Ashtabula Lighthouse Story (Archive)

Over the years there have been many dates passed around about the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. In one of the documents it states the “Beacon Light Station” was constructed prior to 1821. Several entries in other documents left me even more puzzled, because of the conflict in dates and names. Those documents stated “Beacon Light Station” was constructed in 1836. I’ve decided to let you decide which of these dates (1821 or 1836) are correct? Allegedly during 1836 a schooner ran off course and ripped the wooded Beacon Light Station from its cribbing and sent it plunging into the deep dark waters of Lake Erie.
I’ve decided for all intents and with some finality the original 1836 Beacon Light Station was built on a wooden cribbing approximately 40’ square and just off Ashtabula’s eastern pier at the entrance to the Ashtabula River. The hexagon shaped tower was short in stature for its time. The tower was painted white and the interior was fitted out with a wooden staircase that ran from the main floor to the conical tower room. The flooring in the conical tower at that time was also constructed out of wood. In order to reach the light station the Lighthouse Board had a long wooden ramp constructed that connected the wooden crib to the east pier of the Ashtabula River.
Here again we have another puzzle to figure out. Who was the first keeper assigned to Ashtabula Beacon Light Station? Was it Captain Bigelow or was it Samuel Minger? One document states it was Bigelow. In another document it states Samuel Minger was the first Keeper at Ashtabula Beacon Light Station. Another record show Minger started as Beacon Light Station Keeper at Ashtabula in 1837 and left sometime in 1838. So who manned the Light Station from 1836 to 1837? Was it Captain Bigelow, Samuel Minger or were civilians responsible?
For this story it’s Captain Bigelow. He was responsible for keeping the two fountain lamp on a catadioptric lens burning day and night. Captain Bigelow used sperm whale oil fuel to keep the 600 candle power light burning. This type of combustible fuel was stored inside the Beacon Light Station in a store room in two air tight oil butts. The fixed white with varied flash (Every 2.5 second) light was activated by a weighted centrifuge governor. Focal plane of the light is 42’ above the means of the Lake Erie. The height of 51’ tower made it easy to see the beacon from the 5th Order Fresnel lens. On a clear night the beacon from the light could be seen by vessels some 19 miles from shore.
The .74 acres of land (Dwelling Site was 98 feet x 300 feet) was first deeded to the United States Lighthouse Board in 1871. The document I read stated there were approximately two plots of land within the .74 acres. The Lighthouse Board would later develop this land and use part of it to construct the next Ashtabula Beacon Light Station built in 1876.
In 1876 a new Beacon Light Station was built on the west pier head the tower stood some 40’ tall. This new Beacon Light was erected because the Army Corps of Engineers were constructing a number of new dock facilities within the Ashtabula Harbor. A new single mantel, 35 MM diameter oil vapor, type “A” lamp along with a new 4thOrder Fresnel fixed red light lens was installed in the new conical tower. The new installation was operated by a 1,000 pound mercury float with a centrifugal governor that had to be wound every 6 hours. The 1/8” clock cord used in the winding mechanism was 240’ long and had a two part lead. The physical clock drum was 6-7/8” in diameter x 7-7/8” length. A new first class siren fog signal was also installed at Ashtabula Beacon Light Station. The fog signal was powered by a “Spiro” Air Motor that was manufactured by Buffalo Forge Company located in Buffalo, New York. The pneumatics for the Type “F” Diaphone fog signal was manufactured by Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company, located in Chicago, Illinois. The fog signal was position due North and the sound sequence was 2 second blasts every 18 seconds and the operating pressure was locked in at 35 pounds. The fog signal was 40’ above the water and housed in a rectangular steel building. The trumpet signal was a resonator that was 4’- 6.5” in length and was 17” in diameter and made of cast iron. During 1878 the candle power of the light was increased to 14,000 candlepower and remained unchanged until 1995. There was a note I found that stated the Beacon Light Station moved 471’in 1882 and in 1893 there were two range lights installed outside the entrance to Ashtabula Harbor.
Fayette E. Walworth was appointed keeper on the 6th day of February 1894. According to 1896 documentation George V. Codding started his lighthouse career at Ashtabula. His position at that time he took his oath was 1st Assistant Keeper. He remained at his present position (1st Assistant) until March 1901. Codding was promoted to Head Lighthouse Keeper at the Vermillion Lighthouse, located in Vermilion, Ohio. Frederick J. Hartley served as 1st Assistant Keeper at Ashtabula Beacon Light Station from January 1904 to March 1907. Keeper Fayette E. Walworth resigned his duties on the1st day of November 1905 his reason for his resignation was due to physical problems. Frederick J. Hartley served under Keeper Joseph F. Crawford. It’s not clear when Keeper Crawford came on board.
Ashtabula’s four sided Beacon Light Station with wooden clapboard siding was constructed in a pyramid shape and served the harbor until the present Beacon Light Station was built in 1905. That same year a new pierhead light was also built. The reason for this build was the Army Corps of Engineers were in the process of widening the Ashtabula River and the construction of a new dock area was just about complete. The new 1905 Beacon Light Station was built approximately 2,500 feet north of the Ashtabula River entrance. Before completing the new light station and the completion of the river-widening project, we find the old Beacon Light Station of 1876 some 60’ from shoreline. This gave the appearance the old Beacon Light Station was floating on the water. Keeper Charles W. Anderson took over as keeper at Ashtabula Beacon Light Station and remained there until 1915. The only way Keeper Anderson could get between the old and the new light station by boat. The original 1905 Beacon Light Station foundation wasn’t removed and still stands today as a reminder of those glory days of long ago. Sometime during March of 1907 Hartley decided to resign from Lighthouse Service. Both he and Keeper Walworth were part of the transition from the old Beacon Light Station to the new Harbor Light Station being built on the new cribbing.
Until 1915 civilian keepers lived at the Walnut Boulevard House (Keepers Quarters)that was approximately 2,000 square feet of usable space. It was constructed of wood and was located about 1-1/8” miles on shore and was able to house two keepers. It also had two storage sheds just behind the house that over looked Lake Erie. The Walnut Boulevard House is now the home of the Ashtabula Marine Museum. Keepers would alternate duties at the Harbor Light Station and make relief trips by boat from the main land to the light. The United States Coast Guard took over the responsibility of the Harbor Light Station in 1915. Coast Guardsman Neil Barton manned the control room at the Harbor Light Station for many years.
In 1916 the Harbor Light Station was moved approximately 1,750 feet North, North, East (NNE) of its present location. The new structure was doubled in size and stood on a new 50’ concrete cribbing that was constructed to support its new structure. The new two-story building was constructed of steel with thick iron plates. As in previous years the new Harbor Light Station wasn’t able to house the light station keepers. The newly installed light had a focal plane of 51’ above the means of the lake. The Lighthouse Board ordered the distinguishing characteristics changed to a flashing white 5 seconds (Flash 0.6 second “On” and eclipse 4.4 seconds “Off”)
A new radio beacon tower was also constructed next to the building. Additional reinforcements were needed to repair the old 1905 stone break wall. The old wooden floor was removed and a new cast iron floor was installed in the lantern room. Those new sections were constructed inland during 1915 and moved from Walnut Beach to the break wall in 1916 which extends 1.25 miles into the lake. The increased structure size also made it possible for keepers to live at the Harbor Light Station.
On the 19thday of December 1918, Inspector G. R. Kitchens from the 10th Lighthouse District conducted an inspection of the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station, that was located on the pierhead at the north end of the breakwater and on the West side of the entrance to Ashtabula Harbor. If you remember correctly I stated the land was deeded in 1871. Now we see a statement from Inspector Kitchens the land was deeded on the 30thday of July 1878. Here again I will let each of you decide which of these dates (1871 or 1878) is correct. Once Inspector Kitchens made it to town, he had to walk two blocks to the harbor and then take a 1.25 mile boat ride just to reach the Harbor Light Station, that was located offshore. There were two boats available to Inspector Kitchens. The first was 16’ flat bottom row boat. His second choice was boat number 123, which was 23’-8” long motor boat that was powered by a J. W. Lathrop Co. Number 16483 motor. It was a 2 cylinder, 2 cycle 12 horsepower motor. In his report Inspector Kitchens stated the flat bottom boat wasn’t suited for work, so I believe he was brought to the Harbor Light Station on the motor boat. Who escorted him from the mainland to the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station is unknown at this time. One of the main concerns of those who served at the Harbor Light Station was the health of the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. Inspector Kitchens report he deemed health of the station as“good” and “disease free”. The water supplied to Ashtabula was pumped from Lake Erie to 868 gallon iron cistern style tank located in the Harbor Light Station. In his inspection of that water system, Inspector Kitchens stated the water quality as “dirty”, quantity “ample” and injury to other “no”.
In 1927, the Steamer Gleneagles owned and operated by the Canadian Steamship Lines LTD rammed the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station and drove it back 6 inches off its foundation. According to all the on sight reports the Steamer Gleneagles was heavily damaged. There were no injuries to United States Coast Guard personnel or anyone aboard the Steamer Gleneagles. This is the second time the Light Station has been damaged or lost, if we believe the original Beacon Light Station was constructed prior to 1821. So what do we really know about the Steamer Gleneagles, her crew and where she was prior to her collision with the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station? Let’s step back a little in time and find out more about this. The Steamer Gleneagles left the Welland Canadian Ship Canal carrying approximately 380,000 bushels of wheat from Fort Williams to the Kingston Elevator. She unloaded her cargo of wheat and proceeded to Ashtabula Harbor to pick-up 18 tons of coal for the Steel Company of Canada at Hamilton. I can’t tell you whether she collided with the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station inbound or down bound while on Lake Erie. Gleneagles Captain at the time of the collision in 1927 was J. F. Davis. He was consider a Master of Steamers, so how did this incident really happen if the Captain had all this experience? Some facts about the Gleneagles, she measured 574’ long x 60’ across the beam and was 32’ depth. Her capacity was estimated at 8233 tons, which was divided over her 23 hatches.

Author’s Note:
In 1845 the Canadian Steamship Lines LTD began operating river boats on the St. Lawrence River. CSL expanded their operations to the Great Lakes (GL) just prior to 1924. Just after their GL expansion CSL started purchasing “self unloading carriers”.

In 1928, the newly constructed Ashtabula Harbor Light Station was now vulnerable to the “Mother Nature” and anything she could hurl at the Harbor Light Station. Well that fact became true the very next year during a really bad icy storm along the lake. Those serving at the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station time found themselves and the station totally encrusted in ice. The two United States Coast Guard keepers inside the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station were trapped in over 5 feet of ice. They found themselves at the mercy of “Mother Nature” and her icy on slot. The four men trapped in this ice encrusted iron shell of a freezer had only one hope of being rescued and that was to rely on each other. Over the next 2 days all four men managed to thaw enough of the icy layers off from around the door, hinges and lock. They knew they had to make their escape from their icy tomb. Once the door was open they managed to chop and dig through a 5’ of encrusted ice. The four United States Coast Guard personnel managed to tunnel their way to safety. Sometime during the late 1950’s a young man only 19 years old took over the Keeper’s duties at Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. His name was Noel “Buck” Price. He had many tasks to perform each and every day, but the one people counted on the most were reporting weather conditions to Cleveland Weather Bureau. Noel Price maintained 6 hours at his post and 6 hours off.
Each and every day United States Coast Guard keepers had to carry fresh drinking water and food from the mainland to the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. When Lake Erie was angry and the waves came crashing across the break wall keepers were forced to extend their stays. If Lake Erie was really angry getting food, water and other supplies to the Harbor Light Station was a real challenge. There were times when keepers went without food or water and were forced to remain at the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. If the waters of Lake Erie cooperated, keepers would use one of their two boats to commute between the mainland and the Harbor Light Station. Anyone who served at Ashtabula Harbor Light Station stated the accommodation in the kitchen were pretty sparse. Inside the kitchen keepers had a refrigerator, table with four chairs, small stove and a small cabinet that housed the kitchen sink.
In 1959 the United States Coast Guard installed a new 4th Order Fresnel lens was built in France in 1896 and remained in service until 1995 when it was removed by the United States Coast. The new 4th Order Fresnel lens rotated as per design and emitted a white flash every 3 second. A new foghorn was also installed at the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station and had a sound sequence of 2 blasts every minute. Although the Harbor Light Station was electrified the operation of the foghorn required constant tending by United States Coast personnel.
The Ashtabula Harbor Light Station remained manned by United States Coast Guard personnel until 1973 when the light and fog signal were automated. During that same year the flashing sequence was change again to flash white every 5 seconds(Flash 0.6 seconds, eclipse 4.4 second). According to records Ashtabula Harbor Light Station was the last remaining light along Lake Erie that was manned by United States Coast Guard personnel.
In 1994 someone in the National Park Service describes the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station fog signal “As an original siren- diaphone”. In addition, a new automatic radio was installed and transmitted a dash-dash-dot type signal (Similar to Morse code). The United States Coast Guard dictated the transmission usage of this dash-dash-dot type signal during specific periods of the navigational season. The new automated radio transmitter was an important aid to the ships navigating inbound and down bound from Lake Erie.
In 1995 a new 300 Millimeter Tidelands Signal Acrylic lens was installed at the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. The old 4th Order Fresnel lens was removed by United States Coast Guard personnel and given to the Ashtabula Marine Museum (The original Keepers Quarters) in 1995. The old 4th Order Fresnel lens is now part of the museum’s many authentic display pieces.
Presently Ashtabula Harbor Light Station is now electrified by two 12-volt batteries. These batteries obtain their power by a single solar panel mounted on the iron railing of the Ashtabula Harbor Light Station. The Harbor Light Station was left to “Mother Nature’s” mercy for many years and its long term future looked mighty bleak. Granted she had visitors from time to time, but that was by a Coast Guard check on her battery and charging systems. Now the future looks very bright for the next generation of lighthouse seekers. Ashtabula Harbor Light Station is going through a rebirth of sorts, thanks to a group of people who want others to see her as she was once long ago. May Ashtabula Harbor Light Station stand as a testimony to what once was and what will be a great place to step back into time.
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