Know Ohio: History of Ohio's lighthouses

Ahoy. Gotta get the position of my sailor hat just right here, because today, we’re going to cruise along Ohio’s beautiful north shore – which is a splashing good time for boaters and fisherman – but also a very important dock for trade.   

For hundreds of years, large ships carried things like grain, lumber, coal, and iron ore in and out of the ports along Ohio’s coast – and they continue to do so today. These ships are working at all hours of the day and night, so sometimes when they dock, Ohio’s picturesque coast looks like…THIS. Not exactly an image worthy of a postcard.  

Lake Erie can be a very dark place for boats. So, they need a guiding light to keep them safe -- and that’s the important job of Ohio’s lighthouses.  

Perhaps the most well-known is the Marblehead Lighthouse. Nestled on the tip of a peninsula just north of Sandusky and Cedar Point, it’s the oldest continually running lamp on the Great Lakes. In 1815 the government set aside $5,000 to build the lighthouse to guide boats safely into Sandusky Bay.   

This lighthouse was completed in 1821, but the source of the light wasn’t a lightbulb – those wouldn’t be invented for another 50 years.  Instead, the light at the top of the lighthouse consisted of seven oil lamps with reflectors.  

Each evening the lighthouse keeper Benajah Wolcott would climb to the top of the building and light the lamps. He also kept track of the ships that came and went and the weather conditions. When he passed away his wife Rachel took up the duties, making her the first female lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes.  

The Marblehead lighthouse has that traditional shape that you’re probably familiar with. But the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse has a much different shape — it’s less lighthouse, and more gingerbread house.  

Big freight ships headed to Toledo are guided by this unique lighthouse that was built in 1901. It’s actually located in Lake Erie about 5 miles from the shore, so it’s surrounded on all sides by water. So if you’re the keeper of this lighthouse…chances are, you’re not a people person.  

The light in this lighthouse was called a fresnal lens — a special bullseye-shaped lens that bends light so it shoots out in a strong beam like a spotlight. Nowadays the lighthouse is automated, so there’s really no need for anyone to live out in the middle of Lake Erie, as much as some of us would like to!  

Over on the other side of Ohio’s coast, a lighthouse in Ashtabula is being kept alive by a group of concerned citizens. The original lighthouse was built at the mouth of the Ashtabula River in 1836.   

Over the years it has taken many shapes and even been moved. First the lighthouse was a hexagonal tower. Then it was rebuilt as a square pyramidal tower. Finally, the latest version was a rectangular building. In the summer, a conservation group gives tours of the lighthouse.   

It was the last lighthouse of Lake Erie to be manned by a keeper -- until 1973.  Although lighthouse keeper, is no longer a job title for anyone in Ohio, lighthouses are still a provide that all-important guiding light for ships traveling in and out of the Buckeye State.

Instructional Links

Website: Lighthouses of the U. S, Ohio & Lake Erie Lighthouses https://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/lighthouse/oh.htm

Website: Lighthouse Friends, Ohio Lighthouses http://www.lighthousefriends.com/pull-state.asp?state=OH&Submit=Go

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