|Oswego West Pierhead, NY|
Description: Oswego is an Iroquois Indian word meaning “the small water pouring into that which is large,” which accurately describes the confluence of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario. Four forts have stood watch over the mouth of the Oswego River, starting with one built by the British in 1755 and including the present Fort Ontario, which was constructed by Americans starting in 1839 and has been improved several times.
In 1828, the Oswego Canal was opened, linking Oswego and Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal and thus to the major harbors of New York City and Buffalo. The port of Oswego quickly grew in importance and soon merited a substantial lighthouse. Oswego’s second lighthouse was a majestic octagonal stone tower with an attached oil house built at the end of a pier on the western side of the river entrance in 1836. This lighthouse would witness Oswego become an important milling center and the largest American city on Lake Ontario. No longer needed, the first lighthouse was sold in 1841 and presumably dismantled.
The second lighthouse was substantially rebuilt in 1867 at an expense of $45,000 and is thought to have been raised fourteen feet in height at this time. A third-order Fresnel lens was displayed in the lantern room, replacing a fourth-order lens that was installed in 1855, and could be seen from fifteen miles out on Lake Ontario. In 1870 a plan was approved for the construction of a roughly mile-long outer breakwater that would create a 100-acre safe harbor on the western side of the river. The project would take just over a decade to complete and cost approximately one million dollars. An octagonal metal lighthouse, known as the Oswego Beacon Light and equipped with a fog bell, was erected in 1880 to mark this new breakwater.
Captain John Budds served as keeper of the Oswego Lighthouse for twenty-two years. Born in Kent England in 1819, he immigrated to Canada with his family as a youth. At the age of seventeen, he signed aboard the schooner Fanny of Ontario, which sailed to Cleveland where it was loaded with coal for delivery to Toronto. The Fanny was the first vessel to deliver coal on Lake Ontario. Budds eventually worked his way up to captain, a title he held on a number of ships. John and his wife Sophia relocated to Oswego in 1854, and in 1874 he gave up his sailing career and accepted a position of assistant keeper of the Oswego Lighthouse.
Near the end of his career, Budds, aged 73, was painting the exterior of the stone lighthouse when the ladder on which he was standing broke. Budds fell fifteen feet to the ground, receiving a four-inch cut to the back of his head and another, two a half inches long, over his left eye. Due to his vigorous constitution, Budds recovered in a few days and continued to serve as keeper until his retirement in 1896.
In the early 1930s, the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company constructed an extension to the western outer breakwater and at its outer end, a 50’x50’ crib. The timber crib was filled with stone and capped with reinforced concrete so it could withstand the onslaught of wind-driven waves sweeping down Lake Ontario. In 1934, a metal lighthouse, fabricated in Buffalo and consisting of a two-story building with a square tower in one corner, was erected atop the crib. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in France by L. Sautter Lemonnier & Co., was installed in the lantern room, and with the aid of red-tinted panels produced a flashing red light, fifty-seven feet above the water. The 1934 lighthouse replaced the 1876 octagonal metal tower, while the 1836 lighthouse was dismantled in 1930.
Representatives of the local newspaper, the Palladium-Times, visited the lighthouse in 1938. They reported that the bottom story, accessed from the dock wall, housed the fog signal equipment and a backup generator, and a steel stairway led to the second floor, where a living room, radio room, kitchen, and bedroom were located. The lighthouse was found to be spic-and-span from the basement floor to the top of the tower. The reporter made sure to note that anyone that believed a keeper’s job was ten percent work and ninety percent leisure was one hundred percent wrong. Besides maintaining the light, fog signal, and radio beacon, the keepers were also responsible for gas buoys in the harbor, the acetylene light on the east breakwater, and a light atop a grain elevator in the harbor. The keepers on duty that day were Egelston, Jackson, and Elmer.
On Friday December 4, 1942, Lieutenant Wilson, commander of the Oswego Coast Guard Station, along with seven coastguardsmen from the station and lighthouse keepers Egelston and Sprague, set out at 10 a.m. in a picket boat to relieve Keeper Jackson, who had been on duty since Tuesday. A winter storm, the worst Wilson had seen in his 35 years of service, had prevented the crew from spelling the keeper earlier, but on Friday the winds had fallen from 65 to 30 mph, and Wilson felt it was safe to reach the lighthouse.
The relief keepers were successfully offloaded at the lighthouse and Jackson was taken aboard the boat when the waves smashed the vessel against the crib, stoving in several planks in the hull and killing the engine. The waves carried the craft, which was beginning to settle, across the harbor entrance and smashed it into the east breakwater. Two men in the fore-cabin broke out panes of glass and climbed onto the breakwater, but the other six men were tossed into the turbulent water by the collision. The two on the breakwater, who flapped their arms to stay warm, were rescued an hour or so later, but the six other men perished. The body of the first victim was recovered in the harbor in March of the following year. Two other bodies, including that of Keeper Jackson, were found over thirty miles away near Henderson Harbor in April.
Not long after this tragic loss of life, the Oswego Lighthouse was automated and Coast Guard personnel were withdrawn from the station. The Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern room in 1995 and placed on display in the H. Lee White Marine Museum.
In 2006, the Oswego Lighthouse was offered to federal, state and local agencies and non-profit, educational and community development organizations under the auspices of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Someone at the Marine Museum interpreted the word ‘disposal’ in the announcement to mean ‘demolition,’ and greatly alarmed, officials of Oswego City and the H. Lee White Marine Museum quickly sprung into action. Their initial fears were soon assuaged, and they found out that parties had sixty days to send a letter of interest for the lighthouse. Backed by a unanimous vote by the City Common Council, Acting Mayor Randolph Bateman submitted the letter, followed a few months later by a master plan for the long-term maintenance of the lighthouse. Under the plan, the City of Oswego would own the lighthouse while the Marine Museum would help interpret the site.
In May of 2009, the City of Oswego received the deed for the lighthouse after negotiating a lease agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the harbor breakwall on which the lighthouse is built. The city has obtained a $225,000 grant from the New York State Canal Corporation to help with restoration of the lighthouse, but it is estimated that $500,000 will be needed for immediate repairs, and up to $2 million for a complete renovation. The lighthouse has been on deferred maintenance since 1994, and birds have gained access to the interior. Oswego Mayor Randy Bateman, who is one of the few to see the interior recently, remarked, "There are floor tiles in there with asbestos and the paint is falling off the walls, but the varnish on the wood looks like it was put on a month ago. It's beautiful."
In 2010, Oswego's Office of Community Development received a $225,000 grant from New York's Canal Corporation to aid restoration of the lighthouse. The city hired C&S Companies, an engineering firm, to recommend how the money should be sent, but their suggestion of spending $260,000 just to remove lead paint and repaint the structure was not what the city wanted to hear. The firm was told to come up with a new estimate that would involve significant use of volunteers.
A $73,750 contract was awarded to A.C.C. Contracting Inc. of Rochester to clean the inside of the lighthouse of any hazardous materials such as lead paint, asbestos, PCBs and bird droppings, and this work commenced the last week of September 2012. Once the lighthouse is deemed safe, volunteers can start painting and fixing up the interior. Public access will likely not be possible until after at least 2014.
Located at the end of the western breakwater forming the harbor in Oswego. The lighthouse is owned by the City of Oswego. Dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of Oswego. Dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
In August 2012, volunteers clearing debris and fallen trees from Fort Ontario State Historic Site located a marble marker that indicates the site of the original lighthouse. The marker can be can be found to the west of the fort's entrance, overlooking the Port of Oswego.
See our List of Lighthouses in New York
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.