A contract for the lighthouse, along with those at Eagle River, Point Betsie, and Pointe aux Barques, was awarded to Alanson Sweet, Luzerne Ransom, and Morgan Shinn on July 17, 1854. Work on the lighthouse on a fifty-seven-acre site just north of the river’s mouth was carried out primarily during the 1855 season. The original lighthouse consisted of a cylindrical rubblestone tower, with a diameter of eight feet, that stood thirty-nine feet tall and was capped by an octagonal, cast-iron lantern room. A one-and-a-half-story dwelling, which measured twenty-nine by twenty-eight feet and had an attached ten-by-twelve-foot summer kitchen, was built adjacent to the tower for the keeper.
A fifth-order, Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens was mounted in the lantern room along with two flash panels that revolved around the lens every four minutes. Ruby glass screens were affixed to the panels to produce a light characteristic of fixed white with a red flash every two minutes. Michael W. Lyons became the first keeper of the light in September 1856.
Even though it had been rejected by the superintending engineer officer for not being “built in conformity to the terms of the contract,” Portage River Lighthouse commenced operation in 1856. Howell Cobb, the Secretary of the Treasury, asked that a special agent be sent to visit the lighthouse, along with those at Eagle River and LaPointe that were also in dispute, in order to settle “the controversy between the contractors and the engineer.” This visit was planned for the opening of navigation in 1858, and the issues must have been quickly resolved, as the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year specifically mentions that the contested lighthouses, “which had been under contract for some years,” had been completed.
Like many of the early lighthouses built on the Great Lakes, the first Portage River Lighthouse was ill equipped for the severe weather it had to endure. An inspector in 1868 found the buildings in a dilapidated condition and generated the following list of issues:
The tower is built of rubble stone, with solid walls which are very damp inside. The stairway is of wood, and badly decayed. The lantern leaks, and is too small for the apparatus, having an inside diameter of only four (4) feet.
The dwelling is also built of rubble stone. During wet weather the water stands on the floor of the cellar, and it is damp at all times. The house is very damp throughout, in consequence of which the floors are so badly decayed as to be unsafe. The plastering has fallen off the ceilings and walls in many places. The eaves of the roof do not project beyond the walls.
It is recommended that the tower be provided with an interior brick cylinder, an iron stairway, and a lantern of modern style, with cast-iron deck plate; also, that a new dwelling be built, and that it be connected with the tower by a covered passage-way.
Born near Huddersfield, England, where his father had a freestone quarry, George Craig immigrated to Montreal in 1854 and then made his way west to Marquette in 1860. A year later, Craig sailed along the south shore of Lake Superior from Whitefish Point to Ontonagon in a small boat looking for promising sandstone outcroppings. During this daring voyage, he discovered the now famous sandstone near Portage Entry and acquired land about a mile east of the mouth of the river. The small settlement of Craig was formed to support a quarry, whose sandstone was hauled along a narrow-gauge rail to a dock on the river and then barged out to ships in Keweenaw Bay.
The community and quarry at Craig soon lost out to larger facilities at Jacobsville, founded by John H. Jacobs and located just east of Portage River Lighthouse. Perhaps desiring a steady income, George Craig became keeper of the lighthouse in 1878, after John B. Crebassa was transferred to the lighthouse just completed at nearby Sand Point. George Craig minded the light at Portage River for a decade before retiring in 1888 at the age of sixty-nine. A fine example of a building constructed with limestone from the Portage Entry area is Saint Ignatius Loyola Church in Houghton.
A survey of the lighthouse reservation in 1879 revealed that the station was located on private land. After funds were appropriated in August 1882, the land surrounding the lighthouse was purchased the following spring for $700. Now that it owned the lighthouse property, the government forced a county road and a couple of private buildings to be removed from its land in 1889. Corner and boundary stones were then set up to mark the limits of the reservation, and a barbed-wire fence was placed around the property in 1903.
On August 1, 1920 a major light was established atop an octagonal steel structure placed at the outer end of the breakwater at the mouth of Portage River. This new light replaced a wooden tower and was powerful enough that Portage River Lighthouse was no longer needed. Franklin W. Witz, the light’s last keeper, was transferred to the new light, known as Keweenaw Waterway Lighthouse, where he served as first assistant for over a decade. Keeper Witz began his lightkeeping career at remote Stannard Rock Lighthouse as third assistant keeper in 1893 and worked his way up to first assistant in 1897. After three years as first assistant, Witz looked after several range lights on Portage River before being placed in charge of Portage River Lighthouse in 1902.
The discontinued Portage River Lighthouse was transferred to the State of Michigan on August 10, 1932, but when the state failed to follow through with its plans, the property reverted to the Coast Guard on October 29, 1948. The lighthouse was subsequently turned over to the General Services Administration for liquidation and ended up being sold at auction on November 25, 1958 to Ray and Sylvia Joynt for $18,251. The property remained in the Joynt family until it was purchased in 2004 by Mike and Cheri Ditty, who run the historic lighthouse as the Jacobsville Lighthouse Inn.
Originally from Minnesota, the Dittys spent their summer vacations sailing on Lake Superior for many years before deciding to purchase a marina so they could be on the water full-time. While looking for a marina, they happened upon Portage River Lighthouse and just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.