In 1853, Eagle River became the county seat of Houghton County, and then the seat of Keweenaw County, when it was created from Houghton County in 1861. On September 28, 1850, Congress appropriated $4,000 for a lighthouse “at or near the mouth of Eagle River,” but it wasn’t until January 27, 1853 that the Michigan Legislature passed an act ceding jurisdiction over a tract of land for the lighthouse on the western side of the mouth of Eagle River.
A contract for construction of lighthouses at Eagle River, Point Betsie, Portage River, and Pointe aux Barques was awarded to Alanson Sweet, Luzerne Ransom, and Morgan E. Shinn on July 17, 1854. Eagle River Lighthouse was completed in 1855, but the superintending engineer rejected the work as not being “built in conformity to the terms of the contract.” A special agent was dispatched to investigate the matter at the opening of navigation in 1858, and it appears the controversy was settled as the lighthouse was completed and lighted later that year.
A sixth-order Fresnel lens was installed inside the iron, decagonal lantern that surmounted the nineteen-foot-tall stone tower to produce a fixed white light that served as a guide to the mouth of Eagle River. The tower was five feet, two inches wide and was attached to the corner of a one-and-a-half-story stone keeper’s dwelling that was roughly twenty-nine feet square.
The first keeper of Eagle River Lighthouse was John Griswold, who transferred to the new station from Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, where he had served as keeper for ten years. When Keeper Griswold died in 1861 at the age of fifty-one, Julia, his wife, took charge of the light and served for four years.
While Keeper Feiser was serving at Eagle River, the following report on the lighthouse appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1868:
At this station the buildings are situated on a sand hill, and the tower forms one corner of the dwelling. Owing to the character of the foundation the walls have cracked, and the crack has enlarged materially within the last year, showing that the destructive influences are still at work. The inspector reports that already there is danger that the corner of the dwelling supporting the tower will fall. Either very extensive repairs or a new structure are required, and believing that the latter would prove to be the most economical, an estimate of the cost is submitted.
Congress allocated $14,000 for building a new lighthouse at Eagle River on March 3, 1869, but when this money reverted to the treasury, the same amount had to be provided again on March 3, 1871. The second Eagle River Lighthouse took the form of a square tower built into the northeast corner of one-and-a-half-story brick keeper’s dwelling. The sixth-order lens was transferred to the new lighthouse, where it stood twenty-four feet above the ground and sixty-one feet above Lake Superior.
Keeper Feiser passed away in 1889, and Thomas J. Bennetts was appointed in his stead. Keeper Bennetts’ service at Eagle River overlapped with that of his brother Noah, who was in charge of Portage Lake Ship Canal Lighthouse.
Eagle River was starting to decline in importance about the time its second lighthouse was built. The owners of the Cliff Mine sold it in 1870 for $100,000, after the mine had reached a depth of 1,000 feet and extracting the copper was becoming more difficult. Though the mine would operate well into the 1900s, Eagle River was no longer the important port it once was.
A light at the end of the pier at Eagle River was authorized in 1879 to replace the main light, but Coast Pilots published in the 1880s reveal that the main light remained active. The Lighthouse Board noted in its annual report for 1892 that Eagle River Lighthouse had outlived its usefulness:
Vessels bound east from the head of Lake Superior first make the land and commence to turn in rounding Keweenaw Point at the Sand Hills, 12 miles west of Eagle River. This point is halfway between Eagle Harbor and Ontonagon, and is 7 miles southwest of Eagle River. There is now a light at Eagle River, but it has outlived its usefulness. The local traffic of the place has stopped. It has no commerce and no harbor. There is no longer reason for continuing the light there, except as a coast light, and it is not sufficiently powerful to serve that purpose. It is proposed, therefore, to move the light from Eagle River, where it is of no use, to Sand Hills, where it would be of great service.
This is supposed to be a coast light and guide to Eagle River. As a coast light it can not now be regarded as of any importance, being only a lens lantern and located back from the general line of the coast. It is of no use as a guide to the entrance to Eagle River, because the mouth of that river is now entirely blocked up with sand. An old dock which was once in use at this point is now rotten, and has not had a pound of freight on it for years. There is no commerce in the locality, and no vessels of any draft, except the light-house tenders with supplies go near the place. There is a rocky reef about one-half mile offshore, extending for several miles along the coast, which makes it dangerous to approach. For several years past no repairs have been made to this dwelling on account of the probability that the light might be discontinued. As a consequence, it is in a far advanced state of decay. If the station is to be continued, all the woodwork of the roof, doors, windows, outhouses, board walks, and fences should be renewed.
The Lighthouse Board continued its pleas for a lighthouse at Sand Hills through 1907, and then in 1908, it discontinued Eagle River Lighthouse. Keeper Bennetts was transferred to Manitou Island Lighthouse, where both he and his brother had earlier served as assistants. After five years in charge of Manitou Island Lighthouse, Thomas Bennetts moved back to the mainland and looked after Eagle Harbor Lighthouse for fourteen years.
Eagle River Lighthouse was sold at auction on August 2, 1908 to John Vertin of Calumet, who submitted the winning bid of $925. Jim Vivian III acquired the lighthouse in 2000 from his father and grandfather, who had purchased it from the Vertin family around 1996. Virginia and Edward Cole purchased Eagle River Lighthouse in 2014 from Jim Vivian, and after a thorough restoration, offered it as a vacation rental.
While a lighthouse was eventually built at Sand Hills, it didn’t happen until 1919, years after the Lighthouse Board was disbanded. Interestingly, William R. Bennetts, the first keeper of Sand Hills Lighthouse, was the younger brother of Thomas J. Bennetts, the last keeper of Eagle River Lighthouse.
Head Keepers: John Griswold (1859 – 1861), Julia A. Griswold (1861 – 1865), Henry F. Feiser (1865 – 1889), Thomas J. Bennetts (1889 – 1908).