A HISTORY OF PORT SANILAC & THE FIRST HARBOR OF REFUGE
The Port Sanilac Harbor is one of the many harbors in the marine highway, which is a network of protected harbors along the entire coastline of Michigan. The State Waterways Commission started the project around 1947, planning to create a refuge for boaters every 15 miles. The first part was completed in 1951, with a large celebration.
Back in the 1830's Port Sanilac was called "Bark Shanty Point". A group of men came here to cut and peel hemlock bark which was used in the tanning of leather. They built a small shanty to live in that was covered in bark. Located on a point and being visible for several miles, the shanty soon became a landmark. When Oldfield, Thompson and Moore built a steam sawmill in 1848 it marked the beginning of the village. In 1854, the post office was established and in 1857, residents petitioned to change the name to Port Sanilac.
Port Sanilac Harbor Opening Celebration 1951
With the coming of the sawmill, settlers began to travel up this way. Steamers would stop by Port Sanilac shipping lumber. The government made land available for $1.25 per acre. Settlers would till the land, cut and split the pine into shingles, peeled bark from the hemlocks and cut the cedars into posts and telegraph poles. There was a great need for harbors during those days, everything was transported by water.
During the Great Storm of 1913, every dock was destroyed on Michigan's east shore except those ports having harbors. It was a storm of cyclonic proportions destroying many of the carriers. (Several of these wrecks now provide interesting historical subject for scuba divers near Port Sanilac's shore). The trade had begun to languish. Then, a new industry had risen; tourism. Because of boating and tourism, safe marine highway transportation was a new need. The completion of the Port Sanilac Harbor marked the first step in a vast waterways project put on by the Michigan State Waterways Commission & the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers.
In 1946, Public Act No. 320 and Public Act No.348 were placed in Michigan law books. This created the "Michigan State Waterways Commission" and provided the state with the acquisition, construction maintenance of harbors and channels. They provided for a $0.03 gallonage tax and set up a licensing system on small craft. The monies collected are to be used in the improvements of harbors, navigable rivers and channels still to this day. The construction of the Port Sanilac Harbor began in 1950.
The Corps of Engineers came and surveyed the land and with the facilities at the University of Michigan Lake Hydraulics Laboratory at Willow Run they built several model harbors. Bids for construction were received at the Corps of Engineers' office on March 28, 1950. The L.A. Wells Construction Co. of Cleveland, Ohio was awarded the contract and they began construction within 60 days. The walls were completed October 1950 and the dredging was completed in May of 1951, thus marking the official opening of the First Harbor of Refuge!
Port Sanilac Lighthouse June 2017