Digest>Archives> November 2002

My Grandfather: The Keeper of the Light 1895 - 1939

By Betty Warner Ritzert


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Keeper Fred Warner in his keeper’s uniform poses ...

My grandfather, Fred Warner, was discharged at Fort Wayne in Detroit, Michigan in 1895 from the U.S. 7th Cavalry. He was given a letter of introduction from his Commanding officer to the Mayor of Detroit for possible work in the city. There being no work in Detroit, the Mayor referred him to the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, which was just being organized. They employed him immediately, and he was put on a steamer heading to the Soo Locks West Entrance Light in Sault Ste. Marie. He received his appointment from the government at that time. My father had the original appointment, but lost it in a move sometime in the last 10 years. In 1901, my grandfather was sent to Brush Point Lighthouse, also on Lake Superior. He served there just 3 years, and was then reassigned to the Birch Point Lighthouse, near Brimley, Michigan. With no housing available they put in a foundation, and in the winter of 1904 they transported the Lighthouse from Brush Point up the St. Mary’s River to Birch Point on the ice, with drays pulling it all the way. He served there until 1916, when he was reassigned to the lighthouse in Ontonagon, Michigan. The Ontonagon River ran in front of the lighthouse, releasing its warm river water into icy Lake Superior on the East side of the lighthouse. He served faithfully in Ontonagon until his retirement in 1939. Winters, with no shipping going on, the government didn’t pay the keepers, just gave them a home to stay in. So when the shipping season was over, my grandfather went to work where he could, and ended up working winters in the projection room of the local theater to help support his family. Some of the stories my father related began when he was a child at the Birch Point Lighthouse. He remembered his father putting him and his brother on the log booms going down the river to the lumberyards, catching fish on the way. When they got to their destination, they had to figure out a way to get back home with the fish.

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The Ontonagon Lighthouse taken in the late 1800s.

When they lived at Birch Point, my father and his brother went to school in Brimley. In the spring and fall, my grandfather would take them by boat across the bay, but in the winter they had a big dog that they trained to pull them on a sled. The dog would be tied up outside the schoolhouse, until after school when he would take off as fast as he could when the two boys were on the sled, as he was ready to go home. At times, when they were young lads, my grandfather would put them in a boat tied to a tree and put them out in the lake to catch enough trout for their breakfast. Back in 1985, my parents moved to St. Ignace, and we took them for a ride back to Birch Point. All that remained was the oil house and the foundation of the house. My father pointed to a small island out in the lake, and said his dad used to get a young steer, take him by boat to the island and leave him there to graze and fatten up. By fall he was so big he couldn’t get him in the boat, so he had to slaughter him and bring the quarters back, and that was some of their supplies for the winter. In reading some of the books on Michigan Lighthouses, there has never been a mention of Brush Point or Birch Point. Now there is an automatic light in the woods that covers the area where the Birch Point Lighthouse was once located. The Ontonagon Lighthouse was very much a part of my life when I was a child. My family lived in Detroit when the Depression came upon us, and we moved back to Ontonagon into the lighthouse with my grandparents until my father could find work. I have many wonderful memories on the time I spent there. After we left, my sister and myself would go and spend time in the summer. As I go back there now and see this beautiful lighthouse deserted, I can only remember the happy times. My husband and myself went through it in 1996, and I was delighted to see it again. Of course it was all changed around, and a bathroom was put in where once my sister and I had slept. The winding staircase was a sight to behold for me. It wound straight up from the ground floor to the beacon.

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The author in her grandmother’s arms, poses with ...

The beacon was lit each night with kerosene, and it would shine for miles, each prism sparkling as it went round and round. What a sight to see. In my mind I can still my grandfather climbing up the winding steps to light it. The beacon that once guided the ships was no longer there. It is now in the Historical Museum in Ontonagon. It was a well-known fact that my grandfather was the best weatherman at that time. He would put up the flags telling the ships on the lake and the fishermen what the weather would be. Knowing Lake Superior, anyone knows that a squall could come up so fast you wouldn’t have time to get ahead of it. If he put up a red warning flag, they all knew there was a storm coming. Now when I go back and cross the bridge over the river, I look toward the lighthouse, and all I see are tons and tons of coal for the pulp mill. It looks lonely and deserted after all the years it served. I have many great memories of being there, and remembering how a Keeper of the Light lived back in those days. Many times I have hoped that someone would care enough to come forward and do something with it, as it is certainly worth saving for future generations to go in and see what a real lighthouse was like. I keep faith and hope that the monies that have been earmarked for restoration of the lighthouses in Michigan, that some of it will be used to restore this one.

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Now in the Ontonagon County Museum, this Fresnel ...

This story appeared in the November 2002 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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