At the southern end of Lake Huron, where it’s waters funnel into the narrow St. Clair River, Michigan’s oldest lighthouse still stands guard. The Fort Gratiot lighthouse has been guiding sailors through this critical waterway since 1829. Today, visitors come from around the world to Port Huron and climb it’s tower. The view of the lake shore, Blue Water Bridge, and Canada are breathtaking for the lighthouse catwalk.
History of the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
Fort Gratiot was a standard stockade style compound built to guard the junction of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River during the War of 1812. It served the Michigan Territory, and later State of Michigan, from 1814 until 1879. While almost nothing remains of the fort, the lighthouse at the site carries on its name.
*Note: The Fort Gratiot hospital has been moved to the lighthouse grounds and is currently under restoration. It is believed to be the oldest wooden structure in St. Clair County and will be open to the public sometime in the future.
The original Fort Gratiot lighthouse was built in 1825. The first lighthouse constructed on Michigan shores, it was a mere 32 foot tall conical tower. Quality was shoddy and it wasn’t strong enough to hold up to the harsh weather conditions for very long. In 1828, the shoreline eroded and undermining and toppling the lighthouse.
A new Fort Gratiot lighthouse was built in 1829 a short distance away on higher ground. The updated version was 69 feet tall and heavier brick construction. This early date still makes it the oldest in Michigan and is second only to the Marblehead lighthouse in Ohio, which was built in 1822. Read more about Marblehead light at Travel Inspired Living.
A fourth order Fresnel lens was fitted in 1857. The upper part of the tower was extended another 20 feet in 1962 to the current height of 85 feet (82 feet focal plane). 1967 saw an upgrade to a more powerful rotating third order Fresnel lens. A fog signal building was added in 1871 along with a second in 1901. A Coast Guard station was built nearby in 1932, primarily for servicing the Huron Lightship, which is now on display further down the shore. The lighthouse was automated in 1933.
The current brick keeper’s quarters duplex was erected in 1874. This home served the keepers until retirement in 1943, then was used by the Coast Guard for many years. The property was handed over to St. Clair County in 2010 and reopened to the public in 2012. The lighthouse and Huron Lightship are operated by the Port Huron Museum collection.
Touring Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
The Fort Gratiot lighthouse is open from around April through December for tours. Visitors meet at the gift shop building to purchase tickets. The fully guided tour lasts about half an hour and covers a lot of ground. Our first stop was a brief history of the Fort Gratiot hospital, which is currently being restored and will eventually be open for visitors. The next stop is the 1901 brick fog signal building, which is filled with several artifacts and displays. The tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the lighthouse and operations.
The lighthouse keeper’s home is the next segment of the tour. The interior has mostly been restored to what it looked like in the early 1900s when the lighthouse still had keepers on duty. Unlike some of the older lighthouse keeper’s homes I have toured, this one felt more like a nice house than part of a duty station.
Of course, climbing the Fort Gratiot lighthouse tower was the highlight of the day. A lengthy climb of 94 steps, but easier than some we’ve braved, takes guests up to the top and out onto a catwalk. The views are stunning; just don’t look down. We were able to circle the tower, from which you can see the Blue Water Bridge, the Lake Huron shoreline, and Canada across the the St. Clair River.
Visiting Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
The Fort Gratiot lighthouse is open for tours, but sadly not for overnight guests. However, there are group overnights available for Scout groups and such, plus special events like ghost hunts and December candlelight tours. Visit the Port Huron Museum’s Fort Gratiot lighthouse website for the latest hours and admission prices, plus special events. A ticket for touring all four of the museum’s properties is a great way to save some cash and fill an entire day.
Read more articles about some of our favorite Michigan lighthouses, such as Grand Traverse, Point Betsie, Seul Choix, and our overnight stay at Whitefish Point and share your experiences.