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  • Writer's pictureSusan Harbourt

We Spontaneously Bought a Lighthouse!

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

The Unexpected Adventures of one Families Journey Restoring a Lighthouse on Great Lake Superior

Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the most Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Hello! I am Susan and this is my motley crew of guys; Chris, James, and Mark. We are now the official keepers of the Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville, Michigan. If you had asked us a year before if we ever thought we would be renovating a historic property, a lighthouse no less, on the banks of Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula, the upper peninsula of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I probably would have laughed hysterically at you. Yet here we are...standing on the tower of a lighthouse built in 1869, taking in the view of the sun setting for the first time as the new keepers. The universe works in mysterious ways.

Catching the sunset glow on Lake Superior from the tower of the Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville, MI on Day 1

It started as a bit of a joke really...

That's right, it all started as a bit of a joke. Chris fell in love with kayaking along the banks of Lake Superior early in our marriage and had always dreamed of finding a unique property to own on its banks. He had a very specific dream list including things like direct lake access, views, enough property for toys, at a price we could afford, and an investment-worthy property that was not generic (he is not a garage left / garage right kinda person). But the catch is, we were focusing on the Bayfield Peninsula of Wisconsin, not the eastern neighbor, the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan.

For years I had scanned Zillow and for properties that ticked all the boxes or at least came close to even being considered. It became a bit of an evening pastime to entertain myself while hanging out with the boys when they watched a history show or some car show. I also look at houses for sale in Italy to feed my fantasy of owning an ancient tower house overlooking the water (hmmm, foreshadowing a mixed manifestation here). Suffice it to say, I never found the perfect place in the 20-plus years of searching....until one night.

A lesson in the flexibility of thought...

After another night of disappointing prospects of ancient tower houses in Italy or legacy-worthy lakeside escapes in Bayfield, I decided to expand my search just a bit. I decided to search along the banks of Lake Superior beyond Bayfield. I often wonder where this story would have led if I chose to expand my Italy search instead that night. As I "traveled" the banks of the lake east, looking at all the prospects, I actually came across a few that were interesting but stretched our definitions of what qualified and a checkmark in each box. I sent feeler notes out on a few, but nothing felt quite right. Then I saw the lighthouse, and it all changed.

Chris had become used to me sending him properties that were "of interest", and I had become accustomed to him giving me not much more than a grunt in mild acknowledgment. I sent him the Lighthouse as more of a joke, a curiosity of understanding his spectrum for "unique" properties. What I wasn't ready for was his reaction when he received the listing text. He actually paused his show turned to look at me...and started a conversation! Yikes!

MLS Listing Photo of what was previously known as the Jacobsville Lighthouse Inn, is a bit of a misnomer as the proper structure name is Portage River Lighthouse in Jacobsville.

He and I are both engineers, the next thing that happened was we began a systematic deep dive into researching the area and curated a long list of questions for the realtor. We knew an emotion was stirred by the listing but was it really a logical choice of properties to buy?

After a series of back-and-forth conversations with the realtor, it was decided that we wait a bit to do an in-person visit. It was late March, around the start of Spring, yet the property was mothballed and the Keweenaw was still under a heavy blanket of snow.

So who's up for a road trip over Easter Break?

A month went by, and the Lighthouse was still available and haunting our thoughts, so we decided it maybe a road trip to the lighthouse over Easter Break was in order. We wanted to understand what it was like during the "Spring Thaw" in the North Woods and to see the Lighthouse before it was pulled out of its winter slumber. But more importantly, we wanted to put this fantasy to bed and be done with it. We were convinced that when we saw the property in person, the pragmatic and logical engineering parts in us would win the arm wrestling match. Boy, we sure were in for a surprise.

Driving up through the north woods the snow began to fall for a late-season storm. There were herds of deer gathered all along the roadways watching us go by, welcoming us to the area. As we pulled up and saw the property, we knew we were in trouble. Despite the snow and bleak post-winter look, all of the obvious work that needed to be done, the state of the grounds showing the years of maintenance neglect to the point you could hardly even see the lake, and various structures that were left to deteriorate past their serviceable life (including a guesthouse that was started but never completed and an obvious delaminating fo the towers outer casing )...the clouds began to part and the bluest sky began to appear as an optimistic omen. We somehow found ourselves truly, undeniably smitten at that moment. We felt like the lighthouse was calling to us, begging to be saved. Logic just left the room.

Red, White, and Blue...that Lighthouse is calling to you! A memory from our first date.

I am pretty sure Chris and I already knew what the decision was as we viewed the property with the realtor. I think he could sense it as well. Since this was not our first rodeo with a historic home renovation, we began to note all the deficiencies and work that needed to be done. There was no shortage of things that were in an apparent state of disrepair, and we could only guess at the plethora of things that would come along to surprise us on the journey. But even that didn't discourage us from the prospect of taking a project most would call a money pit.

Fast forward through a series of entertaining negotiation back and forths that deserve a chapter all their own...but I will spare (mostly) you. But, "In my engineering opinion", a phrase we often heard in negotiations and chuckled at since it carried no sway being that we were also engineers, Chris even holds a Ph.D.s (but don't call him Dr. he thinks that sounds too stuffy), negotiations are just a game you must play in order to get the prize.

The day after the kids finished school, we closed on The Lighthouse. And so our journey began in earnest to convert the Jacobsville Lighthouse Inn back into the Portage River Lighthouse. Follow along as I learn more about the area's rich history, share our plans for restoring the structures and grounds, and explore the Keweenaw region.

That moment we all knew there was no looking back; we were going to become the next Lighthouse Keepers of the Portage River Lighthouse in Jaconsville, MI



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