It had been seven years since John Ernest Smith had retired from his 43 years of lighthouse keeping but at his 75th birthday party in 1947 he told a reporter from the Port Huron, Michigan Times Herald newspaper, “I never cost Uncle Sam a penny for hospitalization or failed once in my duty and I’m still in good health. “
Formally called Captain Smith, but simply referred to as “Cap” by most who knew him, John E. Smith was born on January 2, 1872 in Neston, England and immigrated with his parents to Toronto, Canada when he was eight years old. However, at the age of 13 he left home with his older brother to seek work in Michigan.
While working as a tailor’s apprentice, a doctor advised him to seek employment in the great outdoors. So, in 1891 at the age of 19, John Ernest Smith started his sailing career with the Northern Navigation Company and soon realized that he loved being on and near the water, which led him in 1897 to accepting a job as an assistant keeper at Michigan’s Manitou Island Lighthouse.
On June 6, 1901, John Smith accepted a transfer to become the 1st assistant keeper at Minnesota’s Two Harbors Lighthouse. But he wasn’t there long. In October of 1901, he was transferred to become the 2nd assistant keeper at Stannard Rock Lighthouse, a tower that sits in the waters of Lake Superior 25 miles from the nearest land and 45 miles from the nearest harbor, often described by the keepers who were stationed there as the “loneliness place on earth.” The following year he was promoted to 1st assistant keeper, a position he held until 1904 when he was appointed the head keeper at Michigan’s Crisp Point Lighthouse.
Although John Smith was now stationed at a land-based lighthouse, Crisp Point Lighthouse was too remote and not to his liking. So, in 1906 he accepted a demotion to become the assistant keeper at Forty Mile Point Lighthouse near Rogers City, Michigan where, on April 24, 1907, he married Bertha Jennie May Rickaby. In 1911, he was promoted to head keeper, a position he held until he accepted a transfer to become the head keeper at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse in Port Huron, Michigan, where he officially took command on September 1, 1929.
Shortly after his arrival at the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, he was interviewed by a local newspaper reporter and reminisced about his time being stationed at the isolated Stannard Rock Lighthouse. “When I was the assistant keeper there we received mail and provisions only twice a month. Now they receive mail and supplies each week. We had no motor boats in those days and when we went to Marquette, 45 miles away, we had to sail. It was generally a ten hour trip. Once I made it in seven hours and once it took 56 hours.”
He continued by saying, “We had no radio or modern phonographs then. Newspapers we received were two to three weeks old. When Roosevelt was elected president we learned of it ten days after the election. Now when an important event happens the boys learn of it immediately through the radio. Instead of sitting around at night listening to an old talking machine play ‘Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie,’ or ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ they tune in on New York or Detroit and hear Rudy Vallee and his orchestra play ‘Am I Blue’ or ‘Waiting at the End of the Road.’ When President Hoover was inaugurated, they not only heard of the fact but listened to his address. I know of no one thing that has contributed to the comfort of sailors and lighthouse keepers as that of the radio.”
In describing Captain John E. Smith, the local newspaper described him as being 6’2” tall, broad of shoulder, with a ruddy complexion and few wrinkles. That September 27, 1929 edition of the Times Herald continued by stating, “He is a composite picture of those men whom responsibility for the lives of others has given a deep insight into life as it really is, and whose face shows the sign of strain caused by peering into thick fog and blinding snow, hoping and praying for clear weather to lessen the danger to mariners. Behind the look of determination, which the captain carries, one may find a smile that shows his sense of humor has not been deleted by years of trying service to mankind.”
After dedicating 43 years of his life to the Lighthouse Service and his country, the last eleven of those years at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, John Ernest Smith retired on April 1, 1940. The following day, April 2, 1940, the Times Herald of Port Huron, Michigan wrote, “Retirement? That’s something that ‘Cap’ Smith wouldn’t have considered for anything if circumstances had been a little bit different. He’s 68 years old but as rugged as he was the day he came to succeed Capt. Frank E. Kimball as the keeper of the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. Retirement was more or less forced on ‘Cap’ Smith as it was on other veterans of the Lighthouse Service when the United States Coast Guard took over the service on July 1, 1939. ‘Cap’ is too old to change his status to “Coastguardsman” and under the former status his retirement age would have been 70.”
At that time, the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse and the local Coast Guard station were consolidated as one unit, and Chief Boatswain Joseph G. Brown became the chief of the lighthouse and “Cap” Smith was required to report to him, something that not only created a bit of tension, but apparently did not sit well with the veteran lighthouse keeper. Joseph Brown said at the time that he wasn’t exactly sure how things were actually going to work yet. The newspaper wrote “’Cap’ doesn’t like the idea of retirement but he’s philosophical about it. ‘It’s just something I’ll have to get used to,” he said.
The Coast Guard apparently did eventually figure things out at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse because “Cap” Smith was replaced as keeper by Russell H. Berg, who was followed by William A. Wilkinson in 1946 to become the last civilian keeper of the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse.
In his retirement years, “Cap” John Ernest Smith enjoyed reading fine works of literature, especially nonfiction. He remained in good health well into his late 80s until he passed away at the age of 87 on May 4, 1959 at the Holmes Convalescent Home in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was buried at the Sunset Memorial Gardens in Fort Gratiot, Michigan. Hopefully the day will come when his memory is honored with the placement of a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial plaque at his gravesite.
Levi Melvin Whipple
By the time Levi M. Whipple arrived as the 2nd assistant keeper in 1935 at Michigan’s Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, John E. Smith had already been the head keeper for nearly six years.
Born on September 23, 1880 in the tiny village of Fairgrove, Michigan, Levi M. Whipple didn’t start his lighthouse keeping career until he was 38 years old. He went on to serve at the following lighthouses:
Thunder Bay Island
2nd assistant keeper 1918-1922
Sand Hills Lighthouse
2nd assistant keeper 1922-1924
Passage Island Lighthouse
1st assistant keeper 1924-1925
Eagle Harbor Lighthouse
1st assistant keeper 1925-1926
Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse
1st assistant keeper 1927-1931
Rock of Ages Lighthouse
1st assistant keeper 1931-1935
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
2nd assistant keeper 1935-1940
At the age of 20, on September 18, 1900, Levi M. Whipple married Jane Josephine Roszell and the couple had three children together; however they eventually got divorced. On February 24, 1917 Levi M. Whipple married Mary Balch and the couple went on to have four children together.
Years later, in recalling life at the now abandoned and endangered Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse Levi Whipple’s son Kenneth wrote, “I miss the remote lighthouse, the sky and water, the cries of the gulls, the dull roar of the sea, the whitecaps like herds of snorting stallions crowding shoreward with tossing manes. I miss the piercing, penetrating thunder of the steam fog whistle as it penetrated the shore-hugging fog banks and went rolling seaward. I miss the red and white beams of the light sweeping over the dark water.”
Levi Melvin Whipple died in Detroit, Michigan on October 21, 1966 at the age of 86 and was buried in Ellington, Michigan. Hopefully the day will come when a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial plaque will be placed at his gravesite.
John Simon Van Natter
By the time John E. Smith became the head keeper at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, John S. Van Natter had been stationed there for 14 years, first in 1915 as the 2nd assistant keeper, and then becoming the 1st assistant keeper in 1917.
John S. Van Natter started his lighthouse career on April 1, 1911 as a 2nd assistant keeper at Michigan’s Manitou Island Lighthouse. In 1912, he transferred to Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse where, in 1913, he was promoted to 1st assistant keeper, a position he held until 1915 when he accepted a transfer to the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse.
Known as Johnny to his friends, he was reported to have been a man of few words and, unlike many other long-time lighthouse keepers, he never had a tale or yarn to spin. The local newspaper wrote, “He’s clearly a man of actions, not words.”
However, many years later, during his retirement in 1959, he recalled the terror of a storm that started on the night of November 9, 1913 and lasted for several days during the time when he was stationed at Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse. It was reported that 250 sailors lost their lives during the storm in which eleven ships were sunk, seven were wrecked, and many others were heavily damaged, including the Lightship Huron.
John Van Natter recalled that the tower on Thunder Bay Island is about a city block from the fog signal building. On the first night of the storm it got so bad that it was impossible for the men to walk between them, so they just “stayed put” through the night. Thunder Bay Island, a mile and a half wide, was swept by the sea, and spray dashed higher that the 50-foot light tower. At one point, a large boulder was tossed up on the beach. After the storm subsided, keeper Van Natter had to use salt water to clear the ice off of the lantern windows.
When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, rather than stay on as a civilian keeper, John S. Van Natter joined the ranks of the Coast Guard and retired in 1945 as a Chief Boatswains Mate having served 34 years at lighthouses.
After he retired from the Coast Guard and lighthouse keeping, he went to work for the Electric Auto-Lite Co. But, without fail, every April 1st for most of the rest of his life, he returned to the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse to celebrate his anniversary date of when he joined the Lighthouse Service and the opening of the shipping season.
John Simon Van Natter and his twin brother William were born on July 7, 1885 in Port Huron, Michigan. He died on February 22, 1975 in East China, Michigan. His wife Emma preceded him in death, having died on August 17, 1969. His obituary stated that he had been a long time member of the Gratiot Park United Methodist Church and a life member of the Fort Gratiot Lodge No. 374, F & AM. He had been a Mason since 1919.
John Simon Van Natter’s name was sometimes mistakenly spelled VanNatter. He was buried in the Lexington Memorial Cemetery in Sanilac County, Michigan. Hopefully the day will come when a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial plaque will be placed at his gravesite.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2020 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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