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  • Writer's pictureSusan Harbourt

A Guiding Light: A Timeline of the Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville, Michigan

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula lies the charming town of Jacobsville, a place rich in history and natural beauty. Among its notable landmarks stands the Portage River Lighthouse, a historic beacon that has guided mariners through treacherous waters for over a century. Let's journey through time to explore the fascinating history of the Portage River Lighthouse.

A Beacon's Birth:

In the mid-1800s, ship traffic increased along the Keweenaw Waterway to bring mined copper and quarried sandstone to market and service the influx of people associated with those industries. On February 17, 1853, Ransom Shelden and others prepares a petition for Senator Alpheus Felch, who was a former governor of Michigan, to present to Congress, “praying the erection of a light-house at the mouth of Portage River.” The petition was sent to the Committee of Commerce for review and approval. The petition was successfully approved and on March 3, 1853, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse.

Construction of a cylindrical rubblestone tower lighthouse was started in 1855 and completed in 1856. It had a diameter of eight feet and stood thirty-nine feet tall with an octagonal, cast-iron lantern room housing a fifth-order Fresnel lens. Two red glass panels, that rotated around the lens, were added to produce a red flash to the fixed white light every two minutes.

The First Death:

Unfortunately, the success was short-lived as there was a controversy between the contractors and the engineer of the lighthouse which required intervention from Howell Cobb, the Secretary of the Treasury. In 1868, an inspector came out and found the following list of issues:

  • The tower is built of rubble stone, with solid walls which are very damp inside.

  • The stairway is of wood, and badly decayed.

  • The lantern leaks, and is too small for the apparatus, having an inside diameter of only four (4) feet.

  • The dwelling is also built of rubble stone. During wet weather, the water stands on the floor of the cellar, and it is damp at all times. The house is very damp throughout, in consequence of which the floors are so badly decayed as to be unsafe. The plastering has fallen off the ceilings and walls in many places. The eaves of the roof do not project beyond the walls.

  • It is recommended that the tower be provided with an interior brick cylinder, an iron stairway, and a lantern of modern style, with cast-iron deck plate; also, that a new dwelling be built, and that it be connected with the tower by a covered passageway.

A Rebirth:

Based on the need for a more suitable structure on March 3, 1869, Congress provided $12,000 to rebuild the lighthouse and keepers cottage. The existing 5th-order Fresnel lens was expensive and still useful so it was placed on a temporary structure to allow its use during the construction.

A 51-foot tower made from the local sandstone was erected, its diameter tapered from fourteen feet at the base to twelve feet at the lantern room. A spiral cast-iron staircase with 61 steps and 2 platforms led to the 10-sided cast-iron lantern room built by Detriot Locomotive Works that included an outside platform with a two-rail balustrade. The Fresnel lens used in the original lighthouse was removed from its temporary platform and installed in the new tower's lantern room. It maintained its distinctive steady white light with 2-minute red flashes and could be easily seen for 18 miles and up to 40 miles in good weather. A 10.5-foot brick room acted as a passageway linking the tower to the new keeper's cottage and has the year 1869 engraved above its entrance. The cottage was a two-story brick building with 8 rooms plus a kitchen. Colonel Orlando Metcalfe Poe, a distinguished engineer, and Union Army officer, designed this impressive upgrade.

Portage River Lighthouse Jacobsville Lighthouse Michigan Keweenaw  Lake Superior Upper Peninsula  Great Lakes
Photo by: J. T. Reeder. Institution: Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections

A 2nd Death:

August 1, 1920 a new lighthouse was established at the mouth of Portage River, less than a mile away. This became known as the Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light and was powerful enough that Portage River Lighthouse was no longer needed. The discontinued Portage River Lighthouse was transferred to the State of Michigan on August 10, 1932 and reverted to the Coast Guard on October 29, 1948. A decade later the lighthouse was turned over to the General Services Administration for liquidation and ended up being sold at auction on November 25, 1958.

Finding A New Life:

On November 25, 1958, the Portage River Lighthouse was purchased at auction for a reported $18,251. Under private ownership for the first time, the keeper's cottage received some updates including an addition, converting it into a proper single-family residence. In 2004 it was sold and an attempt was made to run the property as Bed and Breakfast. In 2022 the property was sold again and is now undergoing significant restoration and renovation work to bring the property more in keeping with the aesthetics of its 1869 style.

In conclusion:

The Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville, Michigan, stands as a timeless testament to the region's maritime heritage. From its humble beginnings as a rubble stone tower to a temporary wooden structure to its evolution into a stone tower, it has guided countless mariners through treacherous waters. As a symbol of strength and endurance, this historic beacon continues to illuminate the rich history and traditions of the community it serves and continues to evolve and expand, making room for the stories it has yet to tell deepening the appreciation for the Portage River Lighthouse's enduring legacy.


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