Historic Site #3
Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes, has guided sailors safely along the Marblehead Peninsula's rocky shores for over a century. It is located within Marblehead Lighthouse State Park along with the US Coast Guard historic keeper's house and lifesaving station and museum.
In 1819, the 15th U. S. Congress recognized the need for navigational aids along the Great Lakes and set aside $5,000 to construct a light tower at the entrance to Sandusky Bay. Contractor William Kelly built the 50-foot tower of native limestone. The base of the building is 25 feet in diameter, with walls five feet thick. It narrows to 12 feet at the top with two-foot thick walls.
Throughout its history, 15 lighthouse keepers, two of whom were women, have tended the beacon. Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the first settlers on the peninsula, was the first keeper. He and his family lived in a small stone home on the Sandusky Bay side of the peninsula. Each night, he lit the wicks of the thirteen whale oil lamps that were the original light fixture. Sixteen-inch-diameter metal reflectors helped project the light across the lake. Other duties of the lighthouse keeper included keeping a log of passing ships, noting the weather conditions, and organizing rescue efforts. Upon Wolcott's death in 1832, his wife, Rachel, took over these duties.
The whale oil lamps were replaced in 1858 by a single, multi-wick lamp and a 4th order fixed Fresnel lens. The lamp and lens produced a bright constant white light focused over the water. Lard oil replaced whale oil as the illuminant in 1866, and kerosene replaced lard oil in 1880.
Between 1897 and 1903, the tower's height was increased 15ft by the addition of a watch room and a new lantern room. A new, more extensive, rotating Fresnel lens apparatus powered by a clockwork produced a bright flash of light every 10 seconds.
Modern conveniences came slowly to the timeless light tower. An electric light finally replaced the kerosene lantern in 1923, dramatically increasing the candlepower of the signal. During World War II, the lighthouse became strategically crucial for national defense. The last civilian lighthouse keeper resigned, and the United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the beacon in 1946.
The beacon was automated in 1958, making the Coast Guard's job easier. With its original finish tattered by time and harsh weather, the lighthouse tower's exterior was given a fresh coat of new stucco the same year.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has maintained the property surrounding the lighthouse since 1972 and proudly accepted ownership of the Marblehead Lighthouse tower in May 1998. The U.S. Coast Guard continues to operate and maintain the lighthouse beacon. Today's technology features a new LED light projecting a green signal that flashes every six seconds and is visible for 11 nautical miles. The distinctive green distinguishes the lighthouse signal from the white glow coming from air beacons.
Marblehead's beloved beacon continues to shine and protect boaters from peril in Lake Erie's unpredictable waters along her rocky shores.