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Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Collecting history

Web site details local man's trips to state landmarks


Times Herald


Jim Brennan has taken the first step and admitted that he has a problem. "It's a sickness," he said.

There are no rehab centers to treat Brennan's addiction, which has consumed his life for the past 14 years. Brennan is addicted to Michigan history.

The 50-year-old Emmett resident runs http://www.michmarkers.com/ a personal Web site that features photos of more than 1,350 designated state historic sites and the text from the markers that accompany them -- nearly all of which Brennan has visited.

This year, the Detroit Free Press named http://www.michmarkers.com/ the best Michigan travel Web site.

"Not bad for a guy in his basement," said Brennan, a manager at a Royal Oak software company.

So close, yet so far

At one point, Brennan said he had photographed close to 90% of the state's markers, but lately he has fallen off.

He used to be able to plan trips to catch dozens of the green-and-gold signs at once. In a single day he photographed 60 markers.

Now he has done so many that there are no "target-rich environments" left. It's hard to get excited about making a trip to Alpena to photograph a single marker, he said -- and the state keeps adding more signs.

"Next year, they'll put up 40 more of them, and they'll be all over the place," he said. "Now, they've put in enough that it makes sense for me to make a push to get them all."

Recording history

Brennan started the project in 1988. He liked to read the markers but soon forgot what they said, so he started photographing them.

"When I first started searching for them, there wasn't even a good list," he said.

He went to the state Bureau of History in Lansing and started to assemble his own list. He started planning family vacations around the markers. Brennan said his three children, who are now in their 20s, were tolerant of their dad's obsession.

"At some point, you have to bribe them," he said. "My daughter insisted that after three (markers) we had to stop at a Dairy Queen. So in addition to 1,500 historical markers, I know where there's an awful lot of Dairy Queens."

Sometimes, Brennan said, he would arrive at a site only to discover the marker was missing. The state is sponsoring an amnesty program that allows people to return stolen markers without facing prosecution.

Going online

Brennan realized the Internet was an ideal way to publish his work.

"Each one of these markers is part of a story, but you don't get the whole story until you put it together," he said. The Web site "is the only place that it comes together. That is the contribution -- not the rather second-rate photography.

"I would say this is among the most significant things I've ever done," he said, "and I'm really proud of it."

m You can call reporter Bill Chapin at (810) 989-0741.

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HISTORIC ROUNDS: Jim Brennan stands in front of the Michigan historic site sign of the Huron Lightship in Port Huron.

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Marine City Hall

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St. Clair Rail Tunnel, Port Huron

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St. Clair Inn, St. Clair

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South Channel Light, Harsens Island

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Downtown Port Huron

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ONLINE

  • Jim Brennan's site: http://www.michmarkers.com/

  • More information on Michigan landmarks is available at the state's Historic Preservation Office Web site: michsite.state.mi.us/voyager.cfm.

    Local history

    Few people have enough time to follow Jim Brennan's example. In fact, there are probably too many Michigan Registered Historical Sites in St. Clair County -- about 40 -- to visit in a single day. Novice history buffs might want to start with a tour of sites listed on the National Historic Register. Here are some of them:

    COLONY TOWER

  • Where: 6503 Dyke Road (M-29), Clay Township

  • Historical significance: Built in 1925, the 136-foot water tower resembles a lighthouse, demonstrating the early 20th-century penchant for disguising the utilitarian function of highly visible structures.

    DAVIDSON HOUSE

  • Where: 1707 Military St., Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Completed in 1890, the house is an excellent example of Queen Anne-style architecture.

    DOWTOWN PORT HURON

  • Where: Military Street and Huron Avenue from Court Street to Bard Street, Port Huron

  • Historical significance: First the Howard Block, an 1874 building at 201-205 Huron Ave., was listed on the register. Then the Military Street Historical District, enveloping most of downtown, was added.

    ONLINE:

  • For more local sites, including those pictured on this page, go to:

    http://www.thetimesherald.com/

    FEDERAL BUILDING

  • Where: 526 Water St., Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Built in 1874 for $236,000, the building was originally used as a customs house, warehouse, federal courthouse and post office. Its dome and Ohio limestone exterior make it a distinct landmark.

    FORT GRATIOT

  • Where: Includes the area south of State Street near the Thomas Edison Inn, Port Huron. No traces of the fort remain.

  • Historical significance: The military fort was founded during the War of 1812 to guard the entrance of Lake Huron.

    FORT GRATIOT LIGHTHOUSE

  • Where: Omar and Garfield streets, Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Michigan's oldest lighthouse, the 84-foot tower was built in 1829 to replace a tower destroyed by a storm.

    GRAND TRUNK RAILROAD DEPOT

  • Where: 520 State St., Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Today the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, the building is where Edison boarded trains daily to sell newspapers and concessions beginning in 1859.

    HARRINGTON HOTEL

  • Where: 1026 Military St., Port Huron

  • Historical significance:

    Now an assisted living facility, the hotel opened in 1896. Famous guests over the years have included Henry Ford, Mickey Rooney, William Jennings Bryant and Harry Truman.

    LADIES OF THE MACCABEES BUILDING

  • Where: 901 Huron Ave., Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Built in 1906, the building is an example of Classical Revival architecture.

    HURON LIGHTSHIP

  • Where: Pine Grove Park, Port Huron

  • Historical significance: Commissioned in 1921, the Huron was the only lightship on the Great Lakes after 1940 and was retired in 1970.

    MARINE CITY HALL

  • Where: 300 Broadway St., Marine City

  • Historical significance: Built in 1884 at a cost of $12,300, the building has continuously served as the seat of the city government.

    JAMES McCOLL HOUSE

  • Where: 205 S. Main St., Yale

  • Historical significance: Built in 1899, this Queen Anne house was a present from James Livingston to his daughter and son-in-law, Louise and James McColl.

    ST. CLAIR INN

  • Where: 500 N. Riverside

  • Historical significance: The inn was built in 1926 to accommodate tourists and serves as a reminder of the days when the St. Clair River was jammed with pleasure boats.

    LeROY SMITH HOUSE

  • Where: 9503 Frank St., Algonac

  • Historical significance: The home is an example of the modern movement in architecture.

    ST. CLAIR RIVER FLATS SOUTH CHANNEL RANGE LIGHTS

  • Where: 0.6 miles west of the southern tip of Harsens Island

  • Historical significance: Known as the Old Twin Sisters, these lights were built in 1859 to mark the first dredged channel across the flats.

    ST. CLAIR RIVER TUNNEL

  • Where: Between Johnstone and Beard streets near 10th Street, Port Huron. (A state historical marker is near the train station on 16th Street.)

  • Historical significance: The world's first international submarine railway tunnel, the 11,725-foot-long railroad tunnel was considered a marvel of engineering when it opened in 1891.

    WARD-HOLLAND HOUSE

  • Where: 433 N. Main St., Marine City

  • Historical significance: One of the five oldest houses in Michigan and the oldest brick house north of Detroit, it was built by shipbuilder Samual Ward in 1830.
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