The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse Tour takes you by boat to Oswego’s historic lighthouse for a tour like no other
by Chris Clemens
The first time I saw the lighthouse far off shore was during a quick trip through Oswego quite a few years ago. I thought, “Man, it would be so cool to see inside that”. At the time, the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse was entirely off limits and closed to the public.
The lighthouse sits a half mile off shore with only a break wall connecting it to land. You can easily spot it far off in the distance from any of the points around the mouth of the Oswego River. Its position from the shore gives the lighthouse a kind of commanding grace that it easily maintains all year round.
Just a few years ago, they started offering public tours of the lighthouse so visitors don’t have to just gawk from afar. In fact, you can take a boat ride out to the lighthouse and climb all the way to the top!
So, of course, I did exactly that. Throughout the tour I learned some pretty cool Oswego history.
Some Old Oswego Lighthouse History
On March 3, 1821 Congress put aside $3,500 to build the original lighthouse where the Oswego River meets Lake Ontario. With the soon-to-open Erie Canal and the tributary canals connecting it to larger water ways, Oswego was in position to become a bustling Great Lakes port. That first lighthouse was built on the east side of the river, next to the still standing lighthouse keepers quarters near the entrance to the historic Fort Ontario.
Finally in 1828 when the Oswego Canal opened, the hopes of Oswego becoming a serious port were realized. Congress helped the growing city by providing another $12,000 for an even larger lighthouse to replace their first.
That second lighthouse was constructed in 1838, and then a third even larger one was built in 1880. As the port of Oswego got busier and more boats relied on the beacon for safe travel, the need for a bigger lighthouse with more effective warnings became paramount.
The Current Oswego West Pier Lighthouse
The lighthouse that we see today was constructed in 1934. With a fourth order Fresnel lens, a fog signal, and an attached keeper’s quarters, Oswego’s fourth and final lighthouse was nothing short of impressive for its time.
Lighthouse keepers didn’t drive to work for the day. They took a boat to their office and then stayed there sometimes for weeks at a time. The keeper’s quarters were large enough to house the families of two lighthouse keepers. From shore it may look humble, but up close it’s actually pretty big.
These guys didn’t just make sure that one beacon of light always stayed lit, they had a ton of duties. Keepers were responsible for fog signals, gas buoys in the harbor, lights on nearby breakwaters, and a whole bunch more. They effectively worked night and day to ensure the harbor was as safe as the often unforgiving Lake Ontario could be for boaters.
Inside the keeper’s quarters they’re starting to set things up so visitors can see what it would’ve looked like to live and work there.
That was, until 1968 when the lighthouse was automated. At that time, the job of lighthouse keeper became a line in the history books, and technology left the lighthouse and its quarters empty. The Coast Guard has maintained the property, but for the last fifty years the structure has stood alone.
Today the light keeping boaters safe is a simple LED system run with solar power.
Oswego West Pier Lighthouse Tour
Just a few years ago, they readied the lighthouse for public tours, and began some lofty renovation plans.
Tours for the lighthouse leave from the H. Lee White Marine Museum, and a lighthouse tour ticket includes access to the museum. Inside you’ll find two floors packed with exhibits and even the original Fresnel lens from the lighthouse.
From a dock near the museum, you’ll take a 15-20 minute boat ride to the lighthouse on a boat seating about six people. When the boat docks, docents are there to greet your group and talk more about the history.
You’ll have a chance to see exactly where the lighthouse keepers lived and how they worked. You even get to climb all the way to the top and stand outside the ledge of the lighthouse!
Touring the Oswego Lighthouse had been on my list for a long time, and I really enjoyed it. But, to make the trip even better, while talking with a docent I learned he actually worked as a lighthouse keeper himself. Today he’s giving tours, but in the 1950’s Ned Goebricher lived and worked keeping boaters safe in the port of Oswego. Meeting him was an honor!
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