Newspaper reporters around the Great Lakes liked Gus Gramer, lighthouse keeper, because he gave them colorful copy. Besides making headlines by rescuing boaters from the Detroit River and Maumee Bay, and pulling an oar with some of the first Ecorse Boat Club crews and serving on the Ecorse Fire Department for a time, Gus generated stories just by the power of his personality. His feud with Roscoe House of the Lighthouse Service provided many inches of amusing copy.
Gus developed his colorful character early in his life. Born August Gramer in New York City in 1870, he signed up with an Arctic whaling crew when he was just fifteen. In those early whaling days, single voyages lasted for years and during these years Gus sailed the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. He learned the whaling trade and developed a taste for adventure that lasted him for the rest of his life.
During one of his voyages Gus and some of his crewmembers were shipwrecked in the South Pacific and marooned on an island inhabited by savages. Gus vowed that if he escaped alive this would be his last whaling voyage. After arriving safely home, Gus enlisted in the United States Navy and spent the next twenty years sailing the seas for his country. He fought in the Spanish American War and was a member of the Spanish War Veterans, Federation of Musicians, and the Army and Navy Union.
After twenty years in the Navy, Gus decided he liked the maritime life well enough to live it. He joined the government lighthouse service and at various times in his career had charge of lighthouses on Ecorse Range Light, Lightship #64 Limekiln Crossing, Monroe Lighthouse and the Toledo Harbor Light in Ohio.
When the lighthouse service transferred Gus to Lightship #64, he had to become accustomed to living on a stationary wooden scow anchored at Limekiln Crossing near Monroe in the Detroit River. Lightships 63, 64, and 65 were built in 1893 at Wyandotte, Michigan, under a government appropriation of $8,600 granted on August 5, 1892 for three small lightships in the Detroit River. Each lightship was a square ended wooden scow, oak fastened with iron bolts and spikes and featured a 12 tripod lantern structure on the fore deck and a deckhouse aft. None of the ships were propelled. Each had a single lantern with three oil lamps hung from a 12 foot tripod and a hand operated bell for a fog signal. Light Vessel #64 patrolled Limekiln Crossing South from 1893 until 1910. In 1910, the United States government discontinued operating LV #64 and the Canadian government converted it into a Canadian lightship. The Canadian government replaced LV #64 in 1913 with lighted buoys.
Payroll information complied and supplied by Tom Tag from files at the National Archives show that Gus was on the Lightship LV64 Limekiln Crossing from September 1893 through August 22, 1895. He then went to the Ecorse Range Light from August 23, 1895 through May 16, 1898 when he was replaced by his wife Lucy for a short period from May 16, 1898 to Sept. 30, 1898.
After that records indicate he was on leave from September 30, 1898 through Oct 16, 1906, probably in military duty and service in the Spanish American War. Records also indicate that Mary Gramer, perhaps a second wife or daughter, served as the keeper at Ecorse Range Light from Oct. 10, 1906 through Nov. 1, 1906. Gus is listed back on the payroll on Nov. 1, 1906 at Ecorse Range Light through May 25, 1907. Then he became keeper at the Monroe Lighthouse from May 156, 1907 through March 31, 1908. Then it was on to Toldeo Harbor Light where he assumed the keeper position on April 1, 1908 and where his troubles began. The Toledo Harbor Light had been built at the mouth of the Maumee River in Lake Erie off of Toledo. The Toledo Harbor had been dredged and enlarged in 1897, and the Toledo Harbor Light was built in 1904 to replace the nearby Turtle Island light that had marked the mouth of the River from 1831 to 1904. The light’s main building had apartments for the keeper and two assistants, a one-story fog signal building, and the cylindrical tower was 13 feet around and the lantern measured 8’6” with bar windows. The Fresnel lens, 72 feet above the normal water level, produced two white flashes followed by a red flash.
By the time he arrived in Toledo, Gus had earned a long life saving record and many citations from superior officers and public officials for his bravery and efficiency. Mr. And Mrs. H.V. Deming of Toledo could attest to his life saving skill. On May 27, 1909, the Demings were sailing in their sloop, Red Coat, in Maumee Bay. Suddenly, a storm swept over the sloop and capsized it. Braving a fierce gale, Gus took a small boat from the lighthouse and rowed to rescue the Demings. The waves ran so high that Gus could not get alongside the sinking Red Coat, so he tied one end of a rope to his boat and the other end around his body and swam to the sinking sloop. He hauled the Demings into the rowboat, rowed them to the lighthouse, and took care of them until they could return to Toledo. A grateful Mrs. Deming signed over $2,000 worth of life insurance to Gus Gramer. In keeping with his nautical talents, Gus invented a grappling hook to use in deep water dragging for bodies. He presented a pair of grappling hooks to the city of Toledo that were in service for many years.
According to Great Lakes historian Dwight Boyer, when Gus came to the Toledo Harbor light as keeper in charge, he grappled with more than the hooks he invented. The assistant keeper at Toledo Harbor Light believed in by the book and proper procedures. Gus had lived his maritime life as a free spirit, rescuing, not restraining. He and the assistant keeper quarreled for weeks, their relationship as stormy as Lake Erie in one of its stormy moods. Finally, the assistant keeper could no longer tolerate what he considered to be Gus’s abrasive manner and contempt for regulations and procedures. He wrote a letter to the Lighthouse Service in Washington pouring out his anguish and charging Gus with disregard and disrespect of the Lighthouse service.
Roscoe House, the superintendent of the Tenth Lighthouse District in Buffalo that served Lake Erie and Lake Ontario lighthouses, came to Toledo to try to mediate the quarrel between Gus and his assistant keeper. In his report of the situation in Toledo, Mr. House stated that Gus had become abusive and insolent and told him to “go to hell.” Infuriated, Mr. House notified Washington of the situation in Toledo and Washington decreed that Gus should appear at an official hearing in Toledo to explain himself. Gus neither appeared nor explained himself. The Lighthouse officials found Gus guilty and suspended him from the service, and Mr. House chartered a tugboat and set off for the lighthouse to tell Gus about the verdict.
Gus stubbornly refused to leave the Toledo Light and turn over all government property to his successor as he was ordered to do. Now, really infuriated, Mr. House returned to Toledo in the same tug he had chartered to tell Gus about his suspension and the next trip he made to the Toledo Harbor Light he took reinforcements.
United States Marshal Wagner from Toledo and two Toledo detectives boarded the tug with Mr. House and armed themselves with pistols in case Gus decided to fight. They revisited Gus at the Toledo Harbor Light. Noting the pistol packing officials, Gus realized that his time and luck had run out. Silently, he returned with them to Toledo. As the captain and crew fixed the lines to the dock, Gus waited until a group of waiting newspapermen was within earshot. Then he roared one of his best newspaper one-liners: “Hell, you guys can’t fire me…I quit!”
Gus died at his home on Edgewater Drive in Point Place, outside of Toledo in August 1933. Just 63 when he died, his wife Sylvia, his son Edward and daughters Mrs. George Luly of Toledo and Mrs. Milo Philbin of Rossford survived him and he was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery.
Lighthouse keeper August “Gus” Gramer left a colorful and lasting legacy in Ohio and the annals of American lighthouse history.
This story appeared in the
August 2007 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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