Presque Isle Lighthouse

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The following information was taken from the
Lighthouse Display at Presque Isle State Park

The Loneliest Place on Earth

… is how Charles Waldo, the first keeper of the Presque Isle Lighthouse, described his seven year tenure at the station.

            Waldo lived at the lighthouse with his family when, on July 12, 1873, he wrote: “This is a new station and a light will be exhibited for the first time tonight.  There was one visitor. 

            Early United States Lighthouse Service keepers were required to “keep the light burning” from sunset until sunrise during the shipping season, April through November.  Keepers were paid a total of $520 per year for 365 days of service.
            Until a road to the mainland was built in 1927, the keepers and their families were quite lonely, their isolation broken by the arrival of a supply tender several times each year.

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The Flashlight

              In the early 19th century the Great Lakes provided the single most important transportation system in the country.  Throughout the lakes, mariners depended heavily on lighthouses to warn of hazards to navigation and to mark major land features.
            A fourth-order Fresnel lens, designed by French physicist Augustin Fresnel, was mounted at the top of the tower.  Encased in brass, a single oil lamp projected a warning beam visible up to 13 nautical miles away.  Because each light had a characteristic signal, mariners watched for two red and four white flashes, informing them that they were indeed seeing the Presque Isle lighthouse, or “flashlight” as it was commonly known.
            Responsibility for maintaining the light rests with the United States Coast Guard.  Modern day shipboard electronics have greatly reduced the need for lighthouses, although they remain a significant geographic point of reference for small boats. 

 Five Courses Thick

          The final lighthouse design incorporated bricks five-courses thick to withstand the severe cold and winds off the lake.  Overall, the structure cost $15,000.
            Construction began in September 1872 and was completed by the following July.  Initially, the tower height was 40-feet.  In August of 1896, a project to increase the tower height to 57-feet was begun to enhance the visibility of the light from the lake.  The iron stops leading to the tower were fabricated in Pittsburgh and shipped to Erie by barge.
            Attached to the tower is a ten-room residence that retains much of the original architectural characteristics.  Conveniences, such as running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity were added in later years.
            The interior of the residence still reflects a typical 19th century French architectural design with rounded corners and hand crafted woodwork.  Most of the wood was milled from trees near the station.
            The oil room (later the battery room) at the base of the stairway was used to store a one night supply of oil for the lamp.  Keepers kept a night-long vigil to ensure continuous flashing of the light for the heavy lake traffic of the 1800’s.


The Peninsula’s First Roadway

            For more than fifty years a narrow pathway served as the keeper’s primary link to civilization.  Sand and dirt at first, and then paved in 1925, the current “sidewalk trail” led the keeper to his boat house on Misery Bay for the second leg of an excursion to the city.

            This primitive trail, some 1.5 miles long, served as a link for lighthouse children to reach mainland schools.  Wooden boards were added to make the walk easier, bridging the wet or muddy portions that were constantly threatened by the changes in the water levels of the lake.  Walking the trail, boating to the city, and then walking to school were a fact of life for children until the main road opened in 1927.

            Today, walkers on the trail can only speculate on the mysteries and history that surround this unique site.

 The following information was provided by:
        Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
        Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
        Bureau of State Parks

About the Tower and Buildings
The Light
The Keepers
Construction History

 About the Tower and Buildings


        The tower is 57 feet high at the steel balcony, with the light 63 feet above ground level.   The overall height of the tower, to the top of the ventilator ball is 70 feet.

        Constructed of brick, five courses thick, the tower is square on the outside and round on the inside.  The thickness is needed to protect the structure from the fierce storms that occur on Lake Erie.

        Limestone was used as the foundation for the tower and residence.   Plans originally called for the entire structure to be built of limestone, but the design was later changed to use bricks above ground to reduce costs.

        A winding staircase of 78 iron steps provides access to the lantern room at the top.  The steps were forged in Pittsburgh and shipped by barge on the Erie Canal system.

        The residence consisted of ten rooms at time of construction.   The sunroom on the northwest corner was added later bringing the current number of rooms to eleven.

        The service room at the bottom of the tower was used by the keepers during their nightlong vigil.  It was also called either the “oil room” or “battery room” depending on the technological era.

        For many years, water was obtained from a hand pump located on the south side of the residence, next to the sidewalk.  The terra cotta base of the fixture is still visible.

        The small metal and brick building in the yard is the fuel storage building, or oil shed.  Twice a year, the Lighthouse Service would supply the station with whale oil, kerosene, diesel, and other fuels to power the light or generators.  These flammable materials were stored in the oil shed to reduce the risk of fire in the tower and residence.  Keepers would only bring one night’s supply into the lighthouse as a precaution against fire.

        Roads didn’t reach the lighthouse until 1927.  At first, the road passed on the lakeside of the lighthouse, but storms continually damaged the road and washouts were common.  The road was moved in 1948 to its current, more protected location.

        A barn, storage building and privies were also on the site but have been removed due to their poor condition.


The Light


        The original light was a fourth order Fresnel (the “s” is silent) lens constructed of intricate glass prisms that concentrated the light into a band that projected toward the horizon.  Fresnel lenses were made in France and used throughout the world.  They were the finest lenses for this type of application and displayed a bright, white light.  The prisms were extremely delicate and keepers spent much of their time caring for the lenses.  Fourth order refers to the relative size of the lens, first order is the largest and sixth order is the smallest.

        The light was originally fueled by whale or kerosene, using a series of lamps and wicks.  The light was electrified in the 1920’s, with a 150 watt bulb being used.

        When first electrified, keepers would run diesel generators during the day charging a bank of batteries.  The light and residence would then operate off the batteries throughout the night.

        The original light displayed an alternating red and white light, with an interval of ten seconds between the flashes.  The flashes were created by the lens revolving on a series of ball bearings, with red glass panels affixed to the outside of the lens.  The lens revolved through the use of a clockwork mechanism with chains and weights that the keeper operated.

        The light can be seen 16 miles into the lake.

        Locals commonly called the light the “Flashlight”.

        In 1962 the Fresnel lens was removed and a modern aircraft-type beacon installed.

        Today’s light is created by a 250-watt bulb inside a plastic optic lens.  It displays a white light on a three-second-on, three-second-off sequence with no rotation.  The light is fully automated and maintained by the Coast Guard; very little maintenance or monitoring is needed.  An electric light sensor controls the light.

        Attached to the front of the tower is a battery powered back-up light that switches on automatically when the main light is nonfunctional.  The batteries for this light are stored on the top landing of the tower, just below the lantern room.


The Keepers


        The first keeper, Charles Waldo, was paid $520 per year to keep the light burning every night throughout the shipping season – April to November.  He was also responsible for the upkeep of the tower structure, equipment, residence, out buildings, and property.  Keepers were also required to respond to shipwrecks or other emergencies.

        Early keepers were employed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service until the Service was incorporated into the Coast Guard in 1939.

        Ensuring proper operation of the light required keepers to climb the tower every two to four hours to clean the lens, check for proper function, refuel, and reset the chains.  This would go on from sunset to sunrise, April to November.

        The station was only supplied twice a year by the Lighthouse Service.  These major supply drops were mainly for fuels, new equipment, and food staples.  The keepers at Presque Isle had to travel to Erie by land (Sidewalk Trail) and boat to get other supplies.

        In the early days, children at the station walked to the bay and were picked up by the Lifesaving Service who rowed them across to Erie.  In the winter, they walked or skated across the ice to school.

        Before the advent of cars and trucks and a road onto the peninsula, the station was very isolated.  It was often referred to as “The Loneliest Place on Earth”.

        Many keepers have also served the public at the Presque Isle Light Station.  They were:

Charles Waldo                                     July 1, 1873 – September 30, 1880

Orrin J. McAllister                         October 1, 1880 – October 8, 1880 (8 days)

George E. Town                         October 1880 – March 3, 1883

Clark M. McCole                         March 1883 – April 6, 1886

Lewis Vannatta                         April 1886 – October 1, 1891

Louis Walrouse                         October 1891 – October 6, 1892

Thomas L. Wilkens                         October 1892 – May 31, 1901

Andrew W. Shaw                         June 1901 – 1927 (Longest term as keeper)

Frank Huntington                         1927 – 1944


The Huntington’s were the last of the true “keepers of the light” since the lighthouse stood vacant from 1944 to 1956.  After that, various individuals and families lived in the lighthouse as residents – but not as hired keepers.  They monitored the light for proper operation, but technology was making the job of keeper much easier.

 Today, the residence is maintained by the Presque Isle State Park and used as housing for employees.  The Coast Guard maintains the light itself.  Presque Isle State Park maintains the rest of the structures and property.


Construction History

        Commissioned in 1870 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service to replace the Erie Light Station (commonly called the Land Lighthouse).

        The Presque Isle Light Station was needed to warn mariners of the seven-mile long peninsula (Presque Isle) jutting out into Lake Erie on an otherwise straight coastline.  The light was also needed to provide mariners with a location marker so they could confirm their location as they traveled through the lake.

        Construction of the station began in September 1872.  Building materials were first brought to the lakeside of the project, but this proved to be too difficult and dangerous.  A scow carrying 6,000 bricks was lost early in the project causing builders to consider a new method of getting materials to the site.

        A crude roadway was established to connect the light station with Misery Bay on the city side of the peninsula to allow safer access to the site.   This 1.5 mile roadway was originally just a sandy path through the swampy interior, but was later planked to improve conditions.   In 1925, a narrow concrete strip was laid on the path.  This concrete “sidewalk” is still visible today as the park’s Sidewalk Trail.  The north-end or this sidewalk ends near the lighthouse tower.

        On December 8, 1872, construction was suspended for winter.   In the initial three months of construction, the masonry of the residence and that of the tower was well under way, the residence was roofed, and the tower covered.

        Construction resumed in April 1873, and the station was ready for occupancy on July 1, 1873.  The entire station cost $15,000 to construct.

        The first keeper was Charles Waldo who brought his family to the station to live.  In his log on July 12, 1873, Charles Waldo wrote:  This is a new station and a light will be exhibited for the first time tonight – there was one visitor.”


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