the Great Lakes,
|has guided sailors safely along the rocky shores of Marblehead
Peninsula since 1822. From clipper ship mates to freighter crews, generations of seafarers
have relied upon the glowing signal of the Marblehead Lighthouse to pierce the night and
the fog, offering safe passage.
For shippers, the lighthouse has always been a
utilitarian structure, housing the necessary equipment that protects the vessels
conducting Great Lakes commerce. To artists, photographers and tourists, the lighthouse is
a monument to the romance of the Ohios "freshwater sea" and the seafaring
In 1819, shortly before adjourning, the
fifteenth U. S. Congress recognized the need for navigational aides along the Great Lakes.
Too many sailors perished as their wooden-hulled ships were dashed to splinters on rocky
shorelines in the fierce and unpredictable storms that lash the lakes. The sixteenth
Congress set aside $5,000 for construction of a light tower along the south shore of Lake
Erie. The site selected was Rocky Point on the tip of Marblehead Peninsula at the narrow
entrance to Sandusky Bay. The shoreline here is especially shallow and treacherous; as far
as 400 feet from shore, the water depth is only 10 to 12 feet.
Work began in 1821 on the 50-foot light tower, referred to at that time as the Sandusky
Bay Light. William Kelly, a talented stone mason who built many of the historic stone
structures in the Sandusky area, constructed the tower of native limestone. When he
finished, the base of the tower was 25 feet in diameter, with walls five feet thick. The
diameter narrowed to 12 feet at the top, with two-foot thick walls. A modest home for the
lighthouse keeper and his family was built alongside.
Through history, 15 lighthouse keepers, two of whom were women, have tended the beacon.
More than a job, the post of lighthouse keeper entailed a unique lifestyle for the keeper
and his or her family. The lighthouse keepers duties were often lonely and tedious,
and could be downright dangerous when storms blew. Month after month, every night without
fail, the lighthouse keepers vigil included keeping a log of passing ships and
noting the weather conditions while tending to the all-important beacon. Until 1875, the
lighthouse keeper was also responsible for organizing rescue efforts when ships foundered.
Despite the hardships, it was a life that gripped those who chose it for 10, 20, even 30
The first keeper was Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the first
settlers on the peninsula. He was appointed to the post in 1822 at an annual salary of
$350. Wolcotts family lived in a small stone home he built on the Sandusky Bay side
of the peninsula. Each night, Wolcott climbed to the top of the lighthouse tower and lit
the wicks of the 13 Argand whale oil lamps that were the original light fixture. The lamps
were specially designed to burn brightly, with round wicks and a tube by which air was fed
into the flame. The wicks required frequent trimming to minimize smoke.
Sixteen-inch-diameter metal reflectors behind each lamp helped project the light across
Upon Wolcotts death in 1832, his wife, Rachel, took over his duties, becoming the
first woman lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes. Rachel tended the light herself for two
years and then married Jeremiah van Benschoten, who became the third lighthouse keeper. He
served as keeper for 10 years, cementing Rachels connection with the lighthouse for
a period of more than 20 years. The romance of the lighthouse apparently sparked another
kind of romance in the people closely associated with it. In 1835, Benajah Wolcotts
granddaughter, Elizabeth Pettibone, wed John Reid Kelly, son of William Kelly, who built
the lighthouse. They were married by a circuit riding preacher making his rounds on the
Four more lighthouse keepers, Roderick Williston, Charles Drake, Lodavick Brown, and
Jared Keyes, carried on the traditional duties as Great Lakes commerce flourished in the 1840s and
50s. Technology imported from Europe in 1858 brought needed change. The primitive
light fixture was replaced by a fourth order Fresnel lens. This highly specialized device,
invented in France in 1822, used a series of prisms to bend and concentrate the light from
a single oil lamp to create a powerful lighthouse signal visible for several miles. The
Fresnel lens was an expensive novelty on the Great Lakes, but whale oil was becoming
scarce and costly as well. Lard oil, and later kerosene, were adopted as low-cost
alternatives for lamp fuel.
Lighthouse keeper D.L. Dayton kept the new lens polished and glistening until 1861.
Thomas Dyer took over the lighthouse duties during the Civil War. In 1870, during keeper
Russell Douglas tenure, the name was changed from Sandusky Bay Light to Marblehead
Lighthouse. Thomas Keyes took the lighthouse keeper post in 1872, but resigned 11 months
On May 1, 1875, the ship Consuela wrecked in a violent storm off Kelleys Island.
George McGee was lighthouse keeper at the time; he recruited volunteers including brothers
Lucien, Hubbard and Ai Clemons, to help with the rescue effort. The brave volunteers took
a lifeboat into the churning water and pulled two of the ships sailors to safety.
The brothers were awarded the medal of honor for heroism for rescue of persons in distress
upon American waters. A lifesaving station was built one-half mile west of the lighthouse
in 1876. Lucien Clemons was named the first commander and remained in that position for 21
years. The lighthouse keeper was relieved of primary responsibility for organizing rescue
In 1880, a new wooden frame lighthouse keepers dwelling was built to take place
of the old stone house on the lighthouse grounds. The exterior of the lighthouse tower was
covered with stucco to protect the tower from harsh weather and crashing waves. Keeper
George McGee died in 1896 and was succeeded by his assistant, and wife, Johanna McGee.
The turn of the century ushered in new technology as well as structural changes
including the addition of a watch room in 1897. The addition was made of brick and added
another 15 feet to the towers height, raising the beacon to 67 feet above the water
surface. An 87-step iron spiral staircase was installed, replacing the wooden ladders that
led to the beacon. A clock-like mechanism was installed to rotate the lantern, creating
the appearance of a brilliant flash of light every 10 seconds. This system required that
the lighthouse keeper crank the weights every three hours through the night to keep the
lantern turning. An improved Fresnel lens was ordered from Paris and installed after being
exhibited at the St. Louis Worlds Fair.
Charles "Cap" Hunter,
lighthouse keeper from 1903 to 1933, was something of a local celebrity. He recognized the
publics fascination with the lighthouse and welcomed visitors. He spun stories and
sang songs of fierce storms and shipwrecks, stalwart lighthouse keepers of the past and
the ever faithful beacon.
Modern conveniences came slowly--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, as well as
commerce, and the United States Coast Guard began patrolling the shores. The last civilian
lighthouse keeper, Edward Herman, resigned after a total of 30 years of service; 20 years
as Hunters assistant, and an additional 10 years as lighthouse keeper after
Hunters retirement. The United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the
beacon in 1946.
The beacon was automated in 1958 with the installation of an electric time clock,
silencing the nightly footfalls on the 87 winding steps. In 1969, the timeless tower was
listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and its weatherbeaten exterior was
given a fresh coat of new stucco. The light fixture was replaced with a modern
300-millimeter plastic lens that projects a flashing green signal every six seconds,
visible for 11 nautical milesas far as the eye can see on a clear day. The
distinctive green signal is Marbleheads characteristic signature, easily recognized
by a ship captain charting his or her position in Lake Erie waters.
Although the U.S. Coast Guard continues to operate and maintain the lighthouse beacon,
it declared the lighthouse tower surplus property in 1996. The Ohio Department of Natural
Resources proudly accepted ownership of the Marblehead Lighthouse tower in 1998 as
Ohios 73rd state park with a commitment to perform necessary renovations
and improve visitor facilities. With tender loving care, this public treasure will charm
Lake Erie visitors for generations to come, and the beloved beacon will continue to shine
and protect boaters from peril in Lake Eries unpredictable waters along her rocky
--Jean Backs, Editor
Marblehead Lighthouse tours are offered on summer weekends and
holidays. Benajah Wolcotts stone house on Bayshore Road is still standing and is
being restored as "The Keepers House Museum" by the Ottawa County
Historical Society. The wooden-frame keepers house built in 1880 still stands and is
currently in use as a park residence.
Special thanks to Betty Neidecker, author of The Eternal Flame, and Virginia
Parks of the Ottawa County Historical Society for their advice and editorial assistance.