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 Fairport Harbor, 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.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.
Description: Situated at the mouth of the Grand River, Fairport Harbor Lighthouse is known as “The light that shone for a hundred years,” but the present Fairport Lighthouse didn’t accomplish this feat on its own, as a predecessor, which stood on the same site, accounted for the first forty-six years of service. Weathered, well-proportioned, and sturdy, Fairport Lighthouse is beloved not merely for the picturesque views available from its elevated setting, but even more for the role it played in the history of Fairport and the Great Lakes region.

Original Fairport Harbor Lighthouse in 1859
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Originally christened “Grandon” on land deeded by the Connecticut Land Company, Fairport boasts an illustrious group of founding fathers. Among them were a justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio and a future governor of Ohio, the founders of nearby Akron and New Market, and early industrialists. Eventually, the city’s reputation as the finest port on Lake Erie earned it the name of “Fairport,” and both passenger vessels bearing westward-bound pioneers and cargo ships hauling coal and ore crowded its shores.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and storms can quickly produce mountainous waves on the once glassy surface of the lake. Early in the port’s history, the townspeople knew a lighthouse was needed, and in 1825, when the town’s population had grown to 300, a notice appeared in the Painesville Telegraph requesting bids for a lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling. This proposal, signed by A. Walworth, Collector of Customs for the District of Cuyahoga, left little to the potential builder’s imagination. Walworth specified the materials to be used, the depth of the foundation, the height, the diameter of the soapstone deck, and even the size, number, and shape of the windows. His specifications for the keeper’s house were every bit as exact. Among other directives, it would be a two-story structure measuring 34 x 20 feet, with three windows in each room, a 12 x 14 foot attached kitchen, and a cellar under “the whole of the house.”

Hiram Wood and noted builder Jonathan Goldsmith contracted to build the dwelling and lighthouse for $2,900. Construction proceeded smoothly until it became apparent that there was a miscommunication about the cellar, which Goldsmith had not included in his original calculations. A somewhat aggrieved Walworth eventually contracted Goldsmith to build the cellar for an additional $174.30. As an interesting side note, in 1841 Jonathan Goldsmith applied to be keeper of the lighthouse he had built, but the appointment was given to someone else.

In the fall of 1825, the fifty-five-foot-tall lighthouse and dwelling were completed and the fixed white light, fueled by whale oil, was exhibited for the first time. As one of only eight lighthouses on the Great Lakes, Fairport Lighthouse attracted a growing number of vessels to its port, and soon Fairport was known as a “sailor’s town,” rivaling the port of Cleveland.

Beacon light on east pier in 1859
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Congress appropriated $1,000 in 1825 for the first piers at the mouth of the Grand River, and in 1831, a similar sum was allocated for a pier light. This amount was not sufficient as $1,456 had to be granted in 1834 to complete the beacon light, which stood twenty-one feet tall and was established in 1835.

In an 1838 report to the Secretary of the Treasury, Lieutenant C.T. Platt noted how mariners could use the pierhead beacon. “The beacon, on the east pier forming the harbor, is lighted with four lamps, and is in perfect order. This pier extends six hundred feet into the lake; the west pier nine hundred feet. By bringing the light-house and beacon in range, in coming from the west, there is no difficulty in entering the harbor.”

Fairport wasn’t only a hub of commerce and a gateway to the Western Reserve; it soon became a final stop on the Underground Railroad. Not by accident did the lighthouse act as a beacon of freedom to escaped slaves—the townsfolk actively made it one. The sentiment among the citizens was firmly anti-slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Law proved particularly onerous. In 1850, tavern owner Samuel Butler became chairman of a citizens’ group that sought to repeal the law, and soon his Eagle Tavern was a haven for escaping slaves and the headquarters for those willing to help. Anti-slavery captains, seamen, townsfolk, and lighthouse keepers colluded to hide the runaway slaves and smuggle them aboard ships bound for Canada. The slaves were frequently hidden in the lighthouse, as Kentucky slave masters canvassed the streets below making vain inquiries.

Unfortunately, only a few years after its construction, Fairport Harbor Lighthouse began to show signs of wear and tear, and after ten years the foundation had settled so much it required a complete replacement. Within thirty years, the lighthouse had to be encircled with wire hoops to keep it from toppling over.

During the years of its service, Fairport Lighthouse had illuminated one of the major gateways to the West. In 1847 alone, 2,987 vessels carrying countless passengers and cargo valued at almost one million dollars passed through its harbor. It would be inconceivable to lose the lighthouse that not only had added so much to the town’s prosperity, but had also become a landmark for thousands beyond the region’s borders.

On March 3, 1869, Congress appropriated $30,000 for a new tower and keeper’s dwelling. A light was exhibited from a temporary tower on December 10, 1869, allowing the old tower to be taken down. Not wanting to repeat the original builders’ mistake, the new contractors hired engineers to determine the best possible foundation. This resulted in piles being driven into the ground and their heads capped with a foot-thick concrete slab. On top of that was placed a grillage of two courses of twelve-inch timbers followed by a limestone foundation that extended from ten feet below the ground to four feet above ground level. An act passed July 12, 1870 forced the suspension of the work and transferred the balance of the appropriation, roughly $9,000, to the treasury. At this time, twenty-nine courses of Brea sandstone had been set in the tower.

Pierhead light built on east pier in 1874
Photograph courtesy National Archives
On March 3, 1871, Congress provided $10,000 for finishing the tower and constructing the keeper's dwelling. The tower's walls had an outside diameter of nineteen feet nine inches at the base and thirteen feet four inches at the lantern room, while the brick-lined interior of the tower had a constant diameter of eight feet for the spiral stairway. A third-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Henry-Lepaute and used in the original lighthouse, was transferred to the new tower. The redbrick, one-and-a-half-story dwelling was originally connected to the tower by an eighteen-foot-long covered passage. A fixed white light was shown from the new, sixty-eight-foot tower for the first time on August 11, 1871.

Using a $4,000 appropriation made June 23, 1874, a new beacon light was built for the extended east pier. The bottom half of this square, pyramidal tower was painted black and the upper half white, and its sixth-order, fixed white light was placed in operation at the opening of navigation in 1875. Three years later, an elevated walk, 989 feet long, was built to help the keeper access the tower when the pier was awash. Over the years, the parallel piers were extended lakeward several times forcing the beacon light to be repeatedly moved. In 1891, an iron skeletal tower was erected on the east pier, 968 feet south of the pierhead, to form, with the beacon light, a pair of range lights. Due to lack of funds, the tower was not fitted with the apparatus for raising and lowering its lights until 1893. The tower displayed three lens lanterns, suspended in a vertical line, the middle one being red, and the other two white. A vessel struck and toppled the iron tower on September 13, 1898, forcing the erection of a wooden skeletal tower that displayed a fixed red light.

Captain George L. Riker, who had served as head keeper at Fairport Harbor Lighthouse for nineteen years after two years as an assistant, died of a heart attack on August 27, 1900. The profusion of flowers at the funeral, held two days later, was evidence of the high esteem in which the keeper was held by all that knew him. Joseph Babcock, who had served as head keeper from 1871 to 1881 and then as an assistant keeper under Riker, took over again as head keeper, though Mrs. Riker continued to live in the keeper's dwelling until January 23, 1901. Joseph Babcock retired in 1919, at the age of seventy-six, and was replaced by his son, Daniel Babcock, who served until 1926.

Fresnel lens used in Fairport Harbor Lighthouse
Minor improvements were made to Fairport Harbor Lighthouse during its lifetime, including in 1892 the addition of running water to the keeper’s dwelling and a handrail for the tower, but changes to Fairport Harbor were ushering in a new era for the lighthouse. With ever-increasing industry expanding the use of the harbor, a pair of diverging breakwaters was completed in 1913. To better serve the changing harbor, Congress appropriated $42,000 on June 12, 1917 for a new combination light and fog station to be constructed on the west breakwater pierhead. However, due to World War I and a lack of additional funds, Completion of the lighthouse was delayed several years, and the new light did not become operational until June 9, 1925, when it replaced the light that had been shining on the hill overlooking the harbor for a hundred years.

Part of the funds appropriated for Fairport Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse were to pay for the demolition of the stone lighthouse, but the citizens of Fairport rallied to save their old lighthouse. The Secretary of Commerce received letters of protestation from groups as diverse as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Kasvi Temperance Society, the Council of Willoughby, Ohio, and the Painesville Kiwanis club. The barrage of appeals was successful, and the Secretary of Commerce consented to leave the now-obsolete lighthouse standing.

The next twenty years saw the slow deterioration of the defunct lighthouse. Near the end of World War II, town officials began a discussion of needed improvements to Fairport, and the suggestion was made to raze the dilapidated lighthouse. The response to this was as swift and strong as a November storm. The old tower might be an eyesore, but it had played a vital part in the town’s history and symbolized the area’s role in the expansion of commerce and freedom.

Once more the town rallied, this time founding the Fairport Harbor Historical Society, whose mission was to preserve and celebrate the town’s nautical heritage. The Society sought and received permission from the government to turn the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling into a Marine Museum. Once news of the endeavor spread, donations from retired sailors and landlubbers alike soon came pouring in - old logbooks, sextants, photographs, pieces of historical vessels, compasses, and steering wheels. The museum, the country’s first lighthouse marine museum, opened in 1945. Visitors can now walk through the same space where runaway slaves once hid, gaze on historic photographs of the men who cared for the beacon, and read the log books of ships that were guided to safety by Fairport’s light.

Head Keepers: Samuel Butler (1825 - 1833), Elijah Dixon (1833 - 1839), Jeremiah O. Balch (1839), Nehemiah Merritt (1839 - 1841), Samuel Butler (1841 - 1845), Thomas Greer (1845 - 1846), Isaac Spear (1846 - 1849), Olmsted Baker (1853 - 1856), Halsey Baker (1856 - 1861), James Adams (1861 - 1865), George F. Rogers (1865 - 1871), Joseph C. Babcock (1871 - 1881), George L. Riker (1881 - 1900), Joseph C. Babcock (1900 - 1919), Daniel Babcock (1919 - 1926), Frank LaRose (1927 - 1937), John Brophy (1937 - at least 1941).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

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. “Fairport’s Guiding Light,” Deborah Hays in Western Reserve.
  5. “Fairport’s Lighthouses”.
  6. “Samuel Butler: First Lighthouse Keeper in Fairport Harbor,” The Lake County Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 19, March, 1977.
  7. “History of Fairport Lighthouse,” by Frank. G. Johnson.
  8. “Great Lakes Marine Museum,” Dwight Boyer, Toledo Blade Pictorial, March 2, 1952.

Location: Located on a hill overlooking the harbor in Fairport.
Latitude: 41.75696
Longitude: -81.27732

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 2 in Fairport, take the Painesville Exit and go north on Richmond Street. Richmond Street will become High Street, and the Fairport Lighthouse is on the corner of High Street and 2nd Street. The lighthouse is open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, from Memorial Day weekend through the third weekend in September. The museum can be reached at (440) 354-4825.

The lighthouse is owned by the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open in season.

Find the closest hotels to Fairport Harbor Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Besides the third-order Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse, the marine museum also has the clockwork mechanism from Little Sable Lighthouse, a memorial to Edward F. Bindon, a local man who perished aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald, the pilot house from the steamer Frontenac, and the mast from the USS Michigan, the first iron warship of the U.S. Navy. The mast is used as a flagpole.

A curious item on display is a mummified cat that was found in a crawl space in the basement when air conditioning was installed in the museum in 2001. Pam Brent, a museum curator, lived upstairs in the lighthouse and reported seeing the ghost of a cat. "It would skitter across the floor near the kitchen like it was playing," she said. "I would catch glimpses of it from time to time. Then one evening I felt its presence when it jumped on the bed. I felt its weight pressing on me."

Keeper Joseph Babcock gave numerous cats to his bedridden wife to keeper her company. One of these cats is believed to be both the mummified cat found in the basement and the ghost cat observed by Pam Brent.


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