In Port Clinton, rising waters

Ohio River Report Port Clinton

Description:Despite early doubts about the necessity of a lighthouse at Port Clinton, the area has been home to several diverse structures, which have served to mark the entrance to Portage River from Lake Erie, and now the surviving structures are treasured landmarks for Port Clintonites.

In 1827, a group of Scotsmen shipwrecked near Port Clinton. Rather than continue on to their destination of Chicago, they remained at Port Clinton and quickly developed a fishing trade. Germans soon joined the Scots, and by the early 1830s, Port Clinton had become a fishing center with fish sheds sprinkled all along the Portage River estuary.

In October 1832, the government purchased acreage on the east side of the mouth of Portage River from Ezekiel and Charlotte Haines for lighthouse purposes. Two months later, Levi Johnson, a respected contractor from Cleveland, was commissioned to build a lighthouse on the property. In this first incarnation, Port Clinton Lighthouse was a round, pyramidal tower, constructed of split-stone. The lighthouse stood forty feet tall and used an array of eight lamps backed by reflectors to project a beam of light ten miles out over the lake. Johnson was also responsible for the single-story, twenty by thirty-four foot, stone keeper’s residence erected near the tower. Portage River ran within 100 feet of the lighthouse buildings before emptying into the lake at present-day Fulton Street.

Six months after work on the lighthouse commenced, Austin Smith, a sea captain from Connecticut, became the first lightkeeper, and his granddaughter, Juliet Smith, was the first child born in the keeper’s dwelling. In 1836, Smith provided the warmth of his home to a group of people who were shipwrecked. Like the Scottish mariners a decade earlier, the shipwrecked party was on their way to Chicago but took a liking to the Port Clinton locality and made their homes there.

After inspecting lighthouses on Lake Erie in 1838, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt wrote the following.

Port-Clinton light-house is lighted with eight lamps, and as many bright reflectors; every thing in good order, with the exception of the chimneys, which are too short, not reaching above the scallops of the reflectors. With the above exception, every thing appertaining to both the lighthouse and the dwelling is without fault.

I am decidedly of opinion that this light may be discontinued without the slightest detriment to the commerce of the lake. It affords no assistance in making a harbor, for there is none in the neighborhood; the coast is free from rocks or shoals, with a bold shore, conspicuous to the mariner, and easily avoided.

In 1843, Stephen Pleasonton, who was in charge of the country’s lighthouses, also recommended the lighthouse be discontinued as “not more than one or two vessels enter the port in the course of a year.” Reports like this started an on-going debate over the usefulness of the lighthouse, but it remained active for several more years. In 1846, six new oil lamps were placed in the lantern room. By 1854, this number had been reduced to four, and in 1855 a sixth-order Fresnel lens was installed.

George O. Momeny was appointed keeper in 1853 on the recommendation of General J.A. Jones and others of the Democratic Party. After six years of service, Momeny resigned and was honorably discharged from his duties.

The Lighthouse Board discontinued the light in 1859, but then had it reactivated on August 1, 1864, with Leander Porter as the keeper. In 1870, the old Port Clinton Lighthouse was discontinued for good, and the lantern room was removed from the stone tower.

Residents of Port Clinton were not happy with the change. An article in the Ottawa Union in November 1870 argued that the only port in the district with as many entrances and clearances as Port Clinton was Sandusky. Apparently, a Commodore Scott, an old salter, had claimed that nothing but a few sand pans used the light of Port Clinton, leading to the discontinuance of the light. The article in the Union stressed that seven steamers, besides scows and schooners, plied the waters of Portage River day and night. As a compromise, the article even proposed that the lighthouse be donated to the town, which would then use entrance and clearance fees to maintain the lighthouse.

A custodian was allowed to live in the vacated dwelling and was paid a nominal annual salary of $1 to keep the place in repair. Captain William Duff and his wife lived at the lighthouse residence while they waited for their new house to be built. Their son, Alfred, was born there, and a daughter, Matilda, died there in 1875.

Piers were extended into Lake Erie from either side of Portage River in 1883, and an act approved on February 15, 1895 authorized the establishment of a pierhead light to mark the harbor. A square, wooden, pyramidal tower, surmounted by an octagonal lantern encircled by a balcony and hand rail, was erected atop piles at the outer end of the west pier in 1896. A 180° lens lantern, fitted with ruby chimneys, was used in the lantern room to produce a fixed red light at a focal plane of twenty-five feet, eight inches. The light went into service on July 15, 1896, with the keeper living in the original dwelling.

Peter and Mary Hineline were the last caretakers of the dwelling, and Robert Waterfield, their son-in-law, was appointed the first keeper of the new pierhead light. In August 1899, Waterfield and his assistant razed the remains of the old, split-stone tower. The stone was removed by the government steamer, Warrington and was taken by scow to Detroit River where it was used to protect the beach in front of Grassy Island Lighthouse. The Elmore Independent, dated August 18, 1899, expressed regret at the destruction of the old landmark, which had withstood the weather for many years and was reportedly just as solid in 1899 as the day it was first built. When the demolition work was done, no trace of the old tower remained – its service was remembered only in the minds of a few old timers.

In 1899, the Lighthouse Board described the stone dwelling as “unsightly, uncomfortable, and unhealthful, ” and “unfit for human habitation” and requested $3, 000 for a new residence. In 1901, the old dwelling was taken down, and a two-story, frame home was built for the keeper. The structure was equipped with a hot-air furnace and connected to the local water supply and sewer. Some twenty-one fruit and shade trees were planted on the lighthouse lot, and the keeper was given fifteen pounds of lawn seed to sow. In 1902, a boathouse was built for the keeper, who had to row across the river and out to the west pier as the keeper’s dwelling was on the east shore. An iron oil house was placed on the pier near the tower in 1905.

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