Within the unsettled wilderness of the 1800s, northern Ohio was known as the Western Reserve. Along the low rising shores, a lighthouse stands watch waiting to do its job of providing guidance to the many boats and ships that enter its harbor. But that is not all. This particular lighthouse will play a huge role in the safety of many who wish to be free.
With the rough waters coming in off Lake Erie, the earliest settlers of Fairport Harbor living in the town known as the “sailor’s town”, felt something needed to be done to maintain the safety of its shipping harbor. Now a population of 300 and growing, a notice requesting bids for a local lighthouse and keeper’s quarters was soon placed in the Painesville Telegraph. A bid was accepted and soon a proposal, signed by A. Walworth, would be constructed. Mr. Walworth’s proposal specified the materials to be used for construction, the depth of the foundation, the height and diameter of the soapstone deck, and even the sizes of windows to be used. Nothing was left for the builders’ imaginations. The keeper’s house he designed was just as exact.
Soon, Mr. Walworth contacted Hiram Wood and Jonathan Goldsmith, a highly noted builder, to begin construction of the two-story structure measuring 34’ x 20’ with three windows in each room, a 12’ x 14’ attached kitchen, and a cellar underneath the entire structure. Cost of the construction would be $2,900. With construction going along smoothly, miscommunication between Goldsmith and Walworth occurred regarding the cellar. Goldsmith did not allow for the cellar in his original calculations. Eventually, an agitated Walworth would allow Goldsmith to go ahead and build the cellar for an additional cost of $174.30.
It was the fall of 1825 when the 55 foot lighthouse and keeper’s quarters were completed. A fixed white light, fueled by whale oil, was now lit for the first time. Its completion was eighth in a series of twenty-two lighthouses that would be built to stand watch over the northern Lake Erie shores.
To add to the harbor’s safety and function, in 1825 Congress appropriated $1,000 to be used to construct the first piers at the mouth of the Grand River; again in 1831 a similar sum was allocated for a pier light. This amount would prove to be inadequate though, and an additional $1,486 would be granted in 1834 to complete the twenty-one foot tall beacon of light. The east pier extended 600 feet into the lake and the west pier 900 feet, allowing the lighthouse and beacon of light to be within range. Now there would be no difficulty in navigating through this harbor.
During the Civil War, and two decades after the lighthouse of Fairport Harbor was constructed, it became the northern station and crossing point for the Underground Railroad. Slaves would travel north hundreds of miles, making stops along their dangerous journey while traveling their last leg through Trumbull, Geauga, and Ashtabula Counties. The light of the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse was used by these escaped slaves to guide them to their safety and soon-to-be freedom. It was within the 1825 lighthouse where the townspeople and the first keeper of the light, Samuel Butler, took care of the tired and hungry slaves that took refuge in sleeping, eating, and waiting for their chance to depart by boat for Canada.
Fairport Harbor was a strong, unified, anti-slavery town, and they stood firm keeping it this way even with the Fugitive Slave Law. It was the action of the tavern owner Samuel Butler along with a citizen’s group that sought to repeal the law. Soon Butler’s tavern was a haven for the escaped slaves and headquarters to all who wished to help out with their freedom. Anti-slavery ship captains and seamen joined in the townspeople’s efforts, and they were the ones who provided the ships used to smuggle the escaped slaves into Canada.
It is unfortunate that after the first few years of its service the lighthouse already began showing significant signs of wear and tear. What was once a strong structure giving back in prosperity to the people of Fairport Harbor, now had a foundation sinking and withering away after just 10 years. Within thirty years, it was ready to topple over. This simple structure that guided thousands of vessels containing passengers and cargo worth millions had become a landmark beyond the region where it stood.
What was to happen to this landmark? Would Congress help to rebuild it, or would it need to be torn down and a new structure built in its place? I will answer these questions and more in my second series, part 2 of the Fairport Harbor Main Lighthouse.