Sailors have often found Lake Erie to be the most challenging of the Great Lakes. Its shallowness can cause violent waves, especially during turbulent weather. On May 23, 1828 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to build a lighthouse on the west end of Lake Erie at a place known as Otter Creek Point in Monroe, Michigan. The decision came after years of pleas from residents, including Monroe’s first newspaper editor Edward D. Ellis. He learned during the winter of 1825-1826 that Congress was considering building a lighthouse to guide vessels into the Monroe Harbor, which was then located in LaPlaisance Bay at the natural mouth of the River Raisin.
Monroe’s first lighthouse was completed in 1829 at a cost of $3947.78. It was known as the “Otter Creek” or “LaPlaisance Bay” lighthouse. According to Ellis’ diary the first keeper was Major John Whipple of Detroit. During his tenure, Monroe pioneer Charles Lanman and his friends skated down the frozen River Raisin from the Macomb Street Bridge to the lighthouse. “When we arrived, we assembled in the comfortable parlor of our entertainer Mr. Whipple, and awaited the dinner hour,” Mr. Lanman wrote in his book Summer in the Wilderness.
Local historians have yet to find a drawing or picture that shows what the structure actually looked like. However, the Michigan Sentinel newspaper published in Monroe on Saturday, July 4, 1829, contains a very detailed list of the specifications. Proposals in writing were to be addressed to Andrew Mack, Superintendent at Detroit, by August 1st, “for building a lighthouse and dwelling house” at Otter Creek Point. The round tower was to be 40 feet tall, 22 feet in diameter at the bottom and 10 1/2 foot at the top, and built of rough split stone or brick. The octagonal lantern room was to be constructed of iron sash topped by a dome clad with copper sheeting and a copper ventilator with vane. An iron balustrade with two rails was to surround the tower.
The dwelling house was to be built of rough split stone measuring 34 feet by 20 feet. There were to be two rooms on the main floor with a center fireplace and stairs leading to two chambers above. A well-shingled roof over dry boards and an outhouse 5 feet by 4 feet complete the description. A lighthouse was also built at Barcelona, NY, in 1829, to the same specifications, which is still standing.
The mouth of the River Raisin was shallow as it meandered its way through marshes and sandy shoals. Early passenger and ship traffic docked in LaPlaisance Bay and used wagons and horse-drawn railroad cars to travel into Monroe. Westerly winds often lowered the lake level by 3 to 5 feet making the entrance into the river only navigable by the smallest of craft. “Canal Fever” swept the country following the opening of New York’s Erie Canal. In 1834 Monroe’s city fathers petitioned Congress for a canal to open the mouth of the River Raisin into Lake Erie. Captain Henry Smith of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended a plan to cut a canal 100 feet wide, 4000 feet long, and 12 feet deep eastward into Lake Erie, straightening and shortening the route. Congress approved the plan at a cost of nearly $100,000.00.
The canal was dug in various stages and was completed in 1843. The new Monroe Harbor was now approximately four miles North of the Otter Creek Lighthouse. The 5th Auditor of the Lighthouse Board made recommendation to Congress in 1838 that early appropriations be made for a new “Beacon light” at the new mouth of the River Raisin. “There is perhaps no point on the lake of greater importance than the mouth of the River Raisin. It is the only artificial harbor on Lake Erie in the State of Michigan. That state, aware of the great commercial importance of this position, is now constructing a state railroad from Lake Michigan to Monroe that will pass through the southern and most fertile tier of counties in Michigan. The railroad is nearly complete for 60 miles west commencing at Monroe.”
In 1844 the Auditor reported that “I beg leave to suggest that the LaPlaisance Bay light be discontinued” and that “the harbor of Monroe is only a few miles from LaPlaisance Bay, and when the work is completed, it will, of course, require a beacon.” On March 3, 1847 Congress approved “for a lighthouse at Monroe, three thousand dollars.” On August 12, 1848 Congress approved “for completing the construction of a lighthouse at Monroe, Michigan, $3522.”
The new “Monroe Harbor Lighthouse” was completed in 1849 and the old Otter Creek Lighthouse was decommissioned the same year. The government sold the Otter Creek Lighthouse in 1854. It was later purchased by John Jacob Luft from U.S. Revenue Collector Strong for $10.00. The lighthouse was dismantled and the stones were used to build the foundation for the Luft home and several other buildings around 1870.
The new Monroe Harbor lighthouse was positioned at the mouth of the new government canal. Two timber pile piers had been constructed on the sides of the canal that stretched one fifth of a mile into Lake Erie. This was to keep the mouth of the canal from silting shut by shifting sandbars. The octagon shaped light tower was built of wood at the end of the north pier and featured a fixed red light illuminated by oil. The keepers dwelling was described as “a neat, white frame, two story home with green shutters.” It had originally sat on the beach at the end of the pier. In 1859 the keeper’s house was moved out onto the pier alongside the tower.
In 1868 the report to the Secretary of the Treasury stated that “the wooden tower at Monroe needs repainting. The lantern (of the old style) leaks in the roof and around the base. The deck leaks also. There is no covered passage between the tower and dwelling, though close to each other. The dwelling, also of wood, needs extensive repairs, the planking of the pier to be removed. An estimate of the cost of putting this station in proper repair is submitted.” The 1869 report stated that “the wooden tower has been supplied with a new lantern and deck and has been repainted. A covered wooden passageway has been made between the tower and dwelling. The dwelling has been repaired, and the planking of the pier on which the dwellings stand renewed.”
The report of 1873 stated that “the keeper’s dwelling is in a ruinous condition, has no foundation except a few rotten logs, and has a very exposed condition, now entirely unsafe. The pierhead needs renewal, but cannot be touched without endangering the dwelling. An appropriation of $5000.00 is required.” It was not until the report of 1885 that “the keeper’s dwelling was rebuilt, and the station is now in good order.” It is apparent that during the rebuilding of the keeper’s house and pierhead renewal of 1884-1885 the light station was completely dismantled. After the pilings and foundation were replaced, the lighthouse was completely rebuilt. Thus the third and final lighthouse at Monroe was created in the exact location of its predecessor. A new one-and-a-half story dwelling was built with a four gabled design. The low, square light tower extended from the roof of the dwelling. The report of the lighthouse board dated 1893 states that “the keeper’s dwelling was put in good repair. During a heavy northeast gale on April 19 & 20, 1893, much damage was done to the lighthouse and premises, which was repaired. A foundation was made for a circular iron oil house at a point about 21 feet west from the keepers dwelling on the north side of the pier. The metalwork for the oil house was made under contract and was delivered at Cleveland, ready for shipment to the site by the lighthouse tender Haze.”
The Light List of 1900 describes the Monroe Lighthouse as a “square low tower on white dwelling, with lead colored trimmings and green blinds, lantern black, displays a fixed red light from a 4th order Fresnel lens, visible 13 miles.”
The last major expenditure for improvements at the Monroe Lighthouse was detailed in the Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1902. “A contract dated June 11, 1902 was for the rebuilding of the superstructure of the south and east sections of the pier foundation of the station, the work consisting of the removal of the timber and pile work to an elevation of -2.25 feet referred to the mean lake level, and rebuilding the superstructure with concrete inclosing walls, parapet and deck, and stone filling.” This afforded much better protection to the dwelling than the previous wood pilings. The concrete wall on the east side of the pier now extended approximately 10 feet above the lake level and almost completely protected the privy.
By the 1890’s the Monroe waterfront was experiencing a large number of summer visitors. Several Monroe-owned passenger boats were plying the waters of the lake. The 125 foot side wheeled steamer Jeanie made daily trips between Monroe and Toledo for 35 cents round trip. This elegantly appointed boat featured an upright Steinway piano, a dance floor, and could carry up to 500 passengers.
The Monroe Piers Hotel Co. was formed in 1895 and the 25-room “Hotel Lotus” opened that summer. Located on the beach just north of the lighthouse, the Hotel Lotus was known for its excellent menu. A bathhouse was built for those who came to swim at one of Lake Erie’s finest beaches. By 1910 the bathhouse had 300 changing rooms. The resort hotel became famous and excursionists came from Detroit, Toledo, Sandusky, Cleveland, and Canada.
A trolley line was installed from downtown Monroe along the north side of the river to the waterfront. At peak times the trolley cars made the trip to the pier every half hour from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm. In the 1905 summer season alone, 70,000 passengers were carried on the “Beach Line” trolley. Locals and out-of-towners alike found a trip to the Monroe Piers to be a must every Sunday and holiday.
The Monroe Yacht Club organized in 1902 and built a clubhouse on the south pier. By 1909 the 4th of July regatta saw 131 boats entered. In 1905 the two-story, 225 foot long “Casino” building was built just off the north pier. The second floor held a large dance pavilion where many well-known orchestras played. Also completed that year was a $12,000 roller coaster with a 75-foot drop located right on the beach. The roller coaster’s 1000 incandescent lights lit the entire beach and night bathing became popular. A refreshment stand and a merry-go-round offered something for everyone.
The 1920’s, however, saw the end of the golden era for the Monroe Piers. The popularity of the automobile found people traveling further afield on the ever-improving roads. Faced with a serious loss of revenue, the Monroe Piers Land Co. sold its 350 acres to the Newton Steel Co. in 1927. With the stock market crash of 1929, the resort never reopened and the buildings were torn down.
The days for the Monroe Lighthouse were also numbered. In 1916 an automated gas light system was installed on a steel skeleton structure alongside the lighthouse on the pier. The lighthouse was abandoned, and the attendance of a keeper was no longer needed. In 1922 the government sold the structure. During the first week of July a Toledo wrecking company dismantled the building and loaded the lumber aboard the barge Three Brothers. A young Toledo man had purchased the lighthouse for the sum of $35.00. What the lumber was used for is not known.
At least 13 keepers served at the Monroe light stations between 1829 and 1916. The first was Major John Whipple, a veteran of the War of 1812, whose service ended with his death in 1836 at the age of 74. Then came Lewis Bond, John W. Anderson, and Captain John Paxton, also a War of 1812 veteran who had been sheriff in Monroe County in the 1820’s. He was followed by Benjamin Thisman, Captain Joseph Guyor, Israel Noble, and James A. McGlenn.
Perhaps the best-known keeper was Peter Gussenbauer, who served from 1888-1904. His witty remarks and humorous stories earned him the nickname “Uncle Peter.” He died in service after suffering a stroke while on duty in the lighthouse at the age of 61. After a funeral service in the keeper’s house, his remains were loaded aboard a chartered tug and delivered upriver to the Monroe City Docks. He was taken by horse-drawn hearse to Woodland Cemetery where he was buried with Masonic honors. He was followed by keepers William Haynes, August Grames, and August H. Lauers before the station was automated in 1916.
Hardly a trace of the three lighthouses can be found today. Most of the sandy point where the first lighthouse stood has washed away over the years. From Avalon Beach at the foot of Lighthouse Road you can see a circular pile of large rocks when the water is low. At the mouth of the River Raisin where the second and third lighthouses once stood the 1000-foot long wooden pier is gone. All that remains are a few wooden pilings and a long row of rocks that can be seen when the water is low. On the beach, a jumble of broken concrete and steel bars is all that remains of the once beautiful light station.
This story appeared in the
December 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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