One of the perks of empty nest retirement is that, for the most part, you can take off on an impromptu day trip whenever you feel like it.
On a whim one summer day last year, Papa and I decided to do just that and traveled northward in our home state. Although we’ve often been to and through the city of Erie and specifically to Lake Erie, we decided to spend a day exploring the area to see sites we hadn’t toured before.
Our excursion eventually took us to Presque Isle State Park where we visited two of the three Pennsylvania lighthouses situated on Lake Erie. Presque Isle is a peninsula that’s basically a sand bar located on the Lake Erie shoreline. Its name is derived from the French and means “almost an island.”
A fascinating folklore legend exists about Presque Isle. The Erie Indian tribe once inhabited the area because they believed the Great Spirit guided them to the shores of Lake Erie. In order to discover where the sun set in the evening, some of them entered into the lake paddling their canoes in that direction. But according to the legend, this made the spirits of the lake angry and a violent storm occurred.
They believed the Great Spirit heard their desperate cries during the storm and stretched his arm out into the water to protect them from the tempestuous lake, allowing them to safely navigate their canoes back to shore. A sand bar formed where the Great Spirit extended his arm and blocked the turbulent water from harming his favorite people. After that, the sand bar, named Presque Isle, provided protection and a safe harbor for the Erie people.
The legend about Presque Isle is interesting enough but we found the lighthouses we viewed just as intriguing. Located on the northern shore of the state park, Presque Isle Light was constructed in 1872 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This picturesque lighthouse is 68 feet high and the original design called for cut stone blocks to construct it. However, that proved too expensive, so bricks were used instead.
A barge anchored off shore from the building site held 6000 bricks for that purpose. One of those Great Lakes storms that occurs so often on Lake Erie caused the barge to break free and all of the bricks ended up in the lake. To this day, intact bricks and bits and pieces, which many people believe were originally meant for the lighthouse, have been found on lake beaches.
Presque Isle Light was known as the Flash Light in its early days and was probably lit by oil because of its nearby vicinity to Pennsylvania’s oil country. Using an oil lamp burning inside the Fresnel lens caused the light to expand and produced a stronger beam. Keepers and their families lived in the attached home, which was of considerable size since it consisted of nine rooms, until 1944.
Still an active navigational aid today for boaters on Lake Erie, this lighthouse is a popular spot for visitors during the summer season. When we visited last year, it was open to the public and while browsing in a nice gift shop located on the site, we found a treasure map – an illustrated 39 X 27 inch map and guide to every standing lighthouse in all 50 of the United States of America. The acquisition of that guide has fueled our desire to visit more lighthouses than ever.
The second Lake Erie lighthouse we visited on the Pennsylvania side was the Erie Harbor North Pier Light, also known as the Presque Isle North Pier Light, located at the far eastern end of Presque Isle State Park.
We parked our vehicle and then strolled out onto the pier, which is accessible to the public all year long even though the tower itself is not, to get an up close and personal view of the 34-foot high tower. It’s also a popular spot for fishermen.
The original wooden tower was built in 1830 but in 1857 a schooner rammed it sweeping the tower away. Interestingly, the present black and white metal structure was forged in France and then assembled on site in Erie, but later moved east 450 feet in 1891 and then again moved in 1940 to its present location.
By 1995, North Pier’s beacon changed from a fixed red beam to an automated red flashing light and is operated by the United States Coast Guard. The old Fresnel lens that was removed is now exhibited in the Erie Maritime Museum, another fascinating and worthwhile place we visited in Erie.
This summer during the pandemic, Papa and I again ventured on a day trip to check out other Lake Erie lighthouses – only this time, we drove to the Ohio side of the lake. Capturing photos of the two lighthouses we viewed proved more difficult though.
First we located the Ashtabula Harbor Light, over a century old, situated in the rocky Ashtabula Harbor on a pier head. The only spot we could find to access a view of it was from the beautiful Lakeshore Park. Becoming operational in 1876, the current square, pyramidal 30-foot Ashtabula Light replaced the first hexagonal tower built in 1836.
The present lighthouse endured some skirmishes when it was damaged by Lake Erie schooners and steamships which necessitated repairs and moving the lighthouse as well.
Another noteworthy fact involved a winter storm in 1928 when the lighthouse was covered in several feet of ice trapping two keepers inside for two days. Eventually the keepers thawed the door open but had to dig a 40-foot long way through five feet of ice to escape. Can you imagine the claustrophobia that might cause?
Automated in 1973, this lighthouse was the last remaining manned beacon out of 68 Lake Erie lights. Currently, it is owned by the Ashtabula Lighthouse Restoration and Preservation Society and plans include restoring the structure and opening it for public tours.
From Ashtabula, we drove east to Conneaut (pronounced con-ee-aught and derived from Konyiat, the name Seneca Indians gave the creek emptying into Lake Erie here and meaning “place of many fish”). Also located in Ashtabula County, we easily found the present Conneaut Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse, which is only accessible by boat.
Not the first one to exist, several beacons serviced the Conneaut port from 1835 until 1934 when construction began on a new square, steel 60-foot tower. After its completion, the tower’s beam was visible 17 miles out into the lake and its fog horn could be heard from about 15 miles.
Originally, this tower was painted white, but later a black horizontal band was added to it. By 1972, the lighthouse was automated and it currently emits alternating red and white flashes. In the early 1990’s the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office nominated Conneaut Harbor West Breakwater Light to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard regarded Conneaut West Breakwater Lighthouse as unnecessary and offered it at no cost to any federal, state, and local agency, and non-profit and educational organizations which met certain eligibility. However, a qualified owner was not attained and subsequently, an online auction for the lighthouse was held.
A winning bid ensued but due to leasing issues, another online auction took place in 2011 when an Ohio businessman was awarded the lighthouse. By 2018 though, the lighthouse was listed for sale by the owner. Asking price – $72,000. I was not able to find any information on whether the lighthouse has actually sold since then or not.
Apparently, there are a number of lighthouses currently on the market all around the world. Living in a lighthouse in these modern times is an interesting concept and must appeal to some people.
I do appreciate and enjoy visiting lighthouses, and I love photographing them, but I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t want to live in one. Would you?
“We have a light upon our house, and it gives hope to all who sail upon the stormy seas. Do ya know what it means to have a light burning atop your home? It is safety, a place of refuge, seen by all as a signal that ye stand for something greater than this world, greater than us all.” ~James Michael Pratt, The Lighthouse Keeper, 2000