There are stories that we remember hearing as children that begin, “Once upon a time.” I believe this story earns the right to begin the same way.
Once upon a time, there was a young boy by the name of Ted Wakefield. Ted was born and raised in Vermillion, Ohio; a town, which sits on land rich in clay and straddles the river named after it. During the early days of prohibition, Vermillion became a popular drop-off point for illegal liquor that was coming in regularly from Canada. It was a town that became home to many captains and sailors traveling the Great Lakes region, and years later, Vermillion was given the nickname of “The town of Sea Captains” for that reason.
Ted, like any other young boy, was a curious seeker of adventure. Having a lighthouse in his hometown was an added benefit. Often times, you would find the boys of Vermillion, including Ted and his brother Ernest, playing around and near the lighthouse. They would dare each other to walk around the outside of the light, across a narrow cement foundation. That foundation was dangerously high above the water. One day, by accident, they discovered a secret entrance that took them through a hole in the foundation and then through a manhole cover on the first floor to the interior of the lighthouse. Their adventure had given them the ultimate reward.
Ted had detected that the lighthouse was now leaning.
Ted was always fascinated by the lighthouse. He would wake up each day, and gaze out the window of his home across the water to view the lighthouse. This daily ritual became such a habit that when he woke one morning in 1929, he discovered what no one else had. Ted had detected that the lighthouse was now leaning. Along with his brother Ernest, they reported their findings to their father, Commodore Frederick William Wakefield, who then contacted the proper authorities. The U.S. Engineers came quickly to inspect the lighthouse and the land surrounding it. The engineers determined that due to damage from a severe ice storm, it was unstable. One week later in March, the lighthouse was dismantled and a new 18 foot skeletal tower took its place. Then a couple months later in October, the tower was moved to a new foundation on the outer west pier. Commodore Wakefield had offered to remove and rebuild the lighthouse onto his property in Harbor View, but they denied his request.
The original Vermillion Lighthouse, a structure of wood, was built in 1847 in Lake Erie with appropriated U.S. funds of $3,000. History shows that in 1859, the 6th order lens was replaced with a 5th order lens. In 1870, the lighthouse board requested $4,000 to purchase land and build a keeper’s quarters, however, there was no land available that was easily accessible to the pier, so land with a home already established on it was purchased. The home was given some alterations by giving it a cellar and stone sidewalk. It also allowed for the main oil storage. In 1877, more improvements were made to the lighthouse and in 1893, the lighthouse was moved closer to the pier. In 1919, the original acetylene lamps were replaced with oil lamps. In 1929, the lighthouse marked as unstable was gone.
By the early 1990s, an estimated $55,000 had been raised, and it was enough to build a replica of the 1877, 16 foot lighthouse.
Ted Wakefield never stopped thinking of the lighthouse across the lake. Many years later, Ted would take the lead role in the new fund-raising campaign to get back what was once lost to the small town of Vermillion. By the early 1990s, an estimated $55,000 had been raised, and it was enough to build a replica of the 1877, 16 foot lighthouse. After plans were approved by the appropriate city, county, and state authorities, the U.S. Coast Guard approved to make it a working lighthouse with a steady red light and allow it to become a part of the Coast Guard museum.
On June 6, 1992, dedication of the new lighthouse took place. Ted Wakefield, now a town historian, had accomplished what he set out to do with many thanks going out to the people of the city, county, and state.
The townspeople were sad and uninformed of the future the lighthouse would have when their landmark was first hauled away. Thanks to Olin Stephens of Columbus, Ohio, the people were informed just prior to the dedication of the 1992 structure where and what had become of the lighthouse. Olin’s grandfather had kept a newspaper article showing his lighthouse assignment at Tibbetts Point. It is within this article it points out that his grandfather also served at nearby East Charity Shoal Lighthouse when it stood in Vermillion. The history of the lighthouse of 1877 is as follows: it was dismantled and hauled away to Buffalo, N.Y. in 1929 for renovation. Six years later in 1935, it was moved up to Lake Ontario where it became The East Charity Shoal Lighthouse. There it still sits at the entrance to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, just off of Cape Vincent. Today it remains an active lighthouse and has aided in navigation for the past 78 years.
The Vermillion lighthouse will always be remembered by the townspeople over the years as the most romantic spot in their area. Many of the people when asked, “Where did he propose?” would answer, “Down by the lighthouse.” The area surrounding the lighthouse is thought of as one of the most beautiful, picturesque, landscaped areas around; even more beautiful, some will say, than Niagara Falls.
Today the Vermillion Lighthouse sits on the grounds of the maritime museum as it aids in navigation. A lighthouse remembered by so many was rebuilt in remembrance of that love, and it will continue to live on in the hearts of many – happily ever after.
Our next stop along the Great Lakes Region of Lighthouses will have us searching for gull eggs.