Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lake County's Maritime Anomaly - Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light

Lake County has a unique maritime anomaly.  Two lighthouses dot the mouth of the Grand River as it enters Lake Erie.  The Grand River (Fairport Harbor) Lighthouse dates back to 1825.  Built by Jonathon Goldsmith at a cost of $5,000, it was vital to the commercial shipping industry that made Fairport and Grand River the second leading port of the era.  The original lighthouse, first manned by Samuel Butler was replaced by the current lighthouse in 1871.  Fourteen keepers shone the Grand River light for one hundred years.  Today, the iconic Grand River (Fairport Harbor) Lighthouse remains as a marine museum and is maintained by the volunteers of the Fairport Harbor Historical Society.

The Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light on Lake Erie is located at the mouth of the Grand River.  Fully operational in 1925, it replaced the Grand River (Fairport Harbor) Light.  The West Breakwater Light has a most interesting history to it.  In 1917, Congress allocated $42,000 for the construction of a new breakwater lighthouse on the Grand River.  Part of that allocation included the demolition of the 1871 lighthouse at the shore of the Grand River.  World War I delayed the project start.  In the meantime, a group of civic minded Fairport residents were able to not only delay the demolition of their village lighthouse but to eventually acquire it and maintain it to this day.  In June 1921, the iron shell of the new breakwater lighthouse made its 147 mile journey on the steamer Wotan from Buffalo to Fairport.  The 42' two story keeper's cottage structure was prefabricated studding, floor beams, rafters, sills and such.  June 9, 1925 marked the official completion of this new lighthouse.  An original 4th order Fresnel lens flashed white light ( three seconds on, three seconds off) each evening for the Grand River's newest guardian of the night. Maintained by the USCG, the light is now automated (300mm optic) and the structure closed to the public.  It is possible to walk out along the rugged breakwater to view the lighthouse.  Misconceptions  have led some to believe that this was the first light at the mouth of the river.  The FHHS archives contain information and archival photos that show the original skeletal tower and piers that existed prior to the 1925 light.  Piers existed on both sides of the Grand River.  $1000 was allocated in 1825 for a pier.  1831 saw another $1000 provide a beacon light on the channel.  Additonal funds in 1834 allowed the project to be completed by 1838.  The east pier extended 600' and housed four lamps.  The west pier extended 900'.  Both piers were extended over time and are fondly recalled by the senior residents of the village.  The lighthouse remains an active navigational aid and the Grand River still serves as a port to a limited number of vessels per season.

2006 saw an effort by a group of community activists to take ownership of the breakwater lighthouse.  Their goal was to preserve the site for future generations.  Monetary concerns prevented the non-profit group of historical societies and activists from their goal.  2009 saw the U.S. General Services Administration offer the West Breakwater Light for public auction.  Bid efforts by local businessman Jerome Osborne ( October 2009) and Texan Scott Monroe ( November 2010) resulted in failed ownership attempts.  A third bidder (July 2011) is now under review and may prove in time to be the lighthouse dwelling's newest keeper.

The iconic Grand River Lighthouse in Fairport is open to the public on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays thru late September.  The West Breakwater Lighthouse can be viewed from Headlands Beach or from the Huntington/ Fairport Lakefront  Metroparks Beach site daily.  Both Lake Erie sentinels are hidden gems and part of a Lake County history chapter that is awaiting your visit.

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