|Fort Niagara, NY|
Description: Several lighthouses have marked the point where the Niagara River joins Lake Ontario near Youngstown, New York. The area attained importance in the late 1600s when French fur traders used the Great Lakes to transport their goods. Niagara Falls separated the supply of furs to the west with the demand that lay to the east. Bateaux (flat bottomed, shallow draft boats) and canoes were used to portage furs around the falls, making the mouth of the Niagara River an ideal point for transferring the furs to larger ships. Since that time, the river mouth has served as an essential harbor as well as a point of strategic importance during multiple wars.
A predecessor to the current Fort Niagara was built in 1679 by the French and was named Fort Conti and then Fort Denoncille. In 1726 the still-standing “French Castle” was built, intended as a gathering place where colonists could find protection from hostile Native American tribes. The fort and vapor of Niagara Falls served as useful markers during the day, but at night mariners in the area were without any sort of guide.
Fort Niagara was relinquished to the United States in 1796 after the Revolutionary War, and the roof light remained active until 1803. The British garrison across the river at Fort George constructed the Newark Light in 1804 - the second lighthouse to serve the area. While this lighthouse was not destroyed in the fighting of the War of 1812, at the conclusion of hostilities it was demolished in 1814 to clear a site for the construction of Fort Mississauga. The next light appeared in 1823, after Congress had approved funds for the project the previous year. Once again, a wooden tower, housing a pedestal and lamp, was constructed atop the “French Castle.” Vessel traffic in the area declined after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which reduced the need for the difficult Niagara portage.
In 1829 the Canadians opened the privately-financed Welland Canal, which provided a navigable link between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and eliminated the need to haul vessels overland. Despite this improvement, sufficient sailing and steam vessels remained on the Niagara River to justify a light at the river’s mouth.
The following report on the Niagara Lighthouse was made in 1838 by Naval Lieutenant C.T. Platt. “This light is situated on the mess-house, within Fort Niagara, at an elevation of 70 feet above the water. It is a good light-house, situated at a point convenient for the mariner, and the excellent order in which it is conducted gives high credit to the keeper. It is lighted with 9 lamps and an equal number of reflectors, fixed.”
Around 1855 the keeper’s dwelling and other outbuildings at Fort Niagara were damaged by a tornado, and in 1858 the tower received a new lantern and Fresnel lens. The number of panes in the lantern was reduced from 150 to nine of large size, which also helped increase the visibility of the light. By 1868 there were complaints that the wooden light tower was “old and out of repair” and let nature's elements into the underlying building, then also used as officers’ quarters. Four chimneys surrounded the octagonal light tower, and a Lighthouse Board report noted that one winter a spark from a chimney caused a dangerous roof fire, which could have easily destroyed the tower’s valuable lens. Moreover, the tower was poorly situated, as it required using “the stairway and passages of the officers’ quarters as a thoroughfare for the supply of the light.” Based on all these deficiencies, a new lighthouse was recommended for Fort Niagara.
The military's water main at the Fort was tapped in 1889 to provide water for the light station. Also that year, the roof of the station's barn was re-shingled and a wagon shed measuring twelve by sixteen feet was constructed for the convenience of the keeper. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1894 noted that the keeper's dwelling was “old, in bad condition, and unsuitable.” Two years later, a new dwelling was built, and the “grade of the lot around the dwelling was raised.” A driveway covered in gravel was also added at this time.
In 1899, a request was made for a second, smaller beacon “at the mouth of the river where it empties into Lake Ontario.” The Lighthouse Board noted that besides the river no port for deep draft vessels existed along Lake Ontario's south shore between the Genesee River and Port Dalhousie and asked for $2,000 to establish a twenty-five foot tower to better guide vessels into the river. This request was repeated annually for six years, but appears to have gone unfulfilled. In 1905 an iron oil house with a capacity of 540 gallons was erected near the lighthouse.
The lighthouse and fort were involved in the William Morgan affair, a political scandal during the 1820s. Morgan, a renegade Freemason who threatened to go public with obscure Masonic rituals, was held at Fort Niagara shortly before his disappearance in 1826. Edward Giddings, keeper of the light at the time and a Freemason, along with a few other men were suspected of having been involved in the detainment and murder of Morgan, but no one was ever convicted of the purported crime. The incident caused a national sensation over dark Masonic conspiracies, leading to the creation of a short-lived anti-Masonic political party.
Rather than remove or trim roughly fifty trees that were starting to obscure the Fort Niagara Lighthouse, the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1993 and replaced it with a light on a nearby radio tower. Nancy Price, who lived in the keeper's dwelling while her husband, Richard, was officer in charge of the Coast Guard station from 1968 to 1975, was given the honor of throwing the switch to activate the modern light. Minutes later, her grandson was permitted to pull the plug in the lantern room of the historic lighthouse to darken the Fresnel lens.
The historic lighthouse is currently under lease to the Old Fort Niagara Association, which at times has kept a small museum and gift shop in the tower. The Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1995 and is being stored at Old Fort Niagara. The association holds a number of interesting historical events at the fort each year covering the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. Open year round, Old Fort Niagara boasts both an extensive collection of 18th century military architecture as well as splendid examples of military engineering.
Located in Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site on the eastern side of the entrance to the
Niagara River from Lake Ontario. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by the Old Fort Niagara Association. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by the Old Fort Niagara Association. Grounds open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.