Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-12-14.
Prior to the erection of the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse in Somerset, New York, the first lighthouse a mariner encountered when heading east after leaving the mouth of the Niagara River was the fourth-order Oak Orchard Harbor Lighthouse nearly 50 miles away, that was, if you could safely get past the shoal and elusive sandbar that sat offshore from Thirty Mile Point.
Several notable shipwrecks occurred in the area, including the vessel of the French explorer Rene Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle in 1678 and the British warship, H.M.S. Ontario, which sank during a storm on Halloween night 1780. Lost in the sinking of the Ontario were 88 passengers and an army payroll of more than $15,000 in gold and silver. No survivors or gold was ever found.
During the mid-to-late 1870s, navigational aids along the southern shore of Lake Ontario were few and far between. If the mariner picked up the light at Oak Orchard, the next lights, they would have encountered would have been the Rochester Pierhead or the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouses, nearly 40 miles away.
In 1872, the Lighthouse Board decided to address these shortcomings with the establishment of a lighthouse at Thirty Mile Point, a location approximately thirty miles from the mouth of the Niagara River. The entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year was as follows:
Thirty-mile Point, Lake Ontario - It is recommended that a lake-coast light be established near the point where the boundary line between Niagara and Orleans Counties intersects the south shore of Lake Ontario. The point is designated on some maps as Thirty-mile Point, being just thirty miles from the mouth of Niagara River. The necessity for this light will be apparent when it is considered that the first light to the eastward of the mouth of the Niagara River is at Oak Orchard, New York, a fourth-order light on a pier, and which, from its reentrant position, can be of but little service to shipping making the Welland Canal. The light proposed is of the third order. An appropriation therefor is required of $30,000.
By 1873, the appropriation was made. The following year, the site for the lighthouse had been purchased and the cessation of jurisdiction was obtained. Also at that time, as plans were being prepared, and an additional appropriation of $5,000 was requested.
By the fall of 1874, preparation of the site was underway. A fence enclosing the grounds was erected and the roadway and bridge across Golden Hill Creek were constructed. The additional funds requested were appropriated on March 3, 1875, and construction of the lighthouse officially started on April 28 of that year.
Weather delays plagued most of May and June hindering progress. However, construction carried on, and by early January 1876, the limestone dwelling and tower were completed. The light from the third-order Fresnel lens was exhibited for the first time on April 27, 1876. Improvements to the road and cobblestone walk were completed shortly thereafter.
When first exhibited, the third-order Fresnel lens was rotated by a precision clockwork mechanism. The lens magnified the beam from the lamp to an astonishing 600,000 candlepower for a visibility range of 16 miles out into Lake Ontario. Under certain atmospheric conditions, it was most likely visible further than that.
By 1877, erosion of the cliff in front of the lighthouse was threatening. An analysis revealed that the substratum was a soft clay rock, which wore away quickly due to the constant waves. At the time, the Lighthouse Board estimated that it had "but a few years" before it would reach the tower and dwelling.
To combat the erosion, the Lighthouse Board recommended a series of protective jetties extending perpendicularly from the shore lakeward, and estimated the cost at $6,000. The board requested the appropriation, which Congress authorized. The following year, the Lighthouse Board realized that additional funds would be needed and requested an additional appropriation of $5,000, which was authorized in 1880.
Also in 1880, a woodshed was built, the woodwork in the tower was repainted, and the roof of the dwelling was repaired.
Due to the widespread availability of kerosene (mineral oil) in the late 1870s, the Lighthouse Board adopted its use. As an illuminant for lighthouses, it burned much brighter than lard oil and was more cost effective. As such, the lard oil lamp employed at the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse was replaced with a mineral oil lamp in 1881.
The Lighthouse Board noted that by 1881, although the plans for protective jetties were completed, the erosion of the cliff over the last two years had been minimal. Because of this, the board claimed that "there is no necessity for commencing this work immediately."
Some other work around the property was carried out in 1887. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following details:
803. Thirty-mile Point, 30 miles east of the mouth of the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, New York - The right of way leading from the county road to the reservation was graded and the decayed wooden culverts were replaced with vitrified stone pipe. The plank floor of the bridge over the right of way was relaid with new material and various minor repairs were made.
Two years later, the stone abutments supporting the wooden bridge over the right of way were repaired, and the old wooden bridge was replaced with an iron one. Bids to build a protective stone wall in front of the lighthouse were solicited, however, they were all deemed excessive and ultimately rejected.
Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
Around 1890, the assistant keeper asked permission to construct a small stable at his own expense on the property. In 1891, the Lighthouse Board gave the permission with the stipulation that when he vacated the property, ownership of the stable would revert to the Light-House Establishment.
Although kerosene, in use at the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse since 1881, was a better illuminant, it had some drawbacks as well. The biggest one was its volatility. Where lard oil could have been stored in the tower or cellar of the dwelling, kerosene, if stored there, was much more dangerous.
To address this concern, in 1892, the Lighthouse Board constructed a circular iron oil house, lined with brick and capable of storing 225 gallons of oil, on a concrete foundation. To further safeguard the tower, it was located 50 feet west of the structure.
In 1902, once again, the bridge over the creek required maintenance. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
73. Thirty Mile Point, east of Niagara, Lake Ontario, New York - The bridge over the creek crossing the roadway leading from station to public highway was raised; the stone arches were leveled, the bolts in the rods, were tightened, and a new floor of oak plank was laid.
At the start of the navigation season, on April 21, 1903, the characteristic of the light was changed from a 90-second interval between flashes, to a 45-second interval. The following year, a 20-foot long landing pier of pine timber was built by sinking a crib with timbers and bolted to the ledge.
During 1905, a new stone kitchen and barn were rebuilt. Again, the bridge over Golden Hill Creek required some work. A 5-foot long dry stone wall was constructed on one side of the bridge, and then backfilled with earth. The following year, 90 feet of wire fence and a woodhouse were built on the site.
As early as 1908, shipping interests that frequented Lake Ontario had requested a fog signal. It would take over a decade, however, in 1921, the Lighthouse Service requested $32,500 for the fog signal and either enlarging the current dwelling or the construction of an additional dwelling.
It would take until June 30, 1934 before the approval for the work was given. The Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce for 1934 had the following entry:
Thirty Mile Point, N.Y. - Establish fog signal. Contract awarded for brick fog-signal house and addition to keeper's dwelling. Type F diaphone and machinery purchased. Shore protection also to be provided. Cost to June 30, 1934, $5,598.
By the following year, the fog signal building and the addition to the dwelling, both of yellow brick, were completed. Additionally, shore protection in front of the tower was added. The total cost for the project was $24,650.
Over the years, the sand bar just offshore from the lighthouse diminished, and by 1958, the lighthouse was no longer necessary. The Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse was officially decommissioned on December 17, 1958. It was replaced by an automated steel skeletal light constructed just west of the fog signal building.
Soon thereafter, the Coast Guard removed the third-order Fresnel lens from the lantern and transported it to the station in Buffalo, New York. Their plan was to display the lens at the station, however, that never happened. When asked if the lens could be returned to the lighthouse after it was restored, it could not be located.
The State of New York acquired much of the land around the lighthouse and established the 378-acre Golden Hill State Park in 1962. The federal government turned over the lighthouse, surrounding property, and associated buildings to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 1984.
The office received a grant in 1994 allowing them to install a new slate roof, new copper gutters, rebuild the chimneys, and purchase a new furnace. The staff at Golden Hill State Park, under the direction of the park's manager, has spent countless hours replacing windows, painting exterior trim, and refinishing the oak floors and entry doors.
The next year, the United States Postal Service chose the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse for its Lake Ontario lighthouse in its "Lighthouses of the Great Lakes" stamp series.
Also in 1995, the Friends of Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse, a non-profit organization to oversee and care for the lighthouse, was established. Members actively participate in fund-raising, grant writing, restoration, and assist with tours.
Today, the park has 50 campsites available for rent. Amenities include electric hookups, hot showers, and a boat launch. If you are so inclined, you can rent out the assistant keeper's quarters on the second floor of the dwelling or a fully furnished yurt. Rentals are available by the night or the week.
Is the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse haunted?
Numerous guests have reported seeing an hearing things while staying in the assistant keeper's quarters, aptly named the "Lighthouse Cottage." After staying the night, people are invited to record their impressions of their stay in a guest book. Many visitor's entries have included odd noises, the television coming on by itself, and the feeling of someone sitting on the bed.
Some things would be easy to dismiss, but multiple guests have experienced similar things and have corroborating stories. Others claim to have seen an older gentleman dressed like a lighthouse keeper in the structure. One such story said they saw the man going through the kitchen drawer as if he was looking for something and then shrugged as if he couldn't find it.
A clairvoyant visited the site in 2006 and said that she felt the presence of 24 different ghosts there. She too claimed to see the "lighthouse keeper." He was standing between the living room and the kitchen watching a little girl running back and forth.
Is the lighthouse really haunted? The only way to know for sure is to book an overnight stay, and find out for yourself.
- "Scary stories abound at Somerset lighthouse," Teresa Sharp, The Buffalo News, October 29, 2006.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association, Staff, Various years.
- Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse pamphlet, Staff, N/A.
- Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce, United States, Various.
- "30-Mile Lighthouse Emits Powerful Beam," Staff, Union-Sun & Journal, August 27, 1953.
- Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, Larry & Patricia Wright, 2011.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of Golden Hill State Park. From Route 18 in the Town of Somerset, take Route 131 north (Carmen Road), then right onto Lower Lake Road. Watch for the campsite entrance to the park and enter there. There will mostly likely be a entrance fee for the park.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Grounds open, tower is open during tours and for overnight stays through ReserveAmerica.com.
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