At one time, two nearly identical lighthouses stood at each end of a dike in an area known as “The Flats,” a now extinct site that was halfway between Port Huron and Detroit with Algonac being the nearest town and Harsens Island being seen a half-mile in the distance from the actual St. Clair Flats Ship Canal Light Station. The canal ran in a southwest to northeast direction. Basically it is an area between Lake Erie and Lake Huron at the southern end of the St. Clair River.
The twin lighthouses, as they were known, were identical with one exception. The Upper Lighthouse had its tower on the left corner of the structure and the Lower Lighthouse had its tower on the right corner of the structure. They were lighted for the first time on November 15, 1871, and standing at opposite ends of the canal, were officially named the St. Clair Flats Canal Lower Lighthouse and the St. Clair Flats Canal Upper Lighthouse. The first keeper of the Lower lighthouse was Albert L. Hatch, and the first keeper of the Upper lighthouse was William H. Mott.
Lighthouse historians and aficionados may recognize the design of St. Clair Flats Canal Lighthouses. They were constructed using the same basic plans that were used to construct other Great Lakes lighthouses, such as McGulpin Point Lighthouse, Sand Island Lighthouse, Passage Island Lighthouse, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, White River Lighthouse, and Chambers Island Lighthouse.
The original St. Clair Flats Lighthouses were both equipped with fixed red lights from Fourth-Order Fresnel lenses. Both lighthouse structures, consisting of ten rooms each, were built of red brick, and had slate cover roofs, and the window and door frames were all painted green. To complete the station, each lighthouse was equipped with a red brick oil house and a hennery, which is was the Lighthouse Establishment called a “chicken coop.”
Unfortunately, probably because of their location, very few photographs of the lighthouses seem to exist, and even the post card manufacturing companies, who loved lighthouses, issued very few post cards of the lighthouses, and the ones they did were from a distance.
Personal stories and memories of the lighthouse keepers and families who lived at the lighthouses are scarce and almost not existent.
At age 31, Andrew Rattray became the lighthouse keeper at the St. Clair Flats Upper Lighthouse in 1883. It was his first lighthouse assignment, and he never served at any other lighthouses. After 36 years at the Upper Lighthouse, he retired in 1919. Andrew Rattray and his wife Alice (Slater) had two sons, William and Radcliff, and one daughter, Alice, who was actually born at the lighthouse. Later in life, daughter Alice’s son, Gordon D. Amsbary, served as a curator of the Great Lakes Marine and U.S. Coast Guard Museum in Ashtabula, Ohio. His wife Alice died at the lighthouse in 1913, six years before he retired.
Andrew Rattray died in 1948 at the age of 96, leaving behind all of his children, and ten grandchildren, and twenty-five great grandchildren. He was buried at the Oaklawn Cemetery in Clay, Michigan.
Andrew Rattray’s sons did not follow in their father’s footsteps as lighthouse keepers. However, his son William, did serve as the lighthouse keeper for two months in November and December of 1905 at the St. Clair Flats Channel Range Lighthouses after the death of lighthouse keeper John Sinclair, who had been the keeper there since 1899.
Interestingly, Tom Lappin, who was the keeper of the St. Clair Flats Lower Lighthouse from 1890 to 1925, served for 35 years, nearly as long as Andrew Rattray served. Similar to Andrew Rattray, it was the only lighthouse where he served.
One keeper, Henry Corgan, who became the keeper of the St. Clair Flats Upper Lighthouse in 1919 was the oldest lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes when he retired at age 70 in 1924. Henry Corgan started his lighthouse career in in 1898 at Manitou Island Lighthouse and went on to serve at Gull Rock Lighthouse, Point Peninsula Lighthouse, and Copper Harbor Lighthouse before he came to St. Clair Flats Canal. Interestingly, before he became the head keeper at Manitou Island Lighthouse, Henry Corgan served first as an assistant keeper under his father at Manitou Island Lighthouse where brother, Hugh who had preceded him as an assistant keeper and drowned five days after his appointment.
By the 1930s, both the St. Clair Flats Canal Upper and Lower Lighthouses were no longer needed and they were destroyed, lost forever, but remembered in the pages of Lighthouse Digest.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2017 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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