History of Ecorse Range Lights “1883-1942 & Keeper August ‘Gus’ Gramer”

Ecorse Front and Rear Range Light Stations once had a bright future that began some seventy years ago. The history of these range lights is somewhat sketchy and the documentation of their existence is even hard to find. There were some unorthodox characters that served here as well. So with that said let’s move forward on what I’ve been able to come up with about both of these range lights that are now just a memory.Ecorse Light

The village of Ecorse, Michigan is approximately • of a mile from the Ecorse Range Lights, providing your approaching them in a straight line. If the lighthouse keeper lived in the village of Ecorse, Michigan, it would be necessary for him or his assistant to row a full mile just to reach the Front Range Light. This task would be quite difficult during the winter months at times. The ice would form in the shallow waters while the main Detroit River Channel was open. The United States Lighthouse Service deeded 1.067 acres of land on the 27th day of August 1883 and the Front Range Light was first illuminated for the start of the 1895 navigation season. If you look at the overall acreage in 1883 the square feet would translate out to: 100 feet by 700 feet = 700,000 square feet of land. The Front Range Light at Ecorse, Michigan was patent from the State of Michigan. (Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives)


The 9th District Inspectors Chas C. Bartlett and Norris M. Works made a surprise inspection of both range lights just after 1883. In each of their reports they made the exact same statements:

“Both Range Lights are surrounded by an extensive swamp, however this entire area doesn’t seem to pose any type of health threats to those men who are stationed here at Ecorse.”


The Ecorse Reservation was entirely submerged, and the bottom of the channel is so soft that securing any type of foundations had to be done by sinking piles into the swampy soil and protect it with riprap stone. Theses range lights will be located on the flats, in water about 2 • feet (Rear Range) and 3 • feet (Front Range) deep, in front of a wide marsh land.

The Front and Rear Ecorse Range Lights were first activated in September, 1895. The two 6th Order Fresnel lenses were transferred from the now decommissioned Maumee Middle Range Light Station. A wooden walk was built with a single hand rail between both range lights. This walk was completely removed in the winter and replaced in the spring of the year. Minor repairs were made as needed or as directed after each district inspection. Space was engaged in a boathouse in Ecorse, Michigan for the storage and upkeep of the lighthouse keeper's boat. It was noted in the logbook these two range lights were last lit for the season on the 20th day of December 1895, and they continued to burn until their oil supply was completely consumed. This situation was caused by heavy winter ice flows that prevented the keeper from reaching either of the range lights. Subsequently he couldn’t extinguish or relight either of the lamps. The care of both of these range lights is especially needed during the latter part of the navigational season. I feel there is considerable danger due to heavy ice flows and logs jambs along the Detroit River Channel.

Ecorse Front Range Light was just about 550 feet South and 36 feet east of the Rear Range Light. One of the very distinct features at this location was the row of willow trees that were on each side of the embankment.


There were several ways to access both of Ecorse Range Lights. The first was from the town of Ecorse, Michigan, where you could take an undeveloped road towards the range lights, the other way was by rowboat if you felt you had enough stamina and strength to row just over a mile from Ecorse, Michigan. The Lighthouse Service requires that proper care of this station is a must and a keeper will be required to live on site.


Another alternative is:

“The nearest place where a keeper could reside is in the Tenth District.”


This can only be made possible only by constructing a keeper's dwelling on site. The Lighthouse Service estimated that a suitable dwelling could be constructed right next to the Front Range Light for just about $5,000. The Lighthouse Service recommended the appropriation for the amount money specified be made available quickly. The Lighthouse Service also recommends that approximately fifteen tons of stone be placed upon the embankment between the Ecorse Range Lights. This will form a very nice revetment and will help prevent the earth from being washed away when the water from the channel become angry.


The lighthouse tower was formed as part of the Ecorse Front Range Light Station and the 1 1/2 story, five rooms, storeroom, and pantry that made up the Keeper’s Quarters. Over eight years weather and the elements deteriorated the structure. The grounds around the keeper’s quarter’s foundation are in poor condition due to the swampy like conditions that have been there since the lights were constructed. There has been an ongoing rodent problem that has under minded the brick/concrete foundation pillared walls and the earth that surrounds the keeper’s quarters. There were areas around the foundation that have washout due to the constant pounding waves against the existing structures. In some areas there are large barrel size holes in the foundation walls and you can see directly into the cellar, which is just above the 1st floor substructure.


In 1903 the Front Range Light and keeper’s quarters were declared unsafe by the Lighthouse Board consequently both structures were torn down. Within a week construction of a new tower and a new two story keeper’s quarters got underway. The completion of both structures was scheduled for the start of the 1904 navigation season. In the new keeper’s quarters there was a closet designated as a watch room that measured 3 feet 7 inches by 5 feet 2 inches by 8 feet tall. There were several shelves that were added inside the closet. These new shelves were used to store lamp supplies, wicks, supplies and other items. There was a concrete walk way that ran from the new keeper’s quarters to the Ecorse Rear Range Light and boat launch. The square iron oil house was painted brown and stood 86 feet north of the keeper’s quarters. Keeper’s and assistant’s drew water from the Detroit River, by dipping an iron bucket into the river and toting it back to their quarters. Water was taken from the river some 75 feet away from the keeper’s quarters and placed in sink or left on the table to be used later.


There was a small dock on the west side of the embankment some 42 feet from the keeper’s quarters and just about 12 inches from the Detroit River. The red framed boathouse sat on the east side of the embankment and 37 feet north of the keeper’s quarters. The dimensions of the boathouse were 16 feet 4 inches by 24 feet 4 inches. There was a wooden timbered boat way that was covered with wooden boards that ran from the boathouse to the shores of the channel.


Ecorse’s Rear Range Light had a large eight sided lantern room with a wooden balcony covered in copper and 36 inch high glass window panels. There was an iron railing system that ran in a circle around the exterior of the lantern room. What made access to this lantern room so unusual was the pair of wooden doors. One of the doors opened out and the other open in. Most lanterns only had a single door that swung into the room. The floor of the lantern room was constructed out of wood and covered with carpeting. The interior of the lantern room had wire hooks screwed to the top of each wooden support post. There were two corner closets on the 1st story of the lighthouse tower, two on the second story and a very small cupboard in a room under the lantern room. There was a wooden spiral staircase that ran from the timber framed foundation to the 3rd floor lantern room. There was a 6th Order Fresnel lens placed carefully in the middle of the lantern room. Keepers would place a single wick oil lamp inside the lens in 1895 and remained as the primary light source until 1914. The light source was then changed over to acetylene, which remained until the light was put out on the 6th day of December 1917.


So where are these old structures today? According to the records all the structures are now gone, including those very precious keeper’s log books. Today the United States Coast Guard lists the present Ecorse Light as:

“Light on Ecorse River, Wayne County, navigational aid, authorized by Congress, Coast Guard D98 Annex I, head of navigation, highway bridge, some 400 feet above the mouth of the Ecorse River.”


Now that I've given you a brief history about both range lights and the Detroit River Channel near a little village called Ecorse, Michigan let’s talk about Keeper, August "Gus" Gramer who kept the lights burning in both range lights from 23rd day of August 1895 through the 16th day of May 1898 and again from the 16th day of October 1906 through the 25th day of May 1907, before his transfer to Monroe Harbor Lighthouse.


So what do we really know about Keeper August "Gus" Gramer, his life in the village of Ecorse, Michigan and his many exploits over the course of his lighthouse career? Gus as his friends knew him was a man about town and he held many positions in Ecorse, Michigan. He served as a fireman with the Ecorse Fire Department, an oarsman with some of the first Ecorse, Michigan Boat Club crews, he was loved by local newspaper reporters, and he rescued boaters from the Detroit River and Maumee Bay and had a real vibrant personality, so with all that said what happen to this colorful man? Well the person people got to know was a gentle man, but what people didn’t know he had a very dark side that eventually ruined his career and reputation throughout the United States Lighthouse Service. There seems to have been an ongoing feud between Gus and the Roscoe House of the Lighthouse Service, according to one newspaper reporter this feud made amusing copy for his local readers.


Well for starters Gus’s wife Lucy was only fifteen years old, an immigrant from Germany at the time of their marriage. Gus and Lucy had three children, Daughter, Elsie Gramer, son's Edward Gramer and James Gramer. Lucy took over as Lighthouse Keeper for her husband Gus from the 16th day of May 1898 to the 30th day of September 1898. According to the historical records Gus joined the United States Navy and left Ecorse Range Lights on the 30th day of September 1898 and returned on the 16th day of October 1906. His naval rank was listed as: “Seamen” and he saw active duty during the Spanish American War.


According to Gus, Lucy was accused of having an extramarital affair, with Charles whom he hired to help him out around both range lights and with the household chores. Gus accused Lucy of caring on this long time affair behind his back. Records state Lucy abandoned her duties as Acting Keeper at Ecorse Range Lights. Lucy left Ecorse and went to live with her father in Detroit, Michigan. Gus and Lucy’s stormy relationship as husband and wife grabbed the public’s eye in Ecorse, Michigan. The Gramer’s were like celebrities in the newspapers across the area. On the 24th day of August 1900 Gus went to Detroit, Michigan to speak to his estranged wife Lucy. Their torturous and sometimes twisted relationship was followed by the press like a soap opera back then.


“What I find so disturbing and appalling about this mess is a newspaper actually printed the detail of their so called discussion in late August 1900.”


Gus told the reporter he was always good to Lucy as she was on her knees sobbing about the detail of her extramarital affair that she carried on with Charles, despite she found him very unattractive. Gus continued talking with the reporter that he wouldn’t intentionally take any type of revenge on the young couple. Then he stated that he asked Lucy and Charles to be good to his children and look after them as he would. Gus told Lucy she was a good wife and deserved the best. Gus then helped them move their furniture into the their new home just after they all enjoyed some ice cream at the local parlor in Detroit, Michigan. Well now that we have heard August “Gus” Gramer’s side of this twisted tale let’s see what Lucy has to say about their encounter?


Lucy’s account of this encounter is very different. The entire time she was being questioned Lucy Gramer was very assertive in her statements to the same reporter who spoke with her husband Gus. Lucy told the reporter she never fell to her knees or confessed to anything about what went on between Gus, Charles and any type of extramarital affair she was accused of having with the hired help. Lucy stated she would seek legal representation in the next few days and potentially file for divorce. Well despite all the reports, statements to the press or their own personal accounts the couple got back together.


Their reunion was marked by turbulence, anger, violence and accounts of Lucy being abused by her husband. August “Gus” Gramer was taken into custody by the local authorities for abusing his wife Lucy in 1903. The people in Ecorse, Michigan were so outraged about Lucy being savagely beaten, they promptly formed a lynch mob and their intent was to make Gus pay for what he did to Lucy. The only saving grace for Gus was the governing authority stepped in and broke up the mob, otherwise Gus would have been begging for his life. Even after the abuse and distrust between them Lucy remained with Gus until 1906. During that same year their four year old son James accidently fell off the Ecorse Range Light Pier and subsequently drowned. The tragic death of their youngest son James Gramer was the straw that broke the camel back in Lucy’s mind and the couple divorced shortly after he was laid to rest.


Well it didn't take Gus long to get over his estranged ex-wife or the death of his four year old son. August “Gus” Gramer married Mary Gramer a short time before the 10th day of October 1906. Mary Gramer took over Gus's duties at both range lights from the 10th day of October 1906 to the 1st day of November 1906. There wasn't anything said about why Gus wasn't performing his duties as lighthouse keeper, but if I had to guess, it had something to do with his outgoing and sometimes volatile personality. August "Gus" Gramer was a colorful person with a short fuse. He was hot tempered and always spoke his mind, no matter who was around. This type "A" personality ultimately got Gus removed from his duties at Monroe Harbor Lighthouse. Gus ended up being forcefully removed from his Ohio lighthouse appointment by the governing authorities and ended up in jail. August “Gus” Gramer divorced Mary sometime after his next assignment. He remarried one more time prior to assignment in Toledo, Ohio.


My Final Thought:

“Well what can I say; here you have what little history there is of the Ecorse Range Lights and a man’s dedication to his county. Unfortunately all of this was overshadowed by jealously, obsession, anger, and violence towards the first women he loved, which had a tragic effect on a very promising career. August “Gus” Gramer life reflects the turbulent seas he once stood watch over!”