For more than a century, the lighthouses of Lake Erie have guided ships into the many North coast harbors. Today, many of these gracious structures have been restored and still stand along the shore, from Sandusky to Ashtabula. Some are in ruins, yet somehow picturesque; others welcome visitors with museums and visitors' centers. Join me for a tour of these unique buildings, starting at Port Clinton and traveling east. You won't even have to rent a boat.
West Sister Island Light Tower
The West Sister Island Light Tower marks the west end of the south passage through the Bass Islands, north of Port Clinton and Sandusky Ohio. The still-active light station was built in 1847, then raised and rebuilt in 1868. The 55-foot white stucco structure is not open to the public but may be viewed by boat.
The keeper's house and the other station buildings were destroyed during World War II when the US Army used the island for target practice. Today, the island is a natural wildlife preserve.
South Bass Island Lighthouse
The South Bass Island Lighthouse, located on the southwestern coast of South Bass Island not far from Put-in-Bay, was established in 1897. The Queen Anne style structure is unique in that the living quarters are attached to the tower and the red brick building features a full basement and 2 1/2 floors of living space. The lighthouse was used until 1962 when it was replaced by an automated tower.
The South Bass Island Lighthouse is now owned by Ohio State University, which uses the facility to house research and academic staff. Portions of the lighthouse are open to the public via tours. The view from the top of the tower is said to be worth the rather claustrophobic climb.
The Marblehead Lighthouse, located on the north side of the entrance to Sandusky Bay, is the oldest Great Lakes lighthouse in continuous operation. The structure, built in 1822 of native Ohio limestone, stands 50 feet tall. It measures 25 feet at the base, with five-foot thick walls. The lighthouse had fifteen keepers, two of them women, until the US Coast Guard took over operations in 1946.
The lighthouse sits in Marblehead State Park and the park service offers tours of the facility weekday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Visitors can climb to the top and enjoy the view of South Bass and Middle Bass Islands and the surrounding Sandusky Bay area. The keeper's house, located about a mile away, is also open to the public on selected afternoons.
The lighthouse at Vermilion sits at the edge of downtown, adjacent to the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The structure is a replica of the original, wooden lighthouse, built in 1847. The attractive lighthouse is just stepped away from one of the few sandy beaches along this stretch of Lake Erie.
Lorain Breakwater West Lighthouse
The Lorain lighthouse sits at the end of the west breakwater in Lorain harbor. The structure, built in 1916, guided Lake Erie ships for 50 years before being allowed to fall into disrepair. The lighthouse was scheduled for demolition in the 1980s before a grassroots effort saved the building. The three-story keeper's house is made of poured concrete with walls 10" thick to keep out the sometimes fierce Lake Erie storms.
The lighthouse is surrounded by water and not open to the public, although plans for the structure include boat tours.
Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse
The Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse sits at the west end of the breakwater leading to the Port of Cleveland. Constructed in 1911, the lighthouse was automated in 1965 and still flashes its beacon to alert ships every five seconds. The original Fresnel lens in now on exhibit at the nearby Great Lakes Science Center.
Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse
This scenic lighthouse was built at the mouth of the Grand River in 1925. The building, made of riveted iron plate, replaced the Old Fairport Harbor Lighthouse (see the next page), which is now operated as a museum.
The West Breakwater Lighthouse is not open to the public, but you can get a good view of it from Mentor Headlands Beach, one of the best Cleveland-area beaches.
Fairport Harbor Old Main Lighthouse
The Fairport Harbor Old Main Lighthouse sits at the mouth of the Grand River, about 45 minutes east of downtown Cleveland. The 60-foot structure, known as the "light that shone for a hundred years", was built in 1825 and then rebuilt in 1871. The structure is accompanied by a museum that features exhibits on Great Lakes shipping and maritime life.
The Fairport Old Main Lighthouse was a beacon of hope for many escaped slaves traveling the "Underground Railroad." The lighthouse was a convenient port for slaves departing for Canada and slaves were often hidden inside the lighthouse structure awaiting departure.
The Ashtabula Lighthouse, located at the far eastern edge of Ohio's Lake Erie coastline, was built in 1905, the third lighthouse to grace Ashtabula Harbor. The structure, which sits on the Ashtabula breakwater, was manned until 1973, the last of the Lake Erie lighthouses to remain manned.