It is not unusual for a fierce storm to suddenly erupt off Lake Erie, and with Sandusky Bay being one of the roughest sections of the lake, a lighthouse was not only an asset, but a necessity.
Sandusky Bay is a peninsula surrounded by several islands of various sizes, rich in history. The first lighthouse here was built in 1821 and was called the Sandusky Bay Lighthouse. In 1870, that name was changed to Marblehead.
The original fifty foot structure was built of limestone, which is native to the area. The twenty-five foot base narrows to twelve feet at the top of the tower. The walls, five feet at the base, narrow upward to two feet at the top. This 1821 lighthouse operated with thirteen lamps, each using whale oil, with sixteen inch reflectors until being replaced in 1858 with a single kerosene lantern that magnified its light off of a specialized curved glass fresnel lens.
The keeper’s quarters were not located next to the lighthouse until 1880. Prior to this time, Lucien Clemens and his two brothers maintained a life saving station to the west, one half mile away. Once the wooden keeper’s quarters were built, the lighthouse had its first keeper, Mr. Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran who was also one of the first settlers of the peninsula area. Here, Mr. Wolcott along with his family would live, lighting the sixteen lamps, logging the books of each ship that passed, and keeping track of weather conditions. There were times that dangerous rescue efforts would also have to be organized; this too by Mr. Wolcott. It would be many years later that a separate life saving station was established in the area to aid the light keeper with rescue efforts. Many ships fought their way across the lake, with many sinking due to the 200 mile passage from Buffalo to Marblehead that created storms like a northeaster, creating much frenzy on the lake.
It was in 1832 Benajah Wolcott would die of cholera. His duties were passed on to his wife Rachel who became one of the first female light keepers on Lake Erie. History would repeat itself sixty-four years later when the head keeper George McGee died, leaving his duties to his wife. These two women became true pioneers, showing great courage and strength, providing safety to the Great Lakes Region.
Even though Marblehead Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes, its modern day conveniences came slowly over the years.
Even though Marblehead Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes, its modern day conveniences came slowly over the years. A clock-like mechanism was installed to rotate the lantern, giving the appearance of a quick flash of light every ten seconds. However, this meant that the lighthouse keeper would have to hand crank the weights at night, every three hours, to keep it operational. Electricity finally replaced the kerosene lamps in 1923, which also increased the candlepower of the lamps signal.
At the turn of the century, structural changes needed to be made, and an additional fifteen feet was added to the top of the tower between 1897 and 1903, making it a sixty-five foot structure with a new lantern installed. It is recorded that in 1946, Marblehead would have its last keeper of the lighthouse, giving way to new technology.
Today, the light still protects the ships in guiding them in and out of the harbor. The Marblehead lighthouse has a bright red railing surrounding the walkway, along with a matching red roof and a ventilator ball that caps a ten-sided lantern room. The fresnel lens that was installed in 1903 is now on exhibit at the Coast Guard Station. The original keeper’s quarters almost met its demise when the Coast Guard ordered it to be burned in 1998 due to extensive damage by vandals. The local citizen’s protested their decision to burn the structure. Word was received the night before its burning that is was saved thanks to the efforts of the citizens and Congressman Delbert Latta. Today, it is under the protection of the Ohio DNR where it is now used as a residence. (The photo at the top of this story is courtesy of the Ohio DNR.)
If you decide to visit the lighthouse, you may want to visit some of the islands nearby. The islands northwest of the lighthouse are rich in U.S. history and were once homeland to the now-extinct Erie Indians. Johnson Island was the unpleasant destination for the Confederate officer prisoners of war. The camp can still be visited today where you can walk in the footsteps of those men from long ago. Just three miles north is Kelly’s Island, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the surrounding area.
The Marblehead Lighthouse is a picturesque sight to see and well worth a visit to see for yourself.
Our next stop along our Lighthouse journey is to a town once known as the “City of Sea Captains”, and for good reason.