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 Marblehead, OH    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Marblehead Lighthouse is the oldest, continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp, has appeared on Ohio's license plates, and is now part of the Ohio State Parks system.

Lighthouse and original dwelling in 1859
Photograph courtesy National Archives
The history of this popular lighthouse began in 1819 when the fifteenth U.S. Congress allocated $5,000 for the construction of a light tower on the Marblehead Peninsula to guide vessels into Sandusky Bay and to help them safely transit the treacherous southern passage that runs between the Ohio mainland and a cluster of offshore islands.

William Kelly and a crew of two men began construction of the conical tower in September 1821 on an outcropping of limestone on the northern tip of the peninsula, and in November, the rocky shoreline was home to a fifty-foot tower with wooden ladders leading to its lantern room. The base of the tower was twenty-six feet in diameter with walls five feet thick, while the top measured twelve feet in diameter and had two-foot-thick walls. The tower was constructed of limestone, quarried nearby on the peninsula.

Marblehead Lighthouse cost $7,232 to build and was the only navigational aid in the Sandusky Bay region for many years; in fact, the tower was called “Sandusky Bay Lighthouse” until 1870. Its first beacon consisted of thirteen small whale oil lamps with round wicks set in sixteen-inch reflectors.

Benajah Wolcott, Marblehead’s first keeper, was a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the first settlers on the peninsula. Wolcott purchased 114 acres in 1809 and built a log cabin for his family. Fearing an invasion by the British, the Wolcotts left the peninsula during the War of 1812 but returned to their homestead when the conflict was over. Benajah Wolcott was appointed keeper on June 24, 1822 and thus had use of the stone dwelling built adjacent to the lighthouse, but he also had William Kelly construct a small, limestone home on his homestead on the Sandusky side of the peninsula. Wolcott's personal dwelling is the oldest residence still standing in Ottawa County, and is touted as a fine example of a “hall and parlor house.” Known as the Keeper's House, the structure is operated as a museum by the Ottawa County Historical Society.

Lighthouse and new dwelling in 1885
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Each evening during the shipping season, Benajah Wolcott would climb the lighthouse to light its thirteen lamps and then faithfully tend the light until the following morning. In addition to minding the light, Wolcott also kept a record of ships that passed, noted weather conditions, and organized rescue efforts.

Keeper Wolcott had served for ten years when he passed away due to cholera in 1832. Upon his death, his wife Rachel took over his duties, making her the first female lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes. After keeping the light for two years, Rachel married Jeremiah Van Benschoten, who became the light's third keeper.

Lodowick Brown served as keeper of Marblehead Lighthouse from 1849 to 1853. Interestingly, his wife, Margaret Kelly Brown, was the daughter of William Kelly, who constructed the lighthouse. A second female keeper, Mrs. Johanne McGee, served at the lighthouse from 1896 to 1903, after her husband, Keeper George McGee, died. Charles Hunter had the longest tenure as head keeper, serving from 1903 to 1933.

In 1858, Marblehead’s whale oil lamps were replaced by a lard oil lantern, magnified by a fourth-order Fresnel lens. A lifesaving station was constructed one-half mile west of the lighthouse in 1876, and Lucien Clemons was named its first commander. Clemons had proven his bravery the year before when he and his two brothers saved two sailors after their ship wrecked off the peninsula.

In 1877, the Lighthouse Board recommended that $20,000 be provided for rebuilding the station. The keeper's dwelling was described as “old, leaky, and barely habitable,” and the tower was “in bad condition.” By the following year, the dwelling was “not habitable in cold weather” and was “unfit for use as a dwelling at any time.” The keeper and his family were forced to seek shelter in a small, one-room shed during cold weather. Funds allowed the current keeper's dwelling to be constructed in 1880 and the exterior of the limestone tower to be covered with stucco and painted white, but the Lighthouse Board continued to insist that a new tower was needed. The keeper's dwelling had seven rooms and a cellar and served as housing for the head keeper and an assistant.

Marblehead Lighthouse in 1897 with brick extension and original lantern room. Note circular oil house.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Rather than build a new tower, the top eight feet of the limestone tower were removed in 1897, and a cylindrical, brick extension, which housed a watchroom and closets, was added to the top of the tower. A brick cylinder was also constructed within the sixty-five-foot tower to hold a new spiral, cast-iron stairway and to support a larger lantern and parapet, taken from the discontinued Erie Land Lighthouse, that were placed atop the tower in 1900. Four windows were also added to the tower in 1897.

A clockwork system, powered by weights that descended inside a large pipe in the center of the tower, was later installed to precisely revolve a 14,000-pound, three-and-a-half-order, Barbier, Benard, & Turenne Fresnel lens that went into service at the opening of navigation in 1903. The keeper would crank up the weights every four hours, and as they descended, the clockwork mechanism would cause the bivalve lens to revolve, producing a white flash every ten seconds.

Measuring five feet in diameter, the lens produced a 330,000 candlepower light. The lamp inside the lens burned kerosene, and in 1891 a circular, metal oil house had been erected between the tower and the dwelling to contain the volatile fuel. A square, iron oil house, capable of holding 450 gallons of kerosene, was added to the station in 1905, but neither of the oil houses remain standing today. In 1923, Marblehead’s incandescent oil vapor was replaced with an electric light, increasing the intensity of the light to 600,000 candlepower.

Marblehead’s last civilian keeper, Edward Herman, resigned in 1943 after ten years of service. Coastguardsmen then assumed responsibility for the lighthouse, which was automated and given a fresh coat of stucco in 1958. From 1946 to 1956, the Coast Guard had an enclosure on the main gallery atop the lighthouse reportedly so they could keep track of the large number of pleasure boaters around the Marblehead Peninsula.

Three-and-a-half-order Fresnel lens used in Marblehead Lighthouse
During major renovation work in 1969, the tower's exterior stucco was removed, revealing the original stone and brickwork as well as oblong openings in the masonry. These openings, which were approximately five feet apart and spiraled up to the top of the tower, had been created when William Kelly and his men placed timbers into the stonework in 1821 to support their scaffolding. Coincidentally, the contractor who applied the new stucco finish in 1969 was also named William Kelly. While the tower’s exterior was receiving a face-lift, the interior saw a change in its beacon as a 300mm beacon replaced the Fresnel lens. With the new fifteen-pound beacon in place, the tower flashed a green light every six seconds, which helped distinguish it from the white lights of the surrounding residences. Upon removal, the Fresnel lens was shipped to Detroit, Michigan, but the following year it returned to Marblehead and was placed on display in the town hall. In the early 1980s, the lens was relocated to the Marblehead Coast Guard Station.

In January 1997, Marblehead’s tower and the small plot of land surrounding it were declared surplus federal property by the Coast Guard. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) applied for ownership, as they already owned and took care of the property adjacent to the lighthouse, including a picnic grove, visitor parking and the keeper’s historic house. (At the time, these were part of East Harbor State Park.) The National Park Service encouraged the General Services Administration to grant ODNR’s request, and in April 1998 a letter arrived informing ODNR that their application had been accepted. One month later, ODNR assumed ownership of the lighthouse with plans to invest up to $1,000,000 to renovate the structure, protect it from shore erosion, and provide additional visitor amenities. The lighthouse and dwelling are now part of Marblehead Lighthouse State Park.

On September 1, 2001, TSC Building Restoration started $500,000 worth of renovations on the lighthouse and the adjacent Victorian keeper's quarters. Deteriorated brickwork in the tower was rebuilt and cracks in its stucco shell were patched. The keeper's dwelling was elevated on jacks so that rotting support columns and beams could be replaced. New siding was applied to the dwelling, and inside, the original oak floors were restored and the kitchen ceiling was rebuilt. The dwelling also received a few modern conveniences, including air conditioning, and a wheelchair lift.

After being on display at the Marblehead Coast Guard Station for many years, the historic three-and-a-half-order lens returned home and was placed on display in the renovated keeper's dwelling in 2004. Besides the tower and dwelling, the station's barn remains standing on the lighthouse property.

Head Keepers: Benajah Wolcott (1822 - 1832), Rachel Wolcott (1832 - 1834), Jeremiah Van Benschoten (1834 - 1841), Roderick Williston (1841 - 1843), Charles Drake (1843 - 1849), Lodowick Brown (1849 - 1853), Jared B. Keyes (1853 - 1858), D. L. Dayton (1859 - 1861), Thomas Dyer (1861 - 1865), Russell Douglas (1865 - 1872), Thomas J. Keyes (1872 - 1873), George McGee (1873 - 1896), Johanna McGee (1896 - 1903), Charles Hunter (1903 - 1933), Edward Herman (1933 - 1943).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association, various years.
  4. "Marblehead Lighthouse State Park," Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
  5. Information provided by Phil Teitlebaum.

Location: Located at the northern side of the entrance to Sandusky Bay in Marblehead Lighthouse State Park.
Latitude: 41.536319
Longitude: -82.711819

For a larger map of Marblehead Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Highway 2 which crosses Sandusky Bay, go north on Highway 53 1.3 miles to Highway 163, then go east on Highway 163 just over eight miles to the eastern end of the peninsula. Turn north onto Lighthouse Drive and follow it to Marblehead Lighthouse State Park.

Tours of Marblehead Lighthouse are offered on weekday afternoons from noon to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. from the day after Memorial Day until the Friday before Labor Day. They are also offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month from June through October. Call (419) 734-4424 x 2 for confirmation of tour times. A museum in the adjacent keeper's dwelling run by the Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society is open during the same hours. The grounds surrounding the tower are great for picnicking and offer lovely views of Lake Erie, Sandusky Bay, Kelleys Island and South Bass Island. This is also the only area of the United States where the tiny "Lake Side Daisy," a protected species, can be found.

The Wolcott's stone dwelling, located a couple of miles from the lighthouse, typically has the same visitor hours as the lighthouse. For more information call the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau (419) 798-9339.

The lighthouse is owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open in season.

Find the closest hotels to Marblehead Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Marblehead Lighthouse and Shaq are both shown in the music video Vanilla Twilight by Owl City.

See our List of Lighthouses in Ohio

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.