderful night’s sleep, I headed downtown to Huron Ave. again for breakfast at Kate’s Downtown Cafe. The smell of fresh tea and herbs hit me from the moment I opened the door, and the quaint shop had large chalkboard walls showing their varied menu full of fresh and organic options. Kate’s is only open for breakfast and lunch, but they do it well, and I was glad this place was suggested by our readers.

I had a few minutes to window shop before my next stop, so I wandered down Huron Ave. for a bit and found the typical jewelers, florists, and hardware stores you’d expect in a quaint downtown. But there were also several gift and antique stores with nautical memorabilia, as well as unique places like Polka Dot Pandas, which handmakes clothes, and A Little Something, a nonprofit gift shop that helps people transition into jobs.

Downtown Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Downtown Port Huron businesses show their love for their city with these stickers. Photo by Joel Heckaman

I didn’t have too much time to wander though, and I jumped in the car and crossed the Military Street Bridge into Old Towne. I wound my way to one of the Port Huron Yacht Club’s satellite locations, one of dozens of marinas along the Black River, where our family’s boat was ready for its first voyage in years. As I waited for the party to arrive, I said hi to a couple preparing their sailboat for the day and took some pictures as other boats and kayaks passed.

My family didn’t make it before I had to keep moving along, so I wound my way back along the river until I was to Military Street. I parked near a piece of public art near the looming tower of the federal building and slipped into The Exquisite Corpse Coffee House for an iced coffee. A couple of local police members were chatting with the baristas about the health of their compost pile, and I explored the local art covering the walls as they laughed and joked with everyone who came in the door.

Exquisite Corpse Coffee House, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
The Exquisite Corpse Coffee House in Port Huron features local art. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Behind the old downtown of Military Street is a row of old brick buildings, but those quickly give way to the enormous warehouse-looking facilities of Desmond Marine. Boats on trailers, service docks, and giant forklift trucks were everywhere as I passed on my way to Vantage Point.

A huge gateway welcomes visitors, and the Great Lakes Maritime Center was instantly recognizable by the huge signs and dozens of international flags waving on top. I parked and walked past French fry and ice cream stands as the sound of a guided tour provided some historic tidbits over the loudspeaker. I didn’t see a tour group as I walked inside, but I did find a café and deli, a visitors desk with some very helpful ladies, several historic artifacts, and live camera feeds showing the St. Clair River from above and below the water surface.

Great Lakes Maritime Center, Farmer's Market, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
The Great Lakes Maritime Center hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday. Photo by Joel Heckaman

I passed a long row of occupied tables and huge windows facing the St. Clair River as I explored the center and made my way outside to the weekly Farmer’s Market. Tents with art, jewelry, and décor sat beside the typical offerings of fresh produce, and I got myself some tart apples and spicy beef jerky from different vendors.

The Maritime Center is surrounded by a paved walkway with benches, gardens, and beautiful views, and I stopped to take a few pictures before making my way south toward the parking lot to the Blue Water River Walk. The long path features several access points to the water, many of which had kids playing or people fishing, and the Duc d’Orleans (the tour boat from the Canadian side) passed as I came upon the Naval Sea Cadet Ship Grayfox, a Navy training ship that is the largest of its kind in the country.

US Coast Guard Cutter Bramble, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
The USCGC Bramble was built in World War II, and it is still considered ready for duty. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The walking path wound through a patch of protected wetlands before I arrived at my destination, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bramble. The 180-foot ship from 1944, built to help with navigation during World War II, is a remarkable sight, and I was excited to climb aboard and explore the old vessel. The main deck features an enormous crane and a large buoy, and the high sun on this clear day was perfect for getting shots of the river and surrounding area as I explored the captain’s deck and crew quarters.

I crossed the River Walk to Military Street just in time to catch the city’s historic trolley, and we were told the stories behind the buildings we passed as we made our way back north to downtown. A group filed on as we stopped at the Maritime Center, and I stayed on for a couple more minutes to get to Casey’s Pizza and Subs on Huron Ave. downtown for lunch.

As I found myself halfway between the Maritime Center, directly south, and my next stop, Pine Grove Park and the Huron Lightship, directly north, I decided to walk back to the Maritime Center for my car. As fun and educational as the trolley is, I didn’t have time for the full hour-long tour loop if I wanted to fit in everything I had planned!

Pine Grove Park, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Pine Grove Park is one of many great places to relax in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Pine Grove Park was full of people on this sunny afternoon, most of them sitting in camping chairs or on blankets in the shade. Many others were skateboarding, biking, and running along the boardwalk that stretches almost the entire mile and change from the mouth of the Black River to the southern tip of Lake Huron. A family in dresses and tuxedos was getting wedding pictures along the St. Clair River with the Bluewater Bridge in the background as a freighter passed.

A docent was telling a small group about the history of the Huron Lightship as I entered, and we eagerly made our way around the tight quarters of the nearly 100-year-old vessel. Historical artifacts were seemingly on every flat surface, including a series of lighthouse lenses in the rear of the ship, along with a display of ship models at the front. These models included the Huron Lightship itself, as well as a model of Light 7, the permanent buoy in southern Lake Huron that took over the lightship’s duties when she retired.

I was running out of time for my daytime activities, so I hustled my way farther north, beyond the bridge and to the edge of the lake. Fort Gratiot Lighthouse seemed particularly busy, and unfortunately I was too late, as they were closing early that day for a wedding. I was able to explore the grounds and take a few pictures of the beautiful landscape, but I gave up when a stream of people in formal wear had to make their way past, from chairs and an arbor on the beach to a large tent behind the lighthouse.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Gratiot Light was the first lighthouse built in Michigan. Photo by Joel Heckaman

As I made the short trip back to the hotel to change for the evening, I received a message from Margaret, another Awesome Mitten writer, who was in town with her husband for the day. We made plans to meet for dessert, and I drove back into downtown for dinner.

A small sign sticking out of the back of large brick building pointed me to my dinner destination, Vintage Tavern. The sandwich board on the sidewalk reads, “Upscale but casual,” and I entered and sat on the quiet main floor but heard occasional cheers and shouts from the patio upstairs. The menu was full of incredible options, and I gathered from the server and the couple seated near me that Vintage Tavern is known for both its soup selections and ribeye steaks.

I wandered upstairs to peek at the patio before I left, passing a hidden middle floor that was being used to host a wedding party. The noise grew as I reached the top-level patio, and the gorgeous view and gentle breeze made it no surprise that all of the seating and bar areas were full of happy people.

Atrium Cafe and Ice Cream, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Atrium Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor features historical artifacts in unusual and practical ways. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Driving back to the south end of Old Towne, I met Margaret and her husband outside of the Atrium Café and Ice Cream Parlor. They showed me around as we entered, the décor featuring wall-to-wall artifacts and random pieces of things with unknown importance. As we sat in old fold-down theater seats at a table, we looked around at the lights that had obviously come from a church, archways that had maybe come from mansions, and a small screen that showed silent films (I would later learn they featured Colleen Moore, a local native). Margaret introduced me to the owner, who was excited to hear that Port Huron, a place he clearly and visibly loves, was getting extra attention. He came back later to make sure we enjoyed our desserts, which to say we did was a huge understatement.

As Margaret and her husband made their way home, I returned to downtown. The marquee at McMorran Place, the large hockey rink and event center in town, flashed promotions for productions of Cinderella and Rocky Horror Picture Show as I passed, and I noticed that I was on the corner of Huron Ave. and Bard Street as I parked and walked into The Citadel Stage for the evening’s performance of Hamlet.

Citadel Stage, Port Huron - Enter Stage Right - The Awesome Mitten
The Citadel Stage opened in August 2016 with a production of Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Enter Stage Right

My next stop was directly across the street at the highly recommended Brass Rail Bar, but it was relatively empty aside from a few regulars. Around Thanksgiving each year, this place transforms completely, as it is filled with an obscene amount of Christmas lights and plenty of festive cheer. This is aided by their unique tradition, a cocktail named the Tom and Jerry that resembles but is much better than Egg Nog.

I got a message from my friend that the Hamlet cast was meeting at a restaurant on the far north end of town, so I packed up and headed out to join them. North past the hotel, bridge, and lighthouse, just beyond the canal where you can rent kayaks for the day, I met the Hamlet cast at the Applebee’s near the Birchwood Mall. They were just getting ready to order drinks, all bubbling with the excitement and adrenaline of having completed a successful opening night.

Hamlet, Citadel Stage, Port Huron - Enter Stage Right - The Awesome Mitten
The leading women of a gender-swapped production of Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Enter Stage Right

I chatted with one of the actresses I had met the night before, as well as the actress who had been commanding in the title role, and another actress who not only performed but was also the daughter of the troupe’s founder. She provided a unique perspective on how it was both thrilling and relieving to see the project come to fruition after a decade of effort, and eventually everyone was talking about their plans for the troupe, theatre, and their own careers.

I returned to the hotel exhausted after a long and exciting day, sharing the elevator with a couple who had just returned from a wedding. Just as I had the night before, I sat on the patio and took in the sights before bed, enjoying this nighttime view of the Bluewater Bridge as I scribbled in my notebook.

Sunday

Either my alarm didn’t go off or, more likely, I hit the snooze button too many times, and I woke up a little later than I wanted to on Sunday morning. Fortunately, I didn’t have far to go, as I packed my bag, checked out of the hotel, and continued to the other end of the building to Freighters for brunch.

Freighters, Bluewater Bridge, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
View from the patio of Freighters Eatery and Taproom in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Because I was late, the buffet was a little under-stocked, but what they did offer was delicious. And, as advertised by their name, a freighter passed in view of the huge windows facing the St. Clair River, so close it would seem that they were right in the parking lot.

After enjoying the view and my coffee, I continued around to the other side of the building to the Thomas Edison Depot Museum. The first thing you notice about the small building is the old rail car out front. Once I stepped inside the museum, it became immediately evident why that rail car was important.

Thomas Edison Depot Museum, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Thomas Edison Depot Museum sits directly under the Bluewater Bridge in Port Huron. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The docent (coincidentally the same as at the Huron Lightship the day before) cheerfully greeted me and gave a quick overview of Thomas Edison’s life in Port Huron. His first job was at this train stop, selling papers and snacks to rail passengers, which he quickly grew into a printing operation for his own newspaper. He used that success to fund his chemistry and inventing, which you can see set up in the refurbished Grand Trunk Railroad car outside.

The museum tour ends with a working model of Edison’s original motion picture machine, as well as early-model phonographs and one of a few remaining 5000W bulbs, the strongest currently in existence. I chatted with a local historian who had either provided or maintained many of these items, and he was eager to share many details about Edison’s connection to Port Huron. This included a poster for the movie “Young Thomas Edison,” starring Mickey Rooney, which had its world premier hosted at the Huron Theatre in 1940.

Thomas Edison, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Port Huron was the boyhood home of Thomas Edison. Photo by Joel Heckaman

After that interesting chat, I drove downtown again and crossed the Military Street Bridge. As I was looking for the Raven Café, I found myself parked under the Huron Theatre marquee I had just learned about, though it was now a gym.

As I stepped into Raven Café, I was overwhelmed by the Gothic homage packed into every square inch, as tons of gargoyles, paintings, and other artworks adorned the steep walls. The menu is filled with creatively named items that not only sounded delicious but also made me chuckle with Edgar Allen Poe and general death-and-doom-related puns. I only had time for coffee and a snack, but I would love to come back at “bar” time for a cocktail and to see their showings of old movies.

Raven Cafe, Edgar Allen Poe, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Raven Cafe in Port Huron is an ode to Edgar Allen Poe and Gothic art and architecture. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The scheduled time for my boat tour was approaching, and I returned to the Maritime Center to park and walk to the Huron Lady II. We quickly boarded the ship docked at the mouth of the Black River, then made our way south along the St. Clair River near the Canadian side. We passed tanks, towers, and other signs that this area was an oil refinery, as a freighter refueling its tanks (up to 180,000 gallons, as we’re told) is docked at the giant Esso station.

We passed piles of raw materials and factories before turning around to head back north, and the captain took us along the American side to view huge houses, apartments and B&Bs. Boats waved as they passed us, and we slowed down for a moment as we passed the USCGC Bramble and NCSC Grayfox. Near the Black River, we did a small loop in Sarnia Harbor, where three giant freighters towered above us as they are docked for loading or unloading.

Lady Huron II, Great Lakes, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Tours on the Huron Lady II provide an up-close look at shipping on the Great Lakes. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Farther north, we passed the Huron Lightship, with people sitting and watching from Pine Grove Park, and then we continued under the Bluewater Bridge and into Lake Huron. The captain slowed us down again, allowing everyone to take pictures of Fort Gratiot Light and the Coast Guard station, along with the many sailboats and other crafts that were also enjoying the warm sunshine on this late summer afternoon.

After we made a big loop and returned to the dock, I hustled off the boat, determined to get to lighthouse well before closing time after yesterday’s disappointment. Of course, as soon as I got to Military Street, I was immediately stuck in a line of cars as the bridge was up to let a sailboat past. However, this was not an issue, as I made my way all the way north and parked beside the Fort Gratiot Light historical marker.

I joined a small group of people waiting to make the 85-foot climb, and we all reveled in the view of the gorgeous blue sky and water, dozens of boats, and hundreds of people strung along the water’s edge for as far as we could see. The gentle breeze and warm sunshine made us want to stay atop the lighthouse all afternoon, but we could see the next group leaving the gift shop and making their way over.

Fort Gratiot Light, Beach, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
A perfect view of the sandy Lake Huron beaches from atop Fort Gratiot Light. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The climb had made me hungry anyway, and I was eager to get back downtown to try a new restaurant, Fuel Woodfire Grill. I had been told it was owned by the same people as nearby Tio Gordos, which had been amazing during my last visit to the area, and Fuel did not disappoint.

I sat near the window, as usual, and found myself surrounded by a post-wedding party, which was seemingly more than just a coincidence around here. Everything on the menu looked amazing, so I went for a BBQ combo plate, which also included their jalapeno mac and cheese and cornbread. I tried their full assortment of barbecue sauce varieties, settling on a combo of their Bourbon Apricot, which was thick and savory, and their Black Cherry Faygo, which was thinner and sweet. These paired perfectly with the fruity tones of the Short’s Soft Parade I was also enjoying, and I was in BBQ heaven.

The service was quick, and I finished with plenty of time to spare, so I decided to make the trip over to Sarnia for a walk and some pictures of the sunset. Traffic on the Bluewater Bridge was dense but fast, and I took the first exit from the highway to make the winding drive back to the waterfront.

Dow Great Lakes Model, Sarnia, Point Edward, Port Huron - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Dow Great Lakes Model was a gift to Sarnia from Dow Chemical in 1999. Photo by Joel Heckaman

As I passed hotels and bars, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the three huge freighters we had seen from the Huron Lady a few hours ago. I parked on the outer dock, which we had learned was made from the hull of a partially sunken freighter after an unsuccessful U-turn, and made my way into Points Land Park. The main feature of the park is the Dow Great Lakes Model, a large fountain in the shape of the Great Lakes that fills from the north end at Lake Superior and drains down into the lower east end of Lake Erie, a gift from Dow Chemical.

After sending some fun videos and pictures to my friends back stateside, I drove back along the winding path to Waterfront Park, directly under the Bluewater Bridge. The view of Port Huron, its landmarks, and Lake Huron were gorgeous as I followed the boardwalk along the shore, and the park was quite busy with people walking, having picnics, or simply watching boat traffic along the river.

Sunset, Port Huron, Bluewater Bridge - Joel Heckaman - The Awesome Mitten
Sunset and moonrise over Port Huron and the Bluewater Bridge. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Once I hit the north edge of the park, directly across from Fort Gratiot Light, I turned around and walked all the way south, passing several monuments, statues, and plaques commemorating the historical importance of this location. The sun started to hang low when I reached the south end of the park, where the Huron Lightship was visible on the other side, so I returned to the north end to get pictures of the sunset. The bright blue sky turned orange behind the Bluewater Bridge as the moon rose above it, and I stopped for a moment to enjoy the view of everything I had explored over the course of the weekend.

Even though it was starting to get late, there was still a lot of traffic trying to cross the bridge to Port Huron. As I crept my way up to the customs checkpoint, the officer asked me a few questions about where I had gone and what I had done. He made me promise that I would mention how cool he was as he waved me through, and I thanked him as I hit the highway to head home.

Special thanks to our sponsors for making our #MittenTrip to Port Huron possible: Shorts Brewing and Live Love Michigan.