Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2014

John C. McKinnon

A Testament to Lighthouse Keepers of the Great Lakes

By Timothy Harrison

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The brand new triplex light keeper’s quarters at ...

John C. McKinnon was born in 1858 in New Parrish, New Brunswick, Canada. After his father, Benjamin McKinnon, died, John, along with his mother, Mary Crocke McKinnon, and his siblings, George, William, and his sister, Margaret, went to Au Sable, Oscoda, Michigan to find work at the Loud Lumber Camp. It was there that John met Mary Victoria Loud, a direct descendant of Pilgrim leader William Brewster. They married and started a family with the birth of Hugh Raymond McKinnon.

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The gigantic flag pole at North Manitou Island ...

In 1892 the McKinnon family, John C., Mary Victoria, baby Ray, and John’s mother, moved to Frankfort, Michigan to start a new chapter in their life. John worked local construction and lumber jobs until he was able to secure a government job with the United States Lighthouse Establishment. He received an appointment as Acting Assistant Keeper at Michigan’s North Manitou Island located in Lake Michigan, a position that took effect on September 3, 1898. McKinnon left for his appointed job, but, for the time being, his family remained behind in Frankfort.

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Michigan’s North Manitou Island Lighthouse as it ...

Ray McKinnon’s written memoirs recalled the event, “Father was away from home. He was working in a lumber camp near Oscoda Michigan. Our neighbor, Mr. Butler, came over with the paper and told us Father had been appointed 1st assistant light keeper on North Manitou Island. We were all excited and Mother sent a telegram to father to come home. Father came home and got ready to go to the island. He decided to go on the stage which went to Glen Haven, then take the mail boat to South Manitou, then take a boat to North Manitou. A few days later we received a letter from father. He wrote that he arrived and the lighthouse keeper was an Indian and his name was Garret Burrisaw. He said there was a nice house there that we could live in.” (Ray was referring to lighthouse keeper Andrew Garret Bourissau.)

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Lighthouse keeper John C. McKinnon and his wife ...

The North Manitou Lighthouse Station was brand new, and the keepers’ house was finished and ready for operation in 1898. The triplex house had living quarters for the head lighthouse keeper, 1st assistant lighthouse keeper, and 2nd assistant lighthouse keeper. The new keepers’ quarters were considered luxurious, especially by the 300 or so people who lived on the island at that time. In fact, it was actually luxurious by lighthouse standards. The entry foyers had ceramic tile, the wood floors throughout structure were varnished to a high gloss, built-in oak china cabinets with glass doors were in the dining rooms, and the parlors and dining rooms of each unit had beautiful tin ceilings. When the wooden open-framed tower was completed, a fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower.

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Indiana’s Calumet Harbor Lighthouse as it ...

In his memoirs Ray McKinnon recalled his first visit to the North Manitou Lighthouse and he wrote, “Mother decided that she would go there and look the situation over. Mother and I took the stage to Glen Haven with Dave Jewel, the driver. We arrived in Glen Haven about 5 o’clock. Marian was about a year old and was also with us. We took the mail boat to South Manitou Island and from there we went by boat to North Manitou. We went to the Johnsons and had supper at their farm then Mr. Johnson told his son, Adolph, to hitch up the team and drive us over to the light house which was about 4 miles away. When we arrived at the light house, I ran into the house looking for Father, but I met the Indian keeper instead. He said ‘you must be Mac’s boy’ and said that father had gone to get the mail. The keeper said ‘I’ll look and see if he is coming.’ So he took a long spy glass and said, ‘He is just starting out now.’ Father came about an hour later, but I was asleep.”

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The Frankfort South Pier Light and fog bell tower ...

On February 13, 1899 John McKinnon was officially appointed the 1st assistant keeper and his position was now secure. McKinnon originally served with head keeper Andrew G. Bourissau and 2nd assistant keeper Walter E. Grobben, but not for long; both men were transferred, Bourissau in November of 1898 and Grobben in August of 1899. McKinnon then served with head keeper Frederick Samuelson who arrived at the station on November 15, 1898 and 2nd assistant keeper Sheridan J. King who arrived on August 25, 1899.

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Frankfort Breakwater Lighthouse as it appeared ...

In the summer of 1899 a work party from the lighthouse tender Amaranth arrived and enclosed the open framed tower to protect the keepers from the elements, which that first year must have been brutal as they climbed the open steps in inclement weather. They also installed 644 feet of wooden planks for walkways and erected a gigantic flag pole at the lighthouse. McKinnon and his 2nd assistant were kept busy that year feeding firewood into the boilers of the fog horn that operated a record 757 hours.

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John C. McKinnon with the lantern that he hoisted ...

Eventually the McKinnon family had grown to four children. By September the family had made a difficult move. They brought with them household items, furniture, Brownie the dog, their cow and its calf, and personal items. Life certainly wasn’t boring.

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Mary and John McKinnon in their retirement years. ...

The school was four miles from the lighthouse home which meant the children had to walk each day to classes. Along the way they would enjoy the wildlife and island vegetation. Mrs. McKinnon decided to hire a young teacher to home school her children. This worked well until the weather turned cold. The young teacher decided staying on the island during the winter and the isolation it would bring wasn’t for her. She returned to the mainland before winter arrived.

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Frankfort North Pier with ice from a circa 1900s ...

It wasn’t long before the family cow went dry. As a result, Ray and Belle were responsible for getting milk from a neighbor two miles away. It was along one of these walks that the children decided to make pets of the local chipmunks that played in the local woods. They were successful in capturing a pair and putting them in a birdcage in the house. It wasn’t long before these “pets” were free from the cage and literally swept from the house by broom as Mrs. McKinnon did some housekeeping.

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Lighthouse keeper John C. McKinnon with the ...

During good weather rations and mail would arrive consistently as scheduled. Ray wrote that the family ate lots of salted pork shipped in barrels from the mainland, canned beef, fresh fish, and lots of potatoes. There were a few neighbors who had gardens and would share their surplus with the family as well.

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Albert McKinnon, who enjoyed bringing ice cream ...

Although their North Manitou Island light station home was brand new and had many advantages over their Frankfort home, Mrs. McKinnon and her family found life on the island challenging with the isolation from the mainland, especially during the brutal winter months when it was difficult with little or no deliveries, including food rations, from the mainland for long periods of time.

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Collin’s Drug Store in Frankfort, Michigan where ...

John’s mother became ill and stated that she didn’t want to die on the island. Ray McKinnon wrote in his memoirs: “She was 82 and there was no Dr. on the island and she said that she did not want to die on the island, so mother thought that it would be best for us to move back to Frankfort. She wrote to Capt. Henary Roberson and asked if he could and move us. He replied that it would be possible for him to bring his boat the ‘John D. Dewer’ on a certain Sunday and that we should have everything on the beach ready to load. The boat could not get that close, so Father got Fredrickson’s pile driver, which could be brought close to the beach.

“When Sunday arrived we watched anxiously for the Dewer. It finally came and the men loaded the furniture on the pile driver and took it out to the Dewer. At last only the chicken and the cow and calf were left.

“Father had a halter on the cow and led her on the pile driver, then they pulled the pile driver to the “Dewer” but at the time the boat blew a loud blast of steam. The cow became scared and jumped in the water taking Father along, but he clung to the rope until he got to shore, then they had to do it all over again. This time they used a pulley and all the crew pushed and pulled the cow aboard. Grandma had watched from the deck of the Dewer and said, ‘I am afraid John will catch his death of cold.’”

After the family moved back to Frankfort, John McKinnon continued his lighthouse assignment at North Manitou Island. Within months John’s mother at the age of 82 died. Again within months another change to the family came as another son, Austin Russell was born in Frankfort. Russell was the youngest child and the first child to die as he contacted TB while serving in the Navy during WWI.

When 2nd assistant keeper Sheridan King left the island on March 13, 1902 to take a position as 1st Assistant keeper in Frankfort, he was replaced by William Buckler, and John McKinnon had to again train a new man. On August 10, 1903 John McKinnon was able to secure a transfer for himself to his hometown as the 1st assistant keeper at the Frankfort Breakwater Lighthouse, and William Buckler was promoted to fill McKinnon’s position at North Manitou.

Living at home with his family in Frankfort must have been a real treat for him and his family. They were finally able to have a normal family life. However, after three glorious years, that would change. In July of 1906 he was promoted as the head keeper of the Calumet Harbor Lighthouse, a desolate structure that stood at the end of a 7,000-foot long breakwater that started in Illinois and ended in the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan. The Calumet Harbor Lighthouse was not a family station and McKinnon never even gave a thought to disrupting his children’s lives by moving them to an on-shore location near the lighthouse that seemed to be surrounded by an area of steel mills. So the family stayed in Frankfort. John McKinnon assumed the position as head keeper at Calumet Harbor Lighthouse on July 15, 1906.

The unexpected death of Frankfort Lighthouse keeper Joseph H. Wilmat (sometimes spelled Wilmot) who died of natural causes on August 8, 1911 while starting the fog mechanism, provided an opportunity for John McKinnon to return Frankfort. His years of dedicated service as head keeper at the bleak Calumet Harbor Lighthouse, and because his family lived in Frankfort, plus the fact that he had previously served in Frankfort as an assistant keeper, was enough for him to convince the government to approve the transfer back to his hometown. On September 9, 1911 he assumed the position as head keeper of the Frankfort lighthouses. John McKinnon had been gone for five long years and upon his return to Frankfort he barely recognized his children, who had grown into young adults. We can only wonder how the transition back into family life was for all members of the family.

Shortly after his arrival in Frankfort as the head keeper, the lighthouse was moved to the north pier and the outer light became the front range light and the rear range light was a white wooden pole 200 feet back from the front light, and the beacon on the rear light had to be lighted every day at dusk and hoisted to the top and lowered every morning. Also, the old light tower on the south pier was demolished at that time and an oil house and storage building were built on land at the foot of the north pier. All these changes kept McKinnon quite busy.

The McKinnon family still lived in the house that they had built in about 1891; it is currently still occupied by a family across M-22 from George Street. Life was more comfortable with the family together, and the charm of the Frankfort community and its local businesses and tourist trade helped. John McKinnon and his family always lived in their own home and never inhabited any other government facilities.

Linda McKinnon Puryea, John McKinnon’s great granddaughter, said, “According to my Aunt Erma, Ray’s daughter, Grandpa John would walk with her to the Frankfort Lighthouse across the concrete breakwater, which replaced the original wooden cat walk to the lighthouse of the earlier years. McKinnon’s salary was $70 a month during the 1920’s. John always walked to work, he never drove a vehicle in his life.”

While he was still a lighthouse keeper, John McKinnon accepted the job of local weatherman. He had a small weather station set up in his side yard and he recorded daily and reported the temperatures, barometer readings, and wind speed to the local newspaper paper. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed sitting on the swing located on the front porch and reading the newspaper. His family recalled that John was handy in the kitchen and even baked the wedding molasses cake for his daughter, Adel’s (Della), wedding.

During his career, John McKinnon had always been cognizant of the dangers of the job of being a lighthouse keeper, where changing weather conditions, rogue waves, and ice could mean disaster. In October of 1901, two of the men he had been stationed with at North Manitou Island Lighthouse, Andrew G. Bourissau and Walter E. Grobben, lost their lives when their boat capsized at Skillagalee Lighthouse. And before he was first assigned to Frankfort as an assistant keeper, two previous men had tragically died on duty at Frankfort - Albert Vorce in March of 1899 and, later, 1st assistant Sheridan King, who had also been a keeper at North Manitou when McKinnon was stationed there was killed June 16, 1902 when the car ferry Ann Arbor smashed into the lighthouse boat at Frankfort. This means that three keepers who McKinnon had known and been stationed with had lost their lives in the line of duty, something that must have always been on McKinnon’s mind during his career.

On April 4, 1924 after being a lighthouse keeper for 26 years, John McKinnon retired from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. During those years he was a witness to many changes. When he started his lighthouse career, it was under the U.S. Light-House Board, and in 1903 he witnessed the transition of the Light-House Board from the Treasury Department to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. In 1910 the Light-House Board was dissolved and he was now working for the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses and the commonly known name of his employer, the U.S. Light-House Establishment, was changed to the U.S. Lighthouse Service. In 1915 many of his co-workers and friends at the U. S. Life Saving Station in Frankfort were suddenly employees of the U.S. Coast Guard when the Life-Saving Service and Revenue Marine Service were merged. When McKinnon started his lighthouse career the Spanish American War started and was won, and toward the end of his career the Great War was fought and won. In fact, two of his sons were in the world conflict that later became known as World War One - Russel in the Navy, and Raymond in the Army.

One can only wonder what was going through John McKinnon’s mind when he heard in 1928 that the government was removing keepers from the elaborate North Manitou Island Light Station where he had once worked so hard. After the brutal winters he had experienced there, he probably felt that it was about time. However, at the time, little could he have imagined that many years later the entire North Manitou Island Light Station would collapse from erosion and its remains would be washed away. Also, little could he have imagined that many years later, in 1995, 84 years after he left the Calumet Harbor Harbor Lighthouse, that the Coast Guard would demolish the lighthouse. But if he had still been alive at the time, he probably would have said good riddance to that bleak and forsaken unfavorable light station where he spent five years of his life in the service to mariners.

From family memories of grandchildren Erma and Clyde, great granddaughter Linda McKinnon Puryea reported, “One year during the 1930s, John took my Dad to the traveling circus that had come to town. John walked directly to the front reserved section with his grandson, Clyde, was asked to move by a circus official because he did not have a reservation. Grandpa John acted like he was deaf and remained seated until the official left, giving up on his request. Dad and Grandpa John had the best seats in the circus performance that night!

“During the 1930’s Grandpa John would walk the breakwater and collect knives that had fallen along the walkway among the big rocks below that protected the breakwater. He would use a huge horseshoe magnet to retrieve them from the concrete crevices. He would have them shined up and ready for my dad, Clyde, when he would visit in the summer. Dad had quite a collection.

“Grandpa was a good eater! He loved to eat fresh fish from Lake Michigan and frequently would meet local fishermen and pay them $1 for a part of their catch. Grandma Mary Victoria would fry them up and they would feast on them accompanied with peas, pole beans, corn on the cob, and if they were lucky one of Grandma Mary Victoria’s famous fried dry apple pies. Grandpa would also enjoy picking fresh blackberries with his daughters and grandchildren. He would always look forward to eating those blackberries in one of Grandma’s pies.

“Albert McKinnon, a foster child who was later adopted, took the McKinnon name when he came to live with Grandpa John and Mary in the 1920’s. He would go down to Collin’s Drug Store and purchase several varieties of hand packed ice cream. Grandpa John was always pleased to see Albert with arms loaded full of ice cream pints. He couldn’t wait to enjoy a dish of ice cream on his front porch!

“John would wear gray denim pants and matching shirt with a suit vest. He often wore a captain’s coat and cap. Many neighbors would call him “Cap” as they would greet him on his walks. He was about 6 foot and of slender build. He wasn’t a church going man, but enjoyed God’s creative hand on his daily walks. He often would walk down town and sit on benches to greet and talk with friends and visitors to Frankfort. He wasn’t a shy man and loved sharing a good joke.

“During the late spring of 1944 John fell during a cold morning walk probably on his way to get the mail from the post office. He would walk to town behind the school on the ‘clay cut’ path which was known as short cut to town. This tragedy caused him to break his leg, preventing him from returning home. He caught pneumonia and even after hospitalization lost the battle to live and at age 86, he passed away that same year.”

Lighthouse keeper John McKinnon (1858-1944), a man who was a true testament to the lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes, is buried in the Crystal Lake Township Cemetery North in Frankfort, Michigan.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 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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