Published on March 2, 2013 | by Sheryl Gusler0
Lake Erie Lighthouses: Ashtabula
First in a series of the story behind each of these giant faithful sentinels
Let’s take a journey along the shores of Lake Erie where, for over a century, lighthouses guided ships from the shallow lake into the north coast harbors. The Ashtabula Harbor, our first stop on this journey, has been home to three lighthouses. The first lighthouse built in 1836 of wood, was a hexagonal lighthouse that stood atop a square 40’ wooden structured crib, connected only by ramp to the river’s east pier. Captain Bigelow was the first to maintain the six lamps using whale sperm oil as fuel. There were no keeper’s quarters available within the lighthouse during this time. The only way to make the daily trip, which was a rough one, was by boat.
In 1871, land was purchased along Walnut Blvd. It is here that a wood dwelling would be built within the following year. Two decades later, an addition was added to the structure now making it a duplex. This addition made it possible for the head and assistant keepers, along with their families, to live there. Civilian keepers continued to tend the light, making their trip by boat until 1916.
Due to construction of new dock facilities, in 1876 a second four-sided lighthouse was built. Located at the western breakwater off the northern end, the newly constructed lighthouse contained a Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a fixed red light and siren fog signal to warn ships of impending dangers along the treacherous, angled pier entrance. During the time of the river-widening project, this 1876 structure was left sixty feet out into the river away from its pier. At one point the lighthouse took on the appearance of floating in the water.
With the completion of the widened Ashtabula River and docks in 1905, the third and current lighthouse was built. In 1916, the lighthouse was moved approximately 1,750 ft. NNE from its original site. The two story square pyramid structure was doubled in size, standing 27’ tall. A red metal roof covers half of the first story while the other half rises up to support a second story also capped with a red metal roof. The parapet and light rise from the center of this second story. The structure was placed atop a 50’ steel and concrete constructed crib surrounded by a metal railing, giving it stability to all impending Lake Erie storms. For added safety, a radio beacon tower was constructed next to the building. Because of its size, the newly constructed 1916 lighthouse now allowed for the keeper’s quarters to be within the lighthouse.
The third lighthouse has had several updates to its signals and sirens over the past years, but is still standing along the rough stone breakwater that protects the harbor.
There are many historical stories surrounding the Ashtabula Lighthouse. One in particular tells of two coast guardsmen that were stationed within the lighthouse in 1928. A storm of savage winds and waves pounded into the structure for two days, keeping the men inside. When the storm finally subsided, the men found themselves trapped inside due to the ice forming over the outside walls. In order to escape, the men had to first thaw the door open and tunnel their way to freedom. Some areas were found to be up to five feet thick in places.
The Ashtabula Lighthouse remained manned by the Coast Guard up until its automation in 1973. Until that time, this lighthouse was the last light to be manned by the Coast Guard on Lake Erie.
Today, the original keeper’s quarters on Walnut Blvd. is the current home to the Great Lakes Marine and U.S. Coast Guard Museum and Gift Shop. You will find a variety of exhibits that fill the original seven rooms of the keeper’s quarters. Here you will see historic photographs along with an extensive collection of model ships. The museum provides an expansive view of the Ashtabula Harbor’s commercial and recreational activities. You will see lake boats loading and unloading coal along with iron ore on the docks. Watch the Bascule lift bridge open and close, allowing powerboats and sailboats to pass through. Picnic tables along with more outside displays are available to all who venture here.
The Ashtabula Lighthouse and Museum is rich in Lake Erie, Ashtabula County, and shipping history, all of which have played a huge role in our Geauga County history as well. There is so much to see and do here; visit and check it out for yourself. Memorial Day Weekend 2013 is opening day.
Next week our second stop on our lighthouse journey is The Fairport Harbor Lighthouse.