Ohio’s Lake Erie Lighthouses
The beacons that stand along our shoreline illuminate our state’s long maritime history. Here are 12 places where you can connect with that heritage.
BY Charity Ervin | Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light Photo by Brenda Traffis
BY Charity Ervin | Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light Photo by Brenda Traffis
Lighthouses capture our imagination but also illuminate our heritage and history. The beacons that dot the Lake Erie shoreline come in a range of ages and styles, but they each reflect the role the Great Lakes has played and continues to play in both the life of those who live along Lake Erie as well as those who sail it. Some lighthouses invite travelers to climb to the top and take in a view of Lake Erie just as the lighthouse keepers once did. Other are meant to be enjoyed from afar. Still others stand next to museums that tell the story of Ohio’s maritime heritage and the towns shaped by it.
South Bass Island Lighthouse
Built in 1897, this historic lighthouse along the southwestern edge of South Bass Island has been maintained to look much as it did when it was first constructed. The landmark consists of a large, two-and-a-half-story red brick dwelling attached to a 12-foot-square tower that stands 45 feet tall. Travelers can visit the lighthouse’s grounds from dawn to dusk, but because the building houses staff from The Ohio State University’s Ohio Sea Grant program, guided tours are only offered periodically. For those who want to step inside, free tours are scheduled in 2022 for June 11, July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. During tours, visitors can learn about the history of the island and climb the tower stairs for a view of Put-in-Bay and the surrounding waters of Lake Erie. 2368 Langram Rd., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-1800, ohioseagrant.osu.edu/visit/south-bass-lighthouse
Port Clinton Lighthouse
This 20-foot-tall structure, built in an architectural style known as “pepperpot,” stands along the shore in Port Clinton’s Waterworks Park and is believed to be the last timber-framed lighthouse on the U.S side of the Great Lakes. It was built in 1896, as steam-powered excursion boats necessitated a new lighthouse at the mouth of the Portage River (an earlier stone lighthouse built in 1833 had been decommissioned by the federal government during the 1870s.) In the 1950s, the U.S Coast Guard deemed the second lighthouse unnecessary as well and called for it to be torn down. That’s when a local marina owner relocated it to his property, where it stood for six decades. In 2012, the Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy moved the structure to storage, where it was restored and then moved to Waterworks Park in 2016, which offers a welcoming spot to spend time along Lake Erie. 1868 E. Perry St., Port Clinton 43452, portclintonlighthouse.org
Toledo Harbor Lighthouse
The Toledo Harbor Lighthouse sits on a 20-foot-deep stone crib in Lake Erie, about 5 miles north of Maumee Bay State Park. Completed in 1904, the three-story structure was manned by the U.S. Coast Guard until the mid-1960s, when an automated light was installed. The federal government owned the site until transferring the property to the Toledo Lighthouse Preservation Society in the early 2000s. The nonprofit organization has been working since to raise money for renovations to the historic property in the hopes of eventually offering public tours of the lighthouse. Those who want to support the cause can save the date for the annual Toledo Lighthouse Festival held at Maumee Bay State Park (scheduled Sept. 10 and 11 in 2022). Because the lighthouse is located offshore, it’s tough to get a close-up view, unless you have a boat or can enlist the help of a local boat line. toledoharborlighthouse.org
Once known as the “Village of Lake Captains,” the city of Vermilion has historic homes where those who sailed Lake Erie resided, and the Vermilion Lighthouse at Main Street Beach pays tribute to that long lake history. The structure is a replica of Vermilion’s original 34-foot-tall lighthouse that was built in 1877, before it was removed in 1929. (That structure is now known as the East Charity Shoal Light and is located on Lake Ontario near the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River.) The city was without a lighthouse for more than 60 years until a local effort was launched to raise money to construct a foot replica. The tower was completed in October 1991 and dedicated the following summer. It is operational, serving as a navigational aid in addition to a tribute to local history. 480 Main St., Vermilion 44089, cityofvermilion.com
Located at the end of North Main Street in Huron Park, the Huron Lighthouse stands along a pier that offers beautiful views of Lake Erie. The spot provides a perfect place to take in sunrises to the east and sunsets to the west (as well as the roller coasters of Cedar Point along the horizon). The mile-long pier is open to the public and provides a great place for fisherman to cast a line. Birders flock here, too, as the pier is a location along the Lake Erie Birding Trail. Visitors can get photos of the 72-foot automated lighthouse’s squared base and tower from the pier. The structure was built in 1939, and the original light was replaced in 1972 by a solar-powered lens. Still in use today, the red light can be seen over a 12-mile radius, gleaming on and off in three-second intervals. End of North Main Street, Huron 44839, cityofhuron.org
Helping guide sailors since 1822, the Marblehead Lighthouse holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It is also one of just a few lighthouses in Ohio that visitors can ascend. Those who take the guided tour (offered daily between noon and 4 p.m. from Memorial Day until Labor Day, weather permitting) are invited to climb the 77 steps to the top of the 65-foot-tall lighthouse to take in views of Lake Erie, as well as Kelleys Island, South Bass Island and Cedar Point.
The experience also provides visitors with an understanding of the history of the village of Marblehead and life along the lake, thanks to 70 dedicated volunteers.
“All of us enjoy talking to visitors and sharing where we live,” says Dennis Kennedy, president of the Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society.
Two small museums stand alongside the Marblehead Lighthouse. The Keeper’s House, where the lighthouse’s former stewards resided, offers further insight into local history. The Marblehead Room shares information about community life and the area’s limestone quarries, which thrived here during the 1800s and still remain in the area today. The Lighthouse Room houses the last Fresnel lens to operate inside Marblehead Lighthouse. The lens was installed after it was exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It served the lighthouse until 1969, replaced now with an LED light that projects a green signal every six seconds that can be seen for 11 nautical miles.
Travelers can also visit the replica of an 1876 U.S. Lifesaving Station. Built in 2016, the museum displays a restored 27-foot rescue boat as well as exhibits on the history of the Lifesaving Service (the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard), boat safety and shipping on the Great Lakes. Outside, tables and grassy areas make a welcome spot for a lakeside picnic.
“A lot of people are surprised to see a 600-foot lake freighter go by on its way to Sandusky,” says Kennedy. 110 Lighthouse Dr., Marblehead 43440, marbleheadlighthouseohio.org
Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse
Located just north of the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, the Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse has been in operation since 1911, but a signal station has stood along Cleveland’s shoreline since the early 1830s. Many people are familiar with the spark-plug-style, 67-foot-tall lighthouse because the wintry waves of Lake Erie cause it to become encrusted in ice, much to the delight of photographers. This lighthouse was first lit, along with its sister East Pierhead Lighthouse — a 25-foot-tall structure that sits a bit farther out on the lake — on the same day. Although the West Pierhead lighthouse initially stood alone, a fog-signal building was built beside it in 1916. In 2021, the federal government began seeking a new owner for the lighthouse, free of charge if the entity meets the guidelines of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. 2800 Whiskey Island Dr., Cleveland 44102
Known as the Jewel of the Port, the Lorain Lighthouse is a beautiful focal point of the city’s downtown shoreline, sitting about a half mile out on Lake Erie at the entrance to the harbor. Completed in 1919, the lighthouse got its nickname from being one of the few lighthouses lit from the base of the structure to the top of it. The landmark was threatened with demolition after the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it, but in the fall of 1981 a local nonprofit organization was successful in its bid to save the historic structure and has worked over the years to bring it back to the shoreline beauty it is today. During the summer months, travelers can take a brief boat ride to the lighthouse to attend private events and select public ones, including sunset wine dinners, scheduled tours and a July 4 picnic and fireworks event. For more information, visit lorainlighthouse.com.
Fairport Harbor Marine Museum and Lighthouse
Drive about 40 minutes east from Cleveland to explore the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum and Lighthouse, which tells the story of this beacon that operated along the Lake Erie shore from 1825 to 1925. The 60-foot-tall lighthouse was built in 1871 to replace the original structure, and it is also one of the few in Ohio that visitors can climb to the top of to take in the same views the lighthouse’s keepers once did.
“People write to us and tell us how much they love coming to our lighthouse,” says Mary Alyce Gladding, president of the Fairport Harbor Society. “They love the 69 spiral steps leading [up] the tower to the spectacular view of Lake Erie and the Grand River. That’s one of the highlights.”
Beside the lighthouse stands the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum, housed in a building also built in 1871. The museum was founded in 1945 as the first Great Lakes marine museum in the United States.
Inside the small museum’s four rooms, visitors will find Native American arrowheads and tools unearthed in the village in the 1900s, as well as ship navigation instruments and models of lake freighters and ore boats that were common to Fairport Harbor commerce during the 19th century. The Fairport Room of the museum presents the history of the community with pictures of past mayors hanging on the walls. The room also houses the lighthouse’s original Third-Order Fresnel lens.
“At one time, they were [fueled] by lard or whale oil,” Gladding explains, adding that the Third-Order Fresnel lens was fueled by kerosene. In 1925, the lighthouse was replaced by an electric-powered beacon and foghorn station constructed on Fairport Harbor’s West Breakwater pierhead, leading the earlier structure to be proudly nicknamed “the light that shone for 100 years.”
Outside the museum stands the main mast from the USS Michigan, the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, which was commissioned in 1843 and renamed Wolverine in 1905. North of the museum and lighthouse, visitors can walk along the shore at Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park and take in views of Lake Erie and the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light. 129 Second St., Fairport Harbor 44077, 440/354-4825, fairportharborlighthouse.org
Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light
This classic, four-square-style lighthouse with a 42-foot tower at the mouth of the Grand River was lit in 1925 and replaced the historic one that still stands today along the Fairport Harbor shoreline. In 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard identified the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lightas government surplus, and six years later, Sheila Consaul took ownership of the property after submitting the winning bid for it in an auction. Since then, she has been working to restore the lighthouse, and hosts an annual birthday open house (scheduled this year for June 11). Improvements to the structure have included new windows and doors, fresh paint, floor repairs and upgraded wiring. Travelers can also walk out along the breakwater to take a closer look at some of the exterior renovations for themselves or take in views of the lighthouse from Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve in neighboring Mentor. For more information, visit fairportharborwestlighthouse.com.
The Ashtabula Lighthouse holds the distinction of having been the last manned lighthouse on the Great Lakes. The U.S. Coast Guard took care of the beacon until 1973, when the signal was automated. The lighthouse sits near the northern end of Ashtabula Harbor’s west breakwater. Some version of a lighthouse has stood in this area of Lake Erie since 1836, but the current structure was built in 1905 before being moved a short distance to the location where it is today and expanded in 1916. Visitors can explore the area’s Lake Erie history at the Ashtabula Maritime & Surface Transportation Museum, which was originally built as a keeper’s house in 1871. The museum is inland from the lighthouse and features a pictorial history of the city of Ashtabula, as well as a collection of ship models and the pilothouse from the steamer Thomas Walters that is filled with its original equipment. The lighthouse is only accessible by boat; the museum is at 1071 Walnut Blvd., Ashtabula 44004, 440/964-6847, ashtabulamaritme.org, ashtabulalighthouse.com
Conneaut West Breakwater Light
This white-and-black steel tower was built at the Conneaut pierhead in 1936, replacing a series of earlier signals that have stood at this location along Lake Erie’s far-eastern Ohio shoreline since a century earlier. The federal government sold the structure to a private owner in 2011 and it remains in private hands today. The lighthouse, which has two stacked rooms, is not open for tours and is located a quarter mile into Lake Erie, but you can get a view of the 60-foot-tall lighthouse from along the shore at Conneaut Township Park. 480 Lake Rd., Conneaut 44030
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