In 1827, a group of Scotsmen shipwrecked near Port Clinton. Rather than continue on to their destination of Chicago, they remained at Port Clinton and quickly developed a fishing trade. Germans soon joined the Scots, and by the early 1830s, Port Clinton had become a fishing center with fish sheds sprinkled all along the Portage River estuary.
Six months after work on the lighthouse commenced, Austin Smith, a sea captain from Connecticut, became the first lightkeeper, and his granddaughter, Juliet Smith, was the first child born in the keeper’s dwelling. In 1836, Smith provided the warmth of his home to a group of people who were shipwrecked. Like the Scottish mariners a decade earlier, the shipwrecked party was on their way to Chicago but took a liking to the Port Clinton locality and made their homes there.
After inspecting lighthouses on Lake Erie in 1838, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt wrote the following.
Port-Clinton light-house is lighted with eight lamps, and as many bright reflectors; every thing in good order, with the exception of the chimneys, which are too short, not reaching above the scallops of the reflectors. With the above exception, every thing appertaining to both the lighthouse and the dwelling is without fault.
I am decidedly of opinion that this light may be discontinued without the slightest detriment to the commerce of the lake. It affords no assistance in making a harbor, for there is none in the neighborhood; the coast is free from rocks or shoals, with a bold shore, conspicuous to the mariner, and easily avoided.
In 1843, Stephen Pleasonton, who was in charge of the country’s lighthouses, also recommended the lighthouse be discontinued as “not more than one or two vessels enter the port in the course of a year.” Reports like this started an on-going debate over the usefulness of the lighthouse, but it remained active for several more years. In 1846, six new oil lamps were placed in the lantern room. By 1854, this number had been reduced to four, and in 1855 a sixth-order Fresnel lens was installed.
George O. Momeny was appointed keeper in 1853 on the recommendation of General J.A. Jones and others of the Democratic Party. After six years of service, Momeny resigned and was honorably discharged from his duties.
The Lighthouse Board discontinued the light in 1859, but then had it reactivated on August 1, 1864, with Leander Porter as the keeper. In 1870, the old Port Clinton Lighthouse was discontinued for good, and the lantern room was removed from the stone tower.
A custodian was allowed to live in the vacated dwelling and was paid a nominal annual salary of $1 to keep the place in repair. Captain William Duff and his wife lived at the lighthouse residence while they waited for their new house to be built. Their son, Alfred, was born there, and a daughter, Matilda, died there in 1875.
Piers were extended into Lake Erie from either side of Portage River in 1883, and an act approved on February 15, 1895 authorized the establishment of a pierhead light to mark the harbor. A square, wooden, pyramidal tower, surmounted by an octagonal lantern encircled by a balcony and hand rail, was erected atop piles at the outer end of the west pier in 1896. A 180° lens lantern, fitted with ruby chimneys, was used in the lantern room to produce a fixed red light at a focal plane of twenty-five feet, eight inches. The light went into service on July 15, 1896, with the keeper living in the original dwelling.
Peter and Mary Hineline were the last caretakers of the dwelling, and Robert Waterfield, their son-in-law, was appointed the first keeper of the new pierhead light. In August 1899, Waterfield and his assistant razed the remains of the old, split-stone tower. The stone was removed by the government steamer, Warrington and was taken by scow to Detroit River where it was used to protect the beach in front of Grassy Island Lighthouse. The Elmore Independent, dated August 18, 1899, expressed regret at the destruction of the old landmark, which had withstood the weather for many years and was reportedly just as solid in 1899 as the day it was first built. When the demolition work was done, no trace of the old tower remained – its service was remembered only in the minds of a few old timers.
In 1899, the Lighthouse Board described the stone dwelling as “unsightly, uncomfortable, and unhealthful,” and “unfit for human habitation” and requested $3,000 for a new residence. In 1901, the old dwelling was taken down, and a two-story, frame home was built for the keeper. The structure was equipped with a hot-air furnace and connected to the local water supply and sewer. Some twenty-one fruit and shade trees were planted on the lighthouse lot, and the keeper was given fifteen pounds of lawn seed to sow. In 1902, a boathouse was built for the keeper, who had to row across the river and out to the west pier as the keeper’s dwelling was on the east shore. An iron oil house was placed on the pier near the tower in 1905.
George Pope, who served as keeper of the light from 1900 until his death in 1911, was noted for making his regular trips to the lighthouse at end of the pier even when the lake and river were frozen. David Sutherland succeeded Pope and served at Port Clinton until March 1926, when he was transferred to Toledo to care for the Manhattan Range lights. Sutherland’s son, Wallace, looked after Port Clinton Lighthouse for a few months until electricity was substituted for the oil burners and the light was automated. Clarence Perry subsequently served as a custodian of the light for many years.
In November 1952, the wooden Port Clinton lighthouse was removed from the breakwater by Dave Jeremy and relocated to his marina on Portage River. At the time the 1896 lighthouse was removed from the west pier in 1952, a fifth-order Fresnel lens was in use, but the replacement structure, a white skeletal tower with a small house at its base, employed a 375 mm lens.
In 2011, the owners of the marina, now known as Brands’ Marina, donated the lighthouse to Port Clinton so it could be refurbished and displayed on city property, with the hopes of attracting more visitors to the downtown area. Under the direction of Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy, the lantern room was relocated to a Catawba Island Township workshop on November 7, 2011 using a crane provided by Focht Construction.
Restoration plans for the lighthouse hit a snag when the city and Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy couldn’t agree on exactly where the tower should be relocated. The conservancy wanted the lighthouse to be placed in Waterworks Park, near the river’s mouth, while the city preferred it be located farther from the waterfront. “We believe that the full restoration of the lighthouse and its placement on the waterfront will do more than preserve a vital piece of local history for future generations,” wrote Richard Norgard, president of the conservancy. “It will also serve as an unparalleled attraction for visitors from far and wide, and help fuel the city’s economy into the foreseeable future.”
After the conservancy had raised $13,000 of the expected $30,000 need to restore the lighthouse, it held a public meeting in January 2013 to rally support for its desire to place the lighthouse in Waterworks Park. The conservancy’s persistence worked, and in September 2013, it received approval to place the restored lighthouse in Water Works Park, north of Derby Pond. The base of the lighthouse was moved indoors in June 2013 for restoration work, and in August 2014, Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy announced the restoration was complete.
The disagreement received much press and caused a few heated meetings, but the two sides finally worked out a compromise on July 14, 2015. The city delayed the opt-out clause, which is common in its contracts, for ten years in this case, and the conservancy agreed that lack of funding needed to maintain the lighthouse would be considered a breach of the contract. After the agreement was reached, Darrel Brand, owner of Brands’ Marina, signed ownership of the lighthouse over to the conservancy.
A formal signing ceremony was held on April 14, 2016, at which Dalton Brand of Brands’ Marina made the following statement:
Brands’ Marina is extremely proud to not only be in the position to donate this lighthouse to the Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy and to the citizens of Port Clinton, but to also be able to facilitate its restoration in conjunction with all the skilled volunteers that worked tirelessly to restore it to its original beauty. While we truly believe that this is an important piece of our community’s maritime heritage whose benefits will probably exceed the expectations of even those directly involved in its final return to the shoreline, we think it's even more important for the citizens of this community to recognize, as they drive by it each day, that this lighthouse is a monument to what can be achieved when we come together out of selflessness and love of community; the power that can be unleashed when people care enough to roll up their sleeves and do something for a greater good and to the benefit of everyone. From the original foresight of the Jeremys, who saved it from destruction a half century ago to the final strokes of paint on its shutters, this represents not only where we came from as a city but what we can be.On the morning of August 16, 2016, a crane placed the restored lighthouse onto a barge, which was used to transport it down Portage River to the northern end of Waterworks Park. The crane then lifted the lighthouse from the barge and placed it on a flatbed trailer for delivery to the prepared concrete foundation, several hundred yards to the east. As a large crowd watched, the crane finally transferred the lighthouse from the trailer to its new home overlooking Lake Erie.
On September 11, 2016, Dan Spinella, of Artworks Florida, spent a few hours in the tower’s lantern room installing a replica fifth-order Fresnel lens that he had crafted for Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy using funds contributed by an anonymous donor. A formal lighting ceremony was held on September 26, 2016, during which Rear Admiral June Ryan, Commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District, dedicated the restored lighthouse. This video shows the replica lens being manufactured by Artworks Florida.
The current structures marking the entrance to Portage River are a pair of flashing red and green entrance lights. The boathouse associated with Port Clinton Lighthouse stood near the baseball diamond in Waterworks Park for many years after being relocated there in the 1950s. When various plans to restore the structure fell through, city workers tore it down in 2010. An oil house used with the lighthouse reportedly still remains in the park.
During the summer of 2018, a replica of the original boathouse, built by the Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy, was placed next to the lighthouse in Waterworks Park.
Head Keepers: Austin Smith (1833 – 1848), William B. Craighill (1848 – 1849), Benjamin J. Orcutt (1849 – 1853), George O. Momeny (1853 – 1859), A. Borden (1859), Leander S. Porter (1864 – 1870), Robert P. Waterfield (1896 – 1900), William H. Egather (1900), Daniel Finn (1900), George H. Pope (1900 – 1911), David C. Sutherland (1912 – 1926).