by Chris Clemens
Because part of New York rests on the shores of the world’s thirteenth largest lake, we have a decent list of really great historic lighthouses. Some are no longer functioning and some have been renovated to become something else. However, some are still very active. The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse in Rochester, New York was first built in 1822 and later decommissioned, but has recently undergone a number of renovations allowing it to become fully functional again. Now that the light is back to shining bright, it is the oldest still-active lighthouse on Lake Ontario.
For the last few years, the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society has been overseeing renovations to both the lighthouse tower and the keeper’s house. Regular tours are available for a $5.00 suggested donation and visitors get to tour the historic lighthouse keeper’s home and then climb the spiral staircase 40 feet up to a really fantastic view of the Port of Rochester. As part of the City of Rochester’s “River Romance Weekend” to celebrate all things Genesee River, I stopped in to the lighthouse to see some of the newer renovations and snag a bird’s eye view of how the port has changed with all its recent developments.
A Lighthouse is Built
The octagonal stone tower is only 40 feet tall, exactly half of the height that a lighthouse in its position needed to be. Back in 1822 when it was built, the bank it rests on was 40 feet above the water’s edge, allowing them to construct a lighthouse at the correct height, but on a lower budget of only $3,301 (that paid for a small, two room keeper’s house as well). Originally, boaters were viewing light emanating from ten different whale oil lamps, but those were later replaced by a third order Fresnel lens in 1853. The technology of the fractured beam produced by the lens allowed a much smaller light to be seen from a much further distance.
A New Lighthouse is Built
The mouth of the Genesee River quickly began to change. The river banks proved difficult for ships because of the marshy banks and the sandy bottom. Even with a lighthouse, navigating the channel was tough. In 1829, they built two piers side by side measuring 360 feet apart and extending 2,600 feet out from the edge of the lake. Extending the entrance to the port was helpful, but sticking a new light on the end of the pier in 1884 helped even more. At that time, the Charlotte Pier lighthouse nearly a mile north now served the function of the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse had previously.
In 1863, the Keeper’s House was badly in need of repair and expansion. Rather than work with what had already fallen victim to the elements, they razed the entire thing and started from scratch. The result is what can be seen today: a two-story, eight room residence made of brick. There have been a few changes to the building since it was first constructed, such as a false window to add symmetry to the appearance of the south wall, but much of the building appears the way it did originally.
Tours of the Keeper’s House walk visitors through rooms showing placards with historical information and photos as well as a collection of lifestyle artifacts from the time period that the lighthouse was first active. While I admit it’s not particularly striking, one of the things I enjoyed most was seeing small details from the original build of the house made visible by purposefully leaving ‘windows’ to the past during renovations. There is also a super cool collection of Lake Ontario/Charlotte keepsakes in a display case.
Though the lighthouse of 2016 doesn’t require schlepping buckets of whale oil up a spiral staircase in the middle of the night, there is still a Keeper who lives on the second floor of the house. Rather than keeping a watchful eye to ensure boats aren’t colliding with land, they keep a watchful eye over the historic property.
Last year, the stone tower was restored to it’s original mid-1800’s appearance by applying several layers of whitewash. Though it’s been tough for some in the community to get used to a radical new look, it’s reminiscent of how the tower looked in its heyday. What’s more, the white color is more reflective which makes it more useful as a lighthouse.
Today, the light has a replica third-order Fresnel lens that casts light emitted from a small LED bulb. Now that the first of a series of functional restorations has been completed, the lighthouse is fully operational once again.
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