I have been through the Sodus Point area numerous times over the years and even to the location of the Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum, but until now, have never actually taken a tour or climbed the tower. It was one of my Bucket List items that was long overdue, so I took advantage of one of those gorgeous weather Saturdays we had in September and finally scaled the spiral staircase to the top!
Previously an Onondaga Nation land, the area we now know as Sodus Point was first settled in 1794 by some Europeans. Its presence on the south shore of Lake Ontario and the western edge of what would later be named Sodus Bay meant great access for boats that passed through the other Great Lakes and back on out the St. Lawrence River. Boats, of course, that needed guidance to avoid the shoreline.
It was in 1824 that Congress approved the building of a lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s quarters for a budget of $4,500. Today, that original lighthouse is gone, and so is the original 2-room home that housed the family of the guy who had to climb the tower every two hours and ensure the flame was still flickering, lest he be woken up by a ship improperly docking in his yard. Today, markers exist for both the home and the original lighthouse, which is also a popular spot for couples to get married.
By 1869, both the house and the lighthouse had suffered severe structural deterioration so Congress ponied up an additional $14,000.00 to build a brand new, stronger lighthouse with keeper accommodations attached. That new project was completed in 1871 and is the museum and lighthouse that visitors can tour today.
The original 1824 lighthouse was lit by burning whale oil, but by the time the second lighthouse was built, French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel had already perfected his namesake Fresnel Lens (pronounced: “Frah-NEL”). Fresnel invented the special lens that included a really short focal length and a large aperture. That way, a physically much smaller lens could emit the same amount of light as a much larger, heavier conventional lens. Fresnel created ‘Orders’ for his lens, which essentially differed in size and light refraction output. A 1st Order Lens would be the largest and assembled were as much as 12 feet tall, where as a 6th Order lens was the smallest and stood only 17 inches tall. Sodus Bay Lighthouse has the distinct honor of having a Third-and-a-Half Order Fresnel Lens, which was a size that Fresnel added much later to fill the gap in sizing. Currently, there are only twelve Third-and-a-Half Order Fresnel Lens left in the world, and six of them are right in the Great Lakes region!
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1901 when a more modern lighthouse was constructed at the end of a pier extending from the mouth of Sodus Bay, but the house still used as a residence until the 70’s for keepers and the coastguard. Ever since 1984, lighthouse has been home to a non-profit organization who has dedicated their time and resources to telling the story of not just the lighthouse itself, but the history of Sodus Point and the immediate region. The first floor museum includes all sorts of cool artifacts discovered from the War of 1812, which saw battles in the very spots that many Sodus Pointers now host their summer parties. Old bathing outfits from the 1800’s, lighthouse keepers’ tools of the trade, and a few other maritime type collectibles round out a pretty cool collection of local storytelling. For only $4.00, visitors can tour the museum and then climb the lighthouse tower for a pretty spectacular view of the shore.
If you’re at all curious, the stairclimb to the top is about four stories, but it’s by far the easiest and cleanest of any spiral staircase tower I’ve climbed! It’s certainly not handicap accessible, but the ascent is clear, clean, well-lit and not even all that tight of a space to be in.
The visiting hours for the lighthouse are limited, so be sure to check the website for information before going, which I’ve included below in the links section.
Resources and Additional Reading
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens