Standing regally on a point of land at the entrance to Ohio’s Sandusky Bay, Marblehead Lighthouse has guided ships and sailors safely along the rocky shoreline of Lake Erie for nearly 185 years. Noted for its beauty by artists and photographers, this grand old structure is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes, its beacon shining since 1822. Today the lighthouse, still in service, is the focal point of Marblehead Lighthouse State Park.
Marblehead Lighthouse came into being after Congress recognized the need for navigational aids along the Great Lakes and appropriated $5,000 for its construction in 1819. At that time, it was only the second lighthouse to be built on the American side of Lake Erie. Throughout the entire Great Lakes region, only a handful of lighthouses existed.
William Kelly and a crew of two men began construction of the tower on an outcropping of limestone on the northern tip of the Marblehead Peninsula in 1821. Construction progressed rapidly, and the project was completed in just eleven weeks. The base of the 50-foot tall tower measured 25 feet in diameter, with five-foot thick walls; the top tapered to 12 feet in diameter with walls two feet thick. The lighthouse’s inner walls were made of clay brick, while the outer walls were constructed of limestone quarried nearby on the peninsula. This region of Ohio was noted for its limestone and would later supply the stone used to build another famous landmark, the Empire State Building, in New York City. The total cost for the project was $7,232.
Originally known as the Sandusky Bay Light until the name was changed in 1870, it was the only navigational aid in the Sandusky Bay region for many years. A Revolutionary War veteran, Benajah Wolcott, was appointed as the first lightkeeper. One of the first settlers on the peninsula, Wolcott and his family lived in a small limestone home on the Sandusky side of the peninsula. The home is the oldest known residence still standing in Ottawa County, Ohio. Today, the Keeper’s House serves as a museum for the Ottawa County Historical Society.
Each night, Wolcott’s duties required him to light the 13 whale oil lamps that provided the light, which was projected by 16-inch reflectors of cut glass. Wolcott also kept a record of ships that passed, noted weather conditions, and organized rescue efforts when needed.
When Wolcott died in 1832, after ten years of service, his wife Rachel took over his duties, making her the first female lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes. Thirteen more individuals would serve as keeper at Marblehead over the next century, including another woman, Johanne McGee, who held the post from 1896 to 1903.
In 1858, a Fresnel lens made of crystal and measuring five feet in diameter was installed in the lighthouse. The lens gave the beacon the equivalent of 330,000 candles. Another 15 feet was added to the lighthouse in 1903, bringing Marblehead to its present height of 65 feet. A rotating grandfather clock-like mechanism with weights in a large pipe in the center was installed to rotate the lantern, creating the appearance of a brilliant flash of light every 10 seconds. This system required the lighthouse keeper to crank the weights to the top of the weight mechanism every three hours through the night to keep the lantern turning. The lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1923.
A lifesaving station was built a half-mile west of the lighthouse in 1876. A local man named Lucien Clemons, who, with his two brothers, saved two sailors from death following a shipwreck off the peninsula on May 1, 1875, was named the first station commander. In 1880, the lighthouse keeper’s quarters was moved to a wooden frame home in a more convenient location next to the lighthouse.
During World War II the lighthouse became strategically important for national defense. The last civilian lighthouse keeper, Edward Herman, resigned in 1943 after ten years of service, and the United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the beacon. Marblehead’s beacon was automated in 1958, making the Coast Guard’s job easier. Time and Lake Erie’s harsh weather had taken their toll on the lighthouse, and the exterior of the tower was given a fresh coat of new stucco the same year.
In 1972 the Ohio Department of Natural Resources took over responsibility for the property surrounding the lighthouse. In January 1997, Marblehead’s tower and the small plot of land surrounding it were declared surplus property by the Coast Guard, and the state of Ohio took ownership of the Marblehead Lighthouse tower in 1998. The Coast Guard continues to operate and maintain the lighthouse beacon. Today a 300mm lens projects a green signal that flashes every six seconds, and is visible for eleven nautical miles. The distinctive green distinguishes the lighthouse signal from white lights coming from air beacons.
The Marblehead Lighthouse State Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. Tours of the lighthouse are held Monday through Friday, from 1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. from May through August. Tours are also held the second Saturday of the month from June through October. Sixty-seven spiral stairs lead to the top of the lighthouse, where visitors are treated to spectacular views of Sandusky Bay, Marblehead, and the Lake Erie Islands.
The Marblehead Lighthouse can be reached by taking State Route 2 to State Route 269 (the Lakeside-Marblehead exit) and following Route 269 until it ends at State Route 163. Turn right and drive through the Village of Marblehead to the tip of the peninsula. Just past the Russian Orthodox Church on the left, you’ll see the sign for the Marblehead Lighthouse State Park. Parking is limited to automobiles only, there is no room for RVs to park at the lighthouse.
After 183 years, Marblehead’s faithful beacon continues to shine, protecting boaters from danger on Lake Erie’s unpredictable waters and along her rocky shores. The next time you visit northern Ohio, stop in at Marblehead and visit this historic lighthouse.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Dog’s Run, my mystery set in a small Ohio town in 1951. I have 29 mystery novels out, as well as 10 nonfiction books, and I have to say that Dog’s Run is my favorite. It’s a gritty tale that is loosely based upon an actual crime that took place in that part of the country when my father was a young police officer there, and I warn you in advance that there’s some rough language, but it’s appropriate to the time and place. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – I got a new phone today. My old one failed the swimming test.