Ships entering the port were originally guided by either a torch on a large pilot tree or a lamp atop one of the region’s early hotels. In 1821, the recently widowed Mehitabel Hincher was paid $400 for a four-acre plot to be used for lighthouse purposes. Ashbel Symons was awarded the lighthouse contract, which included a tower, a twenty by thirty-four foot, two-room keeper’s cottage, and a well, and the construction project was completed during a seven-month period in 1822 at a cost of $3,301.
The forty-foot tower was built of native sandstone and topped by an eight-sided iron lantern, containing 144 panes of glass and supported by 2 ½-foot-long square posts that extended six feet into the tower’s stonework. A separate contract had been awarded for fitting the lighthouse with patent lamps and reflectors in the same manner Winslow Lewis had equipped other U.S. lighthouses.
There was quite a competition for the position of keeper, despite the paltry annual salary of $350. Giles Holden, a candidate whose resume included a stint as Assistant Customs Collector, enjoyed the strong backing of many influential citizens but was nevertheless passed over in favor of David Denman, an elderly veteran. When Denman died shortly into his term, Holden did in fact get the job and would raise some of his ten children at the lighthouse, before retiring and moving across the street twelve years later.
Even with the lighthouse, the sandbars at the marshy river entrance proved troublesome to ship traffic. To remedy this, a pair of 2,600-foot-long piers, spaced about 360 feet apart, was built at the river’s mouth in 1829. As land filled in around the piers, the entrance to the river essentially shifted northward, away from the lighthouse, and other lighting options for the port were considered.
An 1838 report to the Secretary of the Treasury by Lieutenant Charles T. Platt made it clear that the Genesee station was not in ideal condition. The ten lamps were worn out, fourteen of the glass panes in the lantern were broken, and the lighthouse deck leaked. The report did praise the keeper and noted the supplies provided under contract were “without fault.” Rather than supplementing the present light with a cheap beacon light on the pier, Platt recommended a new stone lighthouse, capable of serving as both a coast and harbor light, be built on the west pier at a cost of $11,000. Though Platt felt his plan would be cheaper in the long run, the government opted to keep the 1822 lighthouse in operation and construct a frame beacon light on the pier.
Cuyler Cook served until 1853 as assistant keeper of Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, which his father, Michael Cook, had helped build. His replacement was his own cousin, Samuel Phillips, whose duty was to tend the pier light, while Luther Jeffords, the head keeper, minded the main light. On the evening of August 18, 1853, Phillips twice attempted to reach the pier light by boat, but was stymied by heavy seas. Not ready to give up, Phillips asked Cuyler to make another attempt with him. After reaching the pierhead, Phillips disembarked from the rowboat and lit the beacon, but while preparing to leave the pier, he was knocked over by a large wave. Phillips managed to grab onto a bolt that had been set into the pier just the previous day and once on his feet again climbed back up into the safety of the tower.
In the meantime, Cuyler Cook’s boat had capsized, and after trying in vain to cling to the vessel, he set out for the pier. Battered by large waves, Cook was eventually taken under and drowned. Phillips was stranded at the beacon all night until a lifeboat reached him the next day. As the lake was still turbulent, the rescuers threw Phillips a line to tie about his waist, and after he jumped into the water, they pulled him to safety. The inscription on Cook’s gravestone reads:
Cook’s wasn’t the only death associated with the lighthouse. The body of Keeper John Stephenson was found in the river over a decade later, and there were “suspicions of foul play.”
A new brick keeper’s dwelling was built adjacent to the old sandstone tower in 1863. This two-story residence with its eight rooms was a considerable upgrade from its predecessor. A cast-iron tower was established on the west pier on November 5, 1880, and on February 21, 1881, Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was discontinued. In 1884, the lantern room and fourth-order L. Sautter lens atop the old stone lighthouse were removed and installed atop a wooden beacon newly erected on the western pier. This new thirty-one-foot-tall lighthouse went into operation on April 1, 1884, and the existing elevated walkway was extended 270 feet to reach it. The four-year-old iron tower was taken down in 1885 and transferred to Cleveland, where it was installed on the breakwater.
In 1889, the pierhead tower was moved 210 feet to a location near the outer end of the pier, and the elevated walkway was extended to it. Later that year, a sixty-foot open frame tower was erected at the inner end of the elevated walk to form a range with the pierhead light, which was located 1,923 feet away. Three fixed lights, two red and one white, were arranged vertically in a lantern box that was hoisted atop the new rear tower each night. The white light was in the center, and spaced four feet from the red lights.
In 1890, the Lighthouse Board requested $4,000 to construct a steam whistle to replace the fog bell used at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor. An act passed on March 3, 1891 provided the necessary funds, and a six-inch steam whistle commenced operation on the west pier on September 30, 1893, sounding a three-second blast each minute as needed. The fog signal building consisted of a wooden frame structure covered with corrugated iron on the outside and smooth iron on the inside. In 1896, the pierhead beacon was moved nearly 500 feet lakeward to the end of the newly extended pier, and the fog signal building was relocated 1,000 feet to join it. A ten-inch steam whistle took the place of the six-inch whistle on November 22, 1900.
A beacon light was established at the outer end of the east pier on May 25, 1902, and the rear light on the west pier was discontinued. This new beacon was described as “white, square, pyramidal above the first story, covered with corrugated iron, and surmounted by a lantern with gallery and black hand rail.” The lower portion of the west beacon was sheathed with corrugated iron at the same time. An iron oil house was placed on the west pier in 1903. At this time, the head keeper lived in the dwelling at the old lighthouse, while the assistant rented accommodations elsewhere, but records indicate that in 1908, the assistant keeper was living in the fog signal house.
In 1917, generators and storage batteries were installed near the pier lights to provide electricity for their operation, and the characteristic of the west pier light was changed from fixed red to an occulting white light. A skeletal steel tower topped by a red box replaced the light and fog signal structure on the west pier in 1931. That same year, a brick building was built near the present day carousel to provide electricity for the signals and to house equipment for a radiobeacon, whose tower was erected nearby. The station at the entrance to Rochester Harbor had entered the modern era and greatly improved a mariner’s ability to navigate in contrary conditions.
Wilbur L. Folwell, the last keeper, transferred to another station when the pier light was automated in 1947. After that, the old lighthouse was home to the commander of the local Coast Guard station.
Following the removal of the lantern room from the old stone lighthouse, a simple wooden deck was placed across the tower’s top to cover the gaping hole, and the tower’s windows were filled in with cement. For years, the fate of the derelict lighthouse was uncertain. At one point it was suggested that the tower be torn down to provide more room for a local railroad, but students of Charlotte High School successfully countered this threat, and the tower managed to survive a century of idleness.
Coast Guard personnel occupied the dwelling until 1982, when the Coast Guard offered to lease the lighthouse property to the Charlotte Community Association. The next year, the Charlotte Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society was formed to preserve the historic site. The society’s ambitious and immediate goal was to restore the tower and cap it with a replica lantern in time to welcome the tall ships coming to help celebrate Rochester’s sesquicentennial in 1984. The concrete was chipped out of the tower windows, new sashes were installed, and Dan Laniak, head of the mechanical department at Edison Technical High School, accepted the society’s challenge to build a new lantern room. To complete the tower, a replica ventilator ball was cast in sections in the school’s furnace, and a fourth-order Fresnel lens was obtained from the Ninth Coast Guard District. The day before the wooden lantern replica was to be installed, the society learned that the contractor’s crane operators were on strike. Graciously, an Army Reserve unit saved the day by volunteering their crane and men for the job. The restored tower was relit on June 18, 1984, in time for the sesquicentennial celebration.
The present cylindrical “D9” tower was installed on the west pier in 1995. Though it fulfills its duty well, it lacks the charm and intrigue of its predecessors. The old red tower from the west pier is located at the Rochester Gas and Electric’s Russell Station in Greece, New York, but is obscured from view by vegetation. A skeletal tower replaced the wooden lighthouse on the east pier in 1947. A post light currently marks the east pier, and the 1947 tower can be seen at Shumway Marina on the east bank of the river.
In 2011, the Coast Guard retrieved the fourth-order Fresnel lens that had been on loan to Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse for twenty years. Since the lens had served at Lorain Lighthouse in Ohio, it was felt that it should be sent there, so it can be displayed in the lobby of the Lorain Port Authority at Black River Landing. Thanks to an anonymous donor, a replica Fresnel was ordered for Charlotte Genesee Lighthouse from Artworks Florida. Before installing the new fixed fourth-order lens atop the lighthouse, the lantern room was removed so that the brick collar that supported it could be repaired.
On September 25, 2014, a construction crane hoisted the lantern room back atop the lighthouse, roughly six weeks after it had been removed. The lantern room was ready to be returned to the tower a week before, but at the last minute the move was postponed when it was discovered that the bolts holding the circular steel plate that surrounds the lantern room had nearly rusted through. The replica fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern room on October 1, and it was activated on November 1, the anniversary of the first lighting in 1822. After having been left unpainted for decades, the stone lighthouse was whitewashed in 2016. Though the change came as a shock to some neighbors, the tower did have a white daymark when it was still an active aid to navigation.