Congress appropriated $37,500 for the work on July 1, 1898 while authorizing a contract for up to $75,000 to be awarded. Plans for the lighthouse were drawn up in 1899, and the project was put out to bid. Upon opening the bids on March 5, 1900, the lowest bid was found to greatly exceed the contract limit. Congress raised the limit to $100,000 on June 6, 1900, and the work was advertised again. A $84,700 contract was entered into in October 1900.
Construction of Toledo Harbor Lighthouse began in 1901, and by that July the crib substructure hand been sunk and filled at the site and much of the concrete superstructure had been prepared for transporting it out into the lake. Work continued until November 23, 1901, and an employee was left on site until December 5 to maintain a light to mark the structure.
Work resumed on March 20, 1902, with the contractors putting steel beams in place to provide stability for a three-story, brick lighthouse and an attached one-story fog signal building. When work stopped for the season on December 9, 1902, most of the structure was complete. During 1903, two iron derricks were erected on the pier, and the fog signal and illuminating apparatuses were installed.
Built using a Romanesque design and buff-colored, pressed brick, the lighthouse provided accommodations for a head keeper and two assistants. A cylindrical metal tower, with a diameter of thirteen feet, projects upward from the center of the dwelling’s roof and is crowned with a lantern room measuring eight feet, seven inches, in diameter. Helical bars separate the glass panes in the lantern room, which is topped by an onion dome. The lantern room, situated at a focal plane of seventy-two feet, originally housed a unique, third-and-a-half-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Benard of Paris. The bi-valve lens featured a 180-degree bull’s-eye on one side, and two 60-degree bull’s-eyes and a 60-degree prismatic reflector on the other side. A ruby red half cylinder of glass was placed between the 180-degree bull’s-eye and the light source so that when the lens revolved it produced two white flashes followed by a single red flash. A suspended weight was used to rotate the lens, which first sent forth its penetrating beams of light on the night of May 23, 1904.
The fog signal originally consisted of two thirteen-horsepower, oil engines that powered a pair of air compressors to fill high and low pressure tanks connected to a siren. In every twenty-six seconds, the siren produced a two-second blast, described as deep and guttural, like the voice of a bull. On November 1, 1934, an air diaphone that sounded a three-second blast every thirty seconds was activated at Toledo Harbor Lighthouse, and on the sixteenth of the same month, the light was electrified.
Delos Hayden was the first head keeper of the lighthouse, transferring to the station from West Sister Island Lighthouse. A newspaper account in February 1908, tells how Hayden passed away from pneumonia in the arms of his assistant, Joe Bernor, who was then imprisoned in the lighthouse for seven days with the corpse while waiting for the weather to turn. While making his way to shore across the ice, Bernor occasionally stepped on air holes which sent him plunging into the icy waters up to his waist. Bernor finally made his way to Toledo, bring the news of the death to Keeper Hayden’s friends and relatives.
Keeper Gramer was suspended in August 1909 as a result of an inquiry into his conduct, triggered by charges filed by one of his assistants. When Gramer refused to leave the station, Roscoe House, a Lighthouse Board clerk from Buffalo, was ordered to proceed to the station with an armed force and take possession of the lighthouse. Accompanied by a U.S. Marshal and two detectives from the Toledo police force, House took a tug out to the lighthouse on September 9, fully expecting a conflict. Realizing he was outgunned and outnumbered, Gramer peacefully left the station, but when they arrived at the mainland where there was a group of waiting reporter, Gus yelled out, “Hell, you guys can’t fire me…I quit!” A veteran of twenty-two years, Keeper Gramer went to the Toledo mayor’s office the next day and said he was willing to resign if the Lighthouse Service would drop two charges against him: 1) that he threatened to take the life of assistant keeper William L. Gordon, and 2) that he threatened a lighthouse inspector with violence.
Keeper Bert A. Dissett was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for having the best-kept station in the district for 1919. Before being promoted to head keeper, Dissett had served as first assistant at Toledo Harbor Lighthouse for seven years. During this time, he towed a disabled launch ashore in 1915 that had eight men aboard and was in a dangerous position. Two years later, he was recognized for towing a boat to the station and furnishing its occupants with food.
A radiophone was installed at the lighthouse in 1935 to allow the keepers to communicate with the Manhattan Range Station. In 1942, a radiobeacon was established at the lighthouse and synchronized with the fog signal for distance finding purposes.
By 1966, an electric motor had been installed to rotate the lens, allowing Toledo Harbor Lighthouse to operate with little human intervention. The last Coast Guard crew could then be removed, but not before measures were taken to prevent vandalism of the now keeperless lighthouse. The ingenious security system came in the form of a uniformed mannequin, positioned in one of the upper windows of the dwelling. Originally appearing as a man with a penciled moustache, the mannequin later sported a long blonde wig. Ghost stories that tell of a phantom lighthouse keeper at Toledo Harbor can usually be traced back to this figure. Even though it sat motionless, some swear that it had beckoned to them from the window. The mannequin became part of the Coast Guard’s tradition, and new officers stationed at Toledo considered it a rite of passage to sign its shirt.
Toledo Harbor Lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation as many commercial ships continue to pass through the nearby channel. Sometime during the late 1990s the original Fresnel lens was removed and eventually placed on display at the COSI museum in Toledo. In its place is a 300 mm lens, powered by solar cells. Coastguardsmen regularly visit the lighthouse to clean and service the lens, solar panel, and backup batteries. In 2008, the Fresnel lens was relocated to Quilter Lodge in Maumee Bay State Park, from where, on clear days, Toledo Harbor Lighthouse can also be seen.
The lighthouse was built so soundly that a maintenance log kept inside the front door has remained totally dry over the years. Arched windows that have been filled in with brick over the years will eventually be fitted with glass, restoring them to their original splendor.
In 2005, the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society submitted an application to receive ownership of the lighthouse under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior approved the application in October 2006, and the deed was officially turned over to the group in April 2007.
After raising $40,000 through a grant, proceeds from their annual Toledo Lighthouse Festival, and individual donors, the society installed an aluminum dock and ramp at the lighthouse in the fall of 2008 to permit public access. Sandy Bihn, president of the society, was concerned the dock might be damaged by ice floes, but it survived the winter fine only to disappear in April 2009. The Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and Toledo Lighthouse Society quickly offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the expected perpetrators. When society members arrived by boat at the lighthouse for a work project on July 1, 2009, they noticed their anchor struck something as it was being lowered. Divers were called in, and the whereabouts of the missing four-foot by forty-foot ramp was soon determined. A dock and lift were in place in time for tours in 2011, but the dock fell victim to a storm in 2015.