Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station


“A Few Days in the Life of Keeper Henry Gill Jr.”
The subject of this story was developed as I was researching another writing topic at the National Archives in Chicago, Illinois. It’s funny how subjects, storylines or someone’s background present itself to me. This one was no exception. The information for this story came to me as I was researching: “Harbor Beach (Sand Beach) Lifesaving Station” and those who once served at this station. While I was opening another archival folder, I accidently came across some information on: “Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station” and: “Keeper Henry Gill Jr.” I stopped my research and spent the next thirty minutes reading through the 1883 station logbook. Inside that logbook there few entries that intrigued my curiosity enough that I wanted to write about them. So, with that said, let’s talk about: “Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station,” “Keeper Henry Gill Jr. and a number of events that took place while he was in charge of the lifesaving station.

Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station


In 1878, the Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station was established by the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the U.S Treasury Department. The new lifesaving station was built about two miles northeast of Port Austin, Michigan. The station was also positioned about two miles southeast of: “Port Austin Reef Light.” Sometime during 1931, Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station was: “Decommissioned.” Today it’s: “Privately Owned,” and stands in a gated community at the north end of: “Pointe Aux Barques, Michigan.” The station now sits some 8½ miles West Northwest of  “Pointe Aux Barques Light.”

Henry Gill Jr. – Early Life

The 1850, U.S. Federal Census shows, Henry Gill Jr.’s occupation was listed as a “Farmer.” His farm was located in Port Austin, Michigan. His annual salary in 1850 was listed as “$600.00.” Twenty years later his occupation was listed as “Fisherman” living in “Port Austin, Michigan.” Over the next ten years,  Henry Gill’s occupation was again listed as a “Farmer.” In that same census records Charles A. Kimball was listed a “Lighthouse Keeper” serving in Port Austin, Michigan. In a special schedule – surviving soldier, sailor or marines-widows, Henry’s Rank was listed as “Private” in the Minor Civil Division located in Port Austin, Michigan. In the 1900 U.S Federal Census Henry’s name appeared again. His occupation was listed as “Lighthouse Superintendent” in Port Austin, Michigan. Ten years later we see Henry’s name appear again in the census. His occupation was listed as “Keeper” U.S. Lifesaving Service, station in Port Austin, Michigan.

Author’s Notes:

            “Charles A. Kimball also served as Keeper at Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.”

Henry Gill Jr. – Service Appointments

The United States Lighthouse Service & U.S. Lifesaving service appointed Henry A. Gill Jr. a number of times, He served at Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station and as Lighthouse Superintendent stationed in Port Austin, Michigan. As I continue to tell his story we will examine a number of events that took place over his longstanding career.

Steamer-Barge Arizona – Running in Heavy Seas

During the late evening hours of the 24th day of September 1883, the Wooden Steamer-Barge Arizona was loaded down with a cargo of lumber. While she was being loaded, the Arizona was anchored in her home port of Caseville, Michigan. Her destination was listed as: “Detroit, Michigan.”

Author’s Notes:

“The Arizona was built in 1868, by Thomas Quayle & Sons, located in Cleveland, Ohio.”

Captain of the Arizona - Reports

The captain of the Arizona reported his present position was about four miles north of the: “Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station.” Due to the gale force winds and the heavy seas, the steering gear apparatus became: “Disabled.” He also reported the sails were ripped to pieces by the winds relentless force. Because of the heavy seas, shredded sails and a disabled steering apparatus the: “Wooden Steamer-Barge Arizona” became: “Unmanageable.” As the violent storm continued to pound away at her, the waves also began taking their toll on the wooden hull. As the deck began filling up with water and steamer began drifted toward reef. As they held her head of the barge towards the wind the captain and crew knew they had to make one last ditch effort to prevent, her from becoming stranding on the reef. The captain ordered the crew to drop the anchors. His hope was by doing this it would prevent the load of lumber aboard from rolling off the deck and stop her from sinking.

Northeast Patrol – Time: 11:00 p.m.

Around 11:00 p.m. on the 24th day of September 1883, we find the surfman walking the northeast patrol from: “Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station” (Tenth U.S. Lifesaving District), Lake Huron. Handwritten in the station logbook the surfman on patrol stated he: “Observed a light offshore.” He estimated the light from the unknown vessel was about five miles northeast of our station. He also noted: “The light seemed to be stationary.” Once the surfman completed his patrol, he reported his observations to Keeper Henry Gill Jr.

Early Morning – 1:00 a.m.

After watching the stationary light for some time, Keeper Gill or his team were unable to determine what it was or why it hadn’t moved. About 1:00 a.m. the morning of the 25th day of September 1883, Keeper Henry Gill Jr. had his crew of surfmen launched the surfboat. As the crew was pulling oars toward the unknown vessel, the gale force winds were hitting them from the northwest. As we continued pulling oars out into the lake the seas became even worse. According to on of the handwritten entry, Gill noted he and his crew were about ¾ of a mile from shore and the conditions on Lake Huron were quickly deteriorating. In his mind, Keeper Gill knew it was: “Impossible” to safely cross the reef. The next set of problems the station crew encounter as they continued to pull in heavy seas were the night skies were uncommonly dark, the light illuminating from the unknown vessel appeared to be way beyond the reef and vessel seemed to be moving in an easterly direction.

Author’s Notes:

“Under these hazardous conditions, Keeper Gill and his crew were compelled to return to the shore.”

Day Break – Discovery Is Made

Just as the sun came up over the horizon, Keeper Gill and his crew made a startling discovery. Lying about five miles northeast of their station was an unknown: “Steamer-Barge.” From what they could see, the barge dropped both of its anchors and everyone aboard seemed to be okay? By 8:00 a.m. the steamer-barge hoisted a distress signal. Keeper Gill ordered his men to relaunch the surfboat back into the heavy seas. Keeper Gill was at the rudder and his crew was pulling hard towards the reef. Again, they encountered violent seas, gale force winds and the continued-on slot of waves crashing over the sides of the surfboat. Despite mother nature’s best efforts, the crew continue to battle their way towards the vessel.

Author’s Note:

“There were several times when witnesses onshore thought the station crew would be lost to the depts of Lake Huron.”

As the team continue to pull hard across the reef, the violent seas and heavy surf almost made it look like the surfboat was standing on its end. About: 9:15 a.m. the station crew finally arrived at the barge, but due to heavy seas the crew couldn’t maneuver their surfboat alongside the barge. Keeper Gill decided they would make their way to the stern of the barge. Gill figure they would attempt to take the five crew members off the barge one at a time. Once in position, each of the barge crew members were told to jump one at a time into the surfboat. Keeper Gill feared the female cook might have some difficulties jumping from the barge into the surfboat. She managed to jump in without any more trouble than the other four crewmen.

Journey Back to Shore

With everyone aboard, the return trip towards the station was extremely dangerous and very difficult while pulling through the high seas. The station team was now compelled to make their way back through the heavy seas. Their destination was about two miles east of the station. Onshore there was an intense excitement for those witnesses who were standing on the beach as the surfboat was finally pulled ashore. In everyone’s mind who watch these events unfold, this was a creditable rescue for Keeper Henry Gill, Jr., and his dedicated team of “Surfmen.” The following morning, the crew from: “Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station” escorted the captain back onto and off his anchored barge. Keeper Gill recorded these two lines in the station logbook: “Nothing could be done aboard his vessel.” “I made the decision to returned to our station.”

False Alarms – East & West Patrols

Reading through several of the station logbooks, this event caught my eye. On the 7th day of August 1903, Keeper Henry Gill wrote this account in the logbook. There were high wind coming out of the northwest during the early hours of the day and were noted as moderate out of the southwest just after lunch. Temperatures range from fifty-four deg. at Midnight to high at noon of sixty-five deg. There were eight beach patrols set from Midnight to sunset. There were personnel assigned to the two-mile beach patrols that went to the east and west, Keeper Henry Gill assigned himself the east patrol from Midnight to 4:00 a.m. He had one of his surfman assigned to sunrise watch of the reef. Training for the days was listed as “Practice Resuscitation”

Author’s Notes:

            Gill wrote this in the station logbook,  which left me questioning why he wrote this line in the first place: “Who was on watch at station at 10:20 p.m.”

Surfman Durrant was assigned to the “East Beach Patrol.” He was at the end of patrol and has just finished it up by turning the key to the “East Dialer.” He was on his way back when Surfman Durrant heard a “Whistle” in the distance. As he looked around, Surfman Durrant was trying to judge the distance and direction of where this “Whistle” was coming from. Durrant stayed where he was for several minutes. He was still trying to make out where the “Whistle” was coming from and what direction it was coming from. Durrant decided to head towards the station and finish up his patrol assignment. Upon arrival, Surfman Durrant talked to Keeper Gill about what he heard and roughly where he heard it. By 10:20 p.m., Keeper Gill and a few of the surfmen had launched the surfboat. They pulled oars in the direction of  where surfman Durrant heard the “Whistle” while on patrol. They spent the first two hours pulling oars. The next five miles the crew had raised the sails as their quest to figure out where the noise came from continued. While under sails we continued to scan the beach and battle rough seas on Lake Huron. The result was, we didn’t hear another sound and from our vantage point there was nothing out of the ordinary as we continued to keep watch along the beach. Keeper Gill made the decision to return to our station.

Author’s Notes:

            “Around midnight, Henry Gill Jr. and his team of surfmen were some four hours from the station.”

The following morning, Keeper Gill patrolled the east shoreline where the “Whistle” was heard. He started at 8:00 a.m. and finished up by Noon. I heard nothing and saw nothing while I walked.
During a patrol to the west another surfman made his way along the beach. Based on a conversation he had with Keeper Gill prior to him leaving the station, he was told by Keeper Gill to look for a wreck and debris that was reported by another station keeper. As he walked the beach, the surfman didn’t see any signs of the wreck or debris scatter across the two-miles of shoreline. By 10:30 p.m. an impression was made by turning the key on  the “West Dialer.” The surfman assigned to the west patrol was back and “On Station” by Midnight. He reported to Keeper Gill there were no signs of any wreck or debris scatter across the west shoreline.

Author’s Notes:

            “I’ve stated many time in this story and in my other publication that beach patrols were made by those surfmen serving at each Great Lakes Lifesaving Stations. What people don’t know is prior to each patrol and at the end of each patrol the surfman assigned would talk to the keeper. Prior to a patrol, the keeper might talk about what information was relayed to him from another station. Upon the surfman returning, he would report to the Keeper what he saw while on patrol.”

Author’s Final Thought
Grindstone City (Port Austin) Lifesaving Station, has been through a lot since it was originally built in 1878. During its long enduring legacy this lifesaving station and those who served over the years, have put their lives on the line without thinking about their own personal safety. There are so many men that have sacrificed their own existence just to save those in distress. I was reading about Keeper Henry Gill Jr. and his crew of surfmen. This group of brave men were one of the best and their reputation has lived on through the ages.

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