Portals to the Past: Port Huron

Port Huron. Stretching for seven miles along the shore of the St. Clair River and the base of Lake Huron, the City of Port Huron serves as an international border crossing marked by the sweeping twin Blue Water Bridges connecting Michigan to Ontario. 
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Port Huron Historical Postcard
At the White Line Star Dock - Port Huron, Michigan - Courtesy Vintage Views

Port Huron. Stretching for seven miles along the shore of the St. Clair River and the base of Lake Huron, the City of Port Huron serves as an international border crossing marked by the sweeping twin Blue Water Bridges connecting Michigan to Ontario. 

The Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes draws thousands to the state’s Sunrise Side in July as host to the longest consecutively run freshwater contest in the world, the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Yacht Race. Launched in 1925, the renowned sailing tradition is at the center of the city’s grand multi-day celebration, the Blue Water Fest, which heralds the race contenders’ mass arrival in the Black River with an International Parade, carnival, live music and fireworks.

But this inviting port’s rich maritime past is ever-present, too.

Port Huron Historical Riverboat Postcard
Tashmoo at Docks – Port Huron Historical Postcard – Courtesy Vintage Views

At the heart of the globe’s largest inland shipping route, Acheson Ventures’ Great Lakes Maritime Center features front-row views to freighters two football fields in length passing through, while a refurbished seaway port on Military Street caters to modern yacht and shipping needs. 

The site — which evolved from Wolverine Dry Dock, Tunnel Fuel Dock and Port Huron Coal Dock Co. to Port Huron Terminal Company over the years — played a fundamental role in fueling Michigan’s growth during the 19th century, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened.

While early settlement dates back to the late 1700s, Port Huron’s population really took root following Great Britain’s defeat in the War of 1812, after the U.S. established Fort Gratiot near Lake Huron’s base in 1814. By the mid-1820s, the burgeoning town (then known as Desmond) featured an inn, general store and trading house; a sawmill, shoe shop, four trading posts and dwelling structures followed during the 1830s.

A decade later, eight of the state’s 21 steam sawmills sprouted, inspiring new residents and city status in 1857. Trailing only New York City as an immigration point, Port Huron’s population swelled even more after the Civil War, when many escaped slaves who found haven here on the Underground Railroad returned from Canada, and new trades and industries including manufacturing, shipbuilding, railways and Michigan’s first petroleum production that came in lumbering’s wake spurred new economic growth. Learn more about this maritime destination at bluewater.org and porthuron.org.

Port Huron Vintage Divers
Spread Eagle Dive Gratiot Beach – Port Huron, Michigan – Courtesy Vintage Views
Port Huron
Historic Highlights

• Housed within the historic Fort Gratiot depot founded in 1858 by the Grand Trunk Railway, the Thomas Edison Depot Museum expresses the multi-faceted story of the inventor, whose family resided in Port Huron during his formative years, through re-created period settings and interactive exhibits. Outdoor displays highlight the area’s heritage, including Native American settlements, historic forts and a baggage car recreation of young Edison’s mobile chemistry lab and print shop (phmuseum.org/thomas-edison-depot-museum).

• Displaying a light at the top of her mast and sounding much-recalled fog horn blasts, the Huron Lightship acted as a floating lighthouse in Lake Huron for 50 years. Retired in 1970 and permanently moored in Port Huron’s Pine Grove Park as a museum, the celebrated vessel — dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1990 — houses an extensive collection of artifacts, including many model ships (phmuseum.org/huron-lightship).

• Established in 1825 and rebuilt in 1829 and 1861, the 86-foot conical stone and brick Fort Gratiot Lighthouse — Michigan’s oldest surviving beacon — is open for tower climbs and tours as well as offers unique overnight stays (phmuseum.org/fort-gratiot-lighthouse).

By Roger L. Rosentreter and Lisa M. Jensen, Michigan BLUE Magazine.

Photography courtesy Blue Water Visitors & Convention/Rich Kelly; Vintage Views

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