Michigan’s Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse is now owned by the City of Frankfort. Ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the popular tourist city under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.
Although the lighthouse is a popular icon of Frankfort and is often photographed, and the breakwater is a popular site for fishermen, most of them don’t know that the lighthouse was once much shorter and at a different location. Nor do they know of the brave lighthouse keepers who once served and even died while tending the lighthouse. Most also don’t know about its long lost neighbor, the Frankfort South Pier Lighthouse.
Chapters could be written on the changes made over the years to the piers and breakwater in Frankfort, which have all been well documented, but the history of the Frankfort Pier and Breakwater Lighthouses seem to have been dwarfed by the nearby and very popular Point Betsie Lighthouse, which is one of Michigan’s most recognized lighthouses.
The first lighthouse to be built in Frankfort was on the south pier in 1873 and was constructed under the recommendation of Eleventh Lighthouse District Engineer General Orlando M. Poe (1832-1895), a Civil War hero who was responsible for much of the early lighthouse construction on the Great Lakes.
Although a number of the lighthouse keepers of the Frankfort lighthouses served there for long periods of time, or had lengthy careers as lighthouse keepers at other stations, information on many of the Frankfort keepers is sketchy and difficult to locate. Of the twelve men whom we have been able to identify who served at Frankfort, a total of four of them died while in the position of lighthouse keeper or assistant keeper.
Although it was not uncommon for Lake Michigan storms to cause havoc for the lighthouse keepers, who often risked or even lost their lives in the line of duty, it was a different kind of bizarre incident in June of 1902 that brought tragedy to the Frankfort South Pierhead Lighthouse. In that year, Sheridan J. King, who had been the 2nd assistant lighthouse keeper at Michigan’s North Manitou Lighthouse since 1899, was promoted and transferred to Frankfort as the 1st assistant keeper. He should have stayed at North Manitou.
King had only been stationed in Frankfort for three months when the bizarre incident occurred as was recounted in the Scotts New Coast Pilot where they wrote, “Sheridan King, assistant lightkeeper at Frankfort, Michigan, was killed at that port last Friday by an Ann Arbor carferry. The captain of the ferry called to King to get his small boat out of the way of the steamer. King started to do it, but he was caught by the steamer and crushed to death. A dispatch from Frankfort says that the accident aroused much indignation against the captain of Ann Arbor carferry No. 3. The light keeper’s boat was in the path of the carferry as she started to leave port, and Capt. W. P. Robertson called to King and asked him to get out of the way, the latter started to do so, but the carferry kept on and crushed the little boat like an egg shell and Mr. King with it. He lived about fifteen minutes. The carferry’s captain saw the accident, but instead of stopping to learn of its seriousness, continued across the lake. Those who were witnesses claim that the ferry might have stopped in time to save King’s life. The latter was about 20 years of age and leaves a widow.”
Death On Duty
Tragedy struck the lighthouse again in August of 1911 when veteran lighthouse keeper Captain Joseph H. Wilmat died while performing his duties. A local newspaper, although they spelled his last name as Wilmot, gave an eloquent obituary when they wrote, “Attended only by his wife and Captain Morency, in lonely darkness, the captain passed away last Sunday night. His bier the platform beyond the lighthouse, his shroud the fog and blackness of midnight, his requiem choired by mournful siren and running waves, dying while in the attendance of his duties and the work he loved so well, with his two most faithful friends at hand to bid him God speed. It was a worthy setting for the passing of our beloved and honored friend.”
Wilmat was born in 1862 on North Manitou Island and upon being old enough he entered the fishing business with his father in Mackinaw City, where they had moved to. However, in 1891 he joined the United States Lighthouse Establishment and was appointed a 2nd assistant keeper at the now endangered Waugoshance Lighthouse in the Straits of Mackinac in northern Lake Michigan. Married in 1884, he and his wife Mary went on to have ten children: five boys and five girls. He worked his way up to 1st assistant keeper until he was promoted and transferred to Frankfort in 1899. Interestingly, Wilmat was the keeper, but was off duty when his assistant, Sheridan J. King, had been tragically killed at the lighthouse in 1902.
Although Wilmat was not killed in the line of duty at the lighthouse like his assistant had been, he did however die while in the performance of his duties. About 10 o’clock that Sunday evening in August of 1911 the men on watch at the life saving station reported that a heavy fog was rolling in across the lake. Wilmat, who had not been feeling well, started for his boat to row out to the lighthouse to turn on the fog signal. His wife, worried about how ill her husband was feeling, insisted upon coming with him in the boat.
The newspaper then reported, “Spurred by his sense of duty the keeper managed to get out to the end of pier and dragged himself through the task of starting the mechanism of the fog signal. Then with a groan, he turned to his wife. ‘I’m sick,” said he, “I’m deathly sick.’ Mrs. Wilmat ran down the steps of the light and started for the mainland to get help. Finding a couple of boys on the pier she sent them for help and returned to her husband’s side. In a few minutes Captain Morency had reached them. Picking up his old comrade he carried him like a baby down the stairs and out upon the pier hoping that the fresh night air would revive him. And there, in a hastily contrived bed of blankets, the keeper of the light breathed his last a few minutes later.”
The pallbearers at Joseph H. Wilmat’s funeral consisted of men from the Frankfort and Point Betsie Life Saving Stations and the keepers from the Point Betsie Lighthouse.
The local newspaper closed its obituary of Wilmat with the following words: “And so, the good captain is gone. Behind him he leaves a host of sorrowing friends, the memory of a life filled with deeds of bravery and words of modesty, with unfailing kindness and good toward his fellow man.”
Other Deaths On Assignment
Although we couldn’t find much information about him, we did learn that Albert Vorce, who became the keeper in 1884, was one of the four known keepers who died on duty before seeing the turn of the century on March 3, 1899. This may have been his first lighthouse job as there is no record of him having served elsewhere before his assignment in Frankfort. Interestingly, during his five year tenure as an assistant keeper the nation had three different presidents: Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.
Another keeper who died while he was the lighthouse keeper of the Frankfort Lighthouse was Albert F. Straubel, who came to Frankfort in 1906 as an assistant keeper under head keeper Joseph Wilmat, whose death we previously reported on in this story. Straubel had previously served as a 2nd assistant keeper for two years at the nearby Point Betsie Lighthouse. Upon keeper Wilmat’s death, Straubel served under head keeper John C. McKinnon. When McKinnon retired in 1924, Straubel was appointed the head keeper, a position he held until his death in 1940 following complications from surgery at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although he never made it to his retirement date that was set for April of 1942, he was a lighthouse keeper for an amazing 37 years.
The local newspaper, in reporting Straubel’s death, wrote, “His genial disposition and love of fun, his adherence to fairness and integrity and his general lovable nature made him a most popular figure with those who had known him from childhood and those tourists and summer guests who made his acquaintance upon visits to the lighthouse. To those visitors he always showed the utmost courtesy and nothing was too much trouble for him to make their visit more pleasant.”
Another distinguished keeper in Frankfort was Carl Witzman. Although Witzman, who was born in Germany, only served as the 1st assistant keeper in Frankfort for slightly over a year, from July 1902 to August, 1903, he went on to have a long career as a lighthouse keeper, serving at Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse from 1903 to 1910, Tail Point Lighthouse (Long Tail Point) from 1910 to 1936, and finished his career at the Green Bay Crib Lighthouse. (Some records have Witzman spelled as Nitzman.)
No Where To Live
The government provided living quarters for most lighthouse keepers, but this was not the case for the keepers of the Frankfort lighthouses who instead had to rent living quarters. A 1902 U.S. Light House Board report stated, “There are two lights and a fog-signal, but no keeper’s dwelling nor a site for one. It is estimated that a site can be bought and a suitable double dwelling for the two keepers can be built for $6,500 and the Board recommends than an appropriation of this amount be made thereafter.” But Congress did not approve the funds. Money was requested by the Light House Board again in 1905. The 1906 report of the Light House Board stated, “Condemnation proceedings are to be commenced to obtain a site for a light-keeper’s dwelling for this light station,” however the following year’s report of 1907 indicated that the keepers were still renting. Although the 1908 Light House Board report listed Frankfort as a light station where keepers quarters had been constructed, it is unclear if they were built or where they were located.
Longest Move In History
In what may have been the longest move of a lighthouse keeper’s house in history, the keepers of Frankfort Lighthouse finally did get a house to live in when in June of 1932 the former keeper’s house of the former skeletal tower of the Chicago Pierhead Lighthouse was barged by the scow Rip Rap to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then towed across Lake Michigan by the Lighthouse Tender Sumac and eventually to its new home in Michigan.
The historic move of the house was covered by at least two newspapers, The Chicago Daily Tribune and Michigan’s The Ironwood Daily News. They reported, “A 14-room duplex house was safe on dry land here today after a trip across Lake Michigan. The house, formerly used by a light-keeper in Chicago, was towed on a scow from Chicago to Milwaukee and thence across the Lake by the lighthouse tender Sumac, for the use of a lighthouse keeper at Frankfort. Captain Charles H. Hubbard, of Milwaukee, superintendent of the twelfth lighthouse district, estimated that towing the house across the lake instead of building a new one saved the government $15,000.”
In a letter to George Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses, Hubbard wrote, “It is believed the moving of a house this size will be the longest ever moved by water in the open Lake or sea. The distance to be traversed is 225 miles.” That calculation obviously included the full transit, not just the portion of the trip across Lake Michigan.
Jonathan Hawley, president of the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse, who researched the move, reports that the United States Lighthouse Service then carried out extensive remodeling plans and the structure became home to the families of the lighthouse keeper and the assistant lighthouse keeper. After 1939, when the Lighthouse Service was taken over by the Coast Guard, the commanding officers of the Frankfort Coast Guard Station and their seconds resided there and station personnel and their families resided in the two apartments within the further remodeled structure.
Moving The Lighthouses
During the span of their lifetime, the lighthouses in Frankfort have seen many changes to the piers and breakwater that resulted in both structures being moved. The lighthouses have also witnessed the decline of the large vessels and railroad car ferries that once entered the harbor on a regular basis to the many pleasure craft that now use the harbor in the tourist season.
The first lighthouse built here was the Frankfort South Pier Lighthouse that was lighted on October 15, 1873. It was moved 195 feet in 1884 when the pier was lengthened and in 1896 when the pier was extended again. A pyramid style fog building was added in 1892.
The second lighthouse in Frankfort was a square tower built on the north wooden pier in 1912 and it became known as the Frankfort North Pier Lighthouse. At that time the south pier was shortened and the old Frankfort South Pier Lighthouse was demolished and lost forever to the pages of time.
By the 1930s, new breakwaters were built and the piers no longer served any useful purpose. In 1932 the Frankfort North Pier Lighthouse was lifted off the pier and barged to the new north breakwater where it was hoisted atop a new 25-foot base that raised the height of the tower to 67 feet and its name was changed to the Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse.
Some History Still Elusive
Much of the history of the lighthouses of Frankfort remains elusive, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. For example, where are the photographs of the keepers who served here, as well as the personal information about the many of the keepers? Are there any photographs of the Frankfort South Pier Lighthouse when it was being demolished? Also, someone must have taken photographs of the Frankfort North Pier Lighthouse when it was being removed from the pier and when it was hoisted atop the north breakwater. Hopefully, with the new attention being drawn to the change of ownership of the Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse, some of the missing information and photographs may indeed surface to complete the history of the lighthouses of Frankfort, Michigan.
The people of the City of Frankfort have always been proud of their maritime heritage, as is evident by the lighthouse arches that date to the early days of tourism and welcomed people to the area, with its pristine dunes and beaches, and a United States Coast Guard Station that dates back to the days of the United States Life-Saving Service.
Watching from above, the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear can surely be proud that their lighthouse is in the good hands of the people of the community where they once served.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2012 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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