On Saturday, November 6, those near the northwestern Pennsylvania city of Erie noted the 103rd anniversary of a lighthouse on Lake Erie.
The lighthouse began to operate on November 6, 1818 when lighthouse keeper John Bone lit the oil wick in the new structure for the first time. Bone was the Presque Isle Light keeper for 14 years. He, his wife and their four daughters and two sons lived in a one-story, three-room house built near the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was constructed on a bluff that overlooks Lake Erie. It is across the water from Presque Isle, a seven-mile-long peninsula that forms a natural harbor for Erie known as Presque Isle Bay.
As noted in an earlier FreightWaves Classics article (America’s first lighthouse went “on line” 305 years ago), Congress authorized the federal government to construct and maintain lighthouses and other navigational aids on the nation’s waterways in 1789. Congress also established the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) as an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department. All U.S. lighthouses were transferred to the federal government, which became the general lighthouse authority.
Congress wanted to improve water navigation and trade on the Great Lakes, and passed legislation in 1810 that authorized the U.S. Treasury Secretary to establish a lighthouse “on or near Presq’isle in Lake Erie.”
About two acres near the eastern entrance to Presque Isle Bay were acquired for the lighthouse. However, the War of 1812 delayed the construction for several years. Ultimately a 20-foot high wooden tower was constructed. It was the first of three lighthouses built on that site during the 19th century.
Therefore, the first two U.S. lighthouses on the Great Lakes were completed in 1818 – one in Buffalo, New York and the Erie Land Light at the entrance to Presque Isle Bay.
The first lighthouse was called Presque Isle Light, as was its successor. The third lighthouse was also known as the Presque Isle Light until another lighthouse was built on the other side of Presque Isle Bay in 1873. It was also named the Presque Isle Light; therefore, the third lighthouse built on the site of the original Presque Isle Light was named the Erie Land Light.
The original Presque Isle Light sent its beacon from the eastern side of Presque Isle Bay to ships in the vicinity. In 1838 (some 20 years after it went into service), an inspector noted in a report that “the lighthouse was in good condition overall” and he considered it to be “one of the most useful on the south shores of the lake.”
The second lighthouse
By 1851, however, problems with the first Presque Isle Light were noted in another inspection. The lighthouse’s foundations had weakened substantially; the lighthouse was sinking. Although metal bands were placed around the lighthouse to stabilize it, they did not stop the lighthouse from sinking further. This led to the construction in 1858 of the second Presque Isle Light, which was constructed of brick.
The second lighthouse was significantly higher than the first; it stood 56 feet high, which was nearly three times taller than the first lighthouse on the site.
However, the second lighthouse’s foundations were also inadequate; it began to sink as well. In 1867 – less than 10 years after being completed – the structure was replaced by a sandstone lighthouse. The third lighthouse on the site is shorter than the second (48 feet, 10 inches), but is still standing more than 150 years later.
On May 17, 1871, the ownership of the Presque Isle peninsula that formed the bay was transferred to the federal government from a sailors’ hospital. This was done “for the purposes of national defense and the protection of the harbor of Erie.” Concurrently, the continuous erosion and Presque Isle’s shifting sands had led to the “migration” of the peninsula, which led to the Land Light being partially obscured from the water. Therefore, on June 10, 1872, Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a new “lighthouse on the north side of Presque Isle.”
Decommissioning, new life and a final decommissioning
As noted above, what is now known as the Presque Isle Light was built on the other side of the bay in 1873. Construction of the new lighthouse caused many to think that the Erie Land Light was no longer needed. Therefore, in 1880, the U.S. Lighthouse Board shuttered the Erie Land Light. However, many ship owners and residents protested the closure, and the Erie Land Light went back into service in 1885. However, it was permanently decommissioned in 1899.
While it has been “dark” for the last 122 years, the Erie Land Light still stands as a landmark in the Erie area. In 1978 the Erie Land Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This was followed by $400,000 in grants in 2004 from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to help restore the Erie Land Light.
The “other” Presque Isle Light
The Presque Isle Light that was built in 1873 on the other side of the bay was nicknamed the “Flash Light.” It is located on the northern shoreline of what is now Presque Isle State Park.
Like the lighthouse across the bay, it is also on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation was made in 1983.
Now 68-feet tall, the Presque Isle Light’s first tower was only 40 feet tall. Its light consisted of a “6-second, white isophase light (3 seconds on/3 seconds off) that was visible up to 15 nautical miles from the lighthouse.” In 2013 the beacon was replaced with a “six-tier, light-emitting diode, Vega marine beacon.”
A four-bedroom residence is attached to the lighthouse tower. Originally the light was powered by whale oil and then kerosene before the light was electrified.
Construction on the new lighthouse did not begin until September 2, 1872. It was a very difficult job – the location was isolated and very difficult to deliver building materials to. There were no roads that connected Presque Isle to the mainland and the peninsula could become an island at times because of high tides and wind. Barges with building materials that could be offloaded were tried; however, one foundered in a storm and lost 6,000 bricks. After that, the barges landed on the bay-side of the peninsula and all materials were carried 1.5 miles to the construction. Work on the lighthouse tower and keeper’s residence was finally finished in July 1873. On July 12 “a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower, and it went into operation on July 12, 1873.”
During its first nine years in operation the lighthouse produced a fixed, white light that flashed red every 60 seconds. However, the lighthouse’s lenses were changed in 1882; it then featured alternating red and white flashes every 10 seconds. This led to its “Flash Light” nickname.
Electrification and automation
After the lighthouse was electrified, one 150-watt, incandescent light bulb was used to illuminate the lighthouse beacon. That was magnified by its Fresnel lens to 120,000 candlepower visible up to 18 miles. The Fresnel lens was replaced in 1962 by an aviation beacon and the lighthouse’s light was changed to the isophase light.
In January 1997, the U.S. Coast Guard (which by then was responsible for all U.S. lighthouses) declared 17 lighthouses (including the Presque Isle Light) government surplus. Ownership of, and responsibility for the Presque Isle Light was shifted to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The state agency transferred the Presque Isle Light to a non-profit organization on July 25, 2014. With a 35-year lease, the non-profit was to restore and operate the former lighthouse as a museum. It was opened in 2015, but renovations continue to “return the lighthouse to its appearance in the late-1800s and early-1900s.”