The Marblehead Lighthouse is one of Lake Erie's best known and most-photographed landmarks. It is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes. Open seasonally, visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for spectacular views of the lake and its islands in the distance. History buffs will enjoy stopping by the replica lifesaving station or visiting the gift shop. The area also offers picnic areas and restrooms.
The grounds surrounding Marblehead Lighthouse offer excellent picnicking with scenic Lake Erie views. Tables are supported by concrete pads. Restrooms are available.
Due to COVID-19, all seasonal tours have been cancelled until further notice.
History & Natural Features
Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes, has guided sailors safely along the rocky shores of Marblehead Peninsula since 1822.
The Columbus Limestone on the peninsula has been quarried for years and used around the country as a building stone, including for the state capitol building in Columbus. Columbus Limestone is extremely durable; one of its uses is to armor vulnerable sections of shoreline against wave attack. This durability is why the Marblehead Peninsula exists and why the lighthouse has been in continuous operation since its construction. In contrast, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in North Carolina was 1,500 feet from the sea when it was built, but had to be moved in 1999 when the sea had encroached to only 120 feet away.
In 1819, the 15th U. S. Congress recognized the need for navigational aides 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 on the tip of the Marblehead Peninsula. The base of the tower is 25 feet in diameter, with walls 5 feet thick. It narrows to 12 feet at the top with 2-foot thick walls.
Throughout its history, 15 lighthouse keepers, two of whom were women, have tended the beacon. The first keeper was Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the first settlers on the peninsula. 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 13 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.
A lifesaving station was built one-half mile west of the lighthouse in 1876. Lucien Clemons, who with his two brothers saved two sailors from a shipwreck off the peninsula on May 1, 1875, was named the first commander. In 1880 the lighthouse keeper's family moved out of the 1821 limestone house on the lighthouse grounds to a newly-built two-story wooden frame house on the property. The former house was then demolished.
Between 1897 and 1903, the tower's height was increased 15 feet by the addition of a watchroom and new lantern room. A new, larger rotating Fresnel lens apparatus powered by a clockwork produced a bright flash of light every 10 seconds. Through the night, the keeper had to crank the weight to the top and adjust the timing every three hours to keep the lens rotating on schedule.
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 important for national defense. The last civilian lighthouse keeper resigned and the U.S. 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 exterior of the lighthouse tower was given a fresh coat of new stucco the same year.
ODNR 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 white lights 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.
The park is located at the tip of Marblehead Peninsula, a narrow finger of land which juts into Lake Erie. One of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Erie is shallow, with its depth ranging from only 25-30 feet in the western basin to an average 120 feet in the eastern basin. The lake’s shallow depth and lopsided basin account for Lake Erie’s sudden and violent storms. Marblehead Peninsula is located on the fringe of the western basin. The rocky shoreline of Marblehead Peninsula is particularly dangerous to sailors, even in good weather, with a depth of merely 10-12 feet just 400 feet from shore.
During the last glacial period, deep depressions left by massive ice sheets formed Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes as the glaciers retreated and meltwater filled in the huge basins. Many of the interesting features of the Lake Erie islands and shoreline are also the result of the scraping and sculpting power of the boulder-studded glacial ice.
Along the Marblehead Peninsula shoreline and on the islands, horizontal benches of limestone bedrock were exposed by the glaciers and remain nearly free of vegetation. These areas, known as alvar ecosystems, support unique communities of rare, hardy plants. Nearby Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve is an alvar environment featuring a number of endangered plants including the globally rare Lakeside Daisy. May is the best time to see this state and federally listed plant in bloom.