Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-02-15.
After Portland Harbor was declared a "port of entry" in 1827, the Barcelona (Portland Harbor) Lighthouse was erected to mark the harbor and to assist with navigation for the increased shipping on Lake Erie due to the opening of the Erie Canal.
Prior to an age when roads and highways were the norm, everything was moved via water. Most towns and villages sprang up near harbors where ships would drop off and pick up people and goods. Such was the case with Portland Harbor in Chautauqua County, New York.
The little harbor was bustling in the early 1800s. Wharves and warehouses sprung up to support the numerous vessels calling at the port. Congress declared Portland Harbor an official port of entry in 1827, and the following year, the local Congressman, Daniel Garnsey, was able to persuade Congress to appropriate $5,000 for a lighthouse.
That appropriation came through on May 23, 1828. Congressman Garnsey and Judge William Peacock worked together and selected a site overlooking Portland Harbor, which was purchased from the Holland Land Company for $50. Judge Peacock was then appointed construction supervisor and hired Judge Thomas Campbell of Westfield, New York to construct the tower.
Campbell constructed a conical 40-foot tower of native rough-cut stone, a 34-foot by 20-foot keeper's house, also of rough-cut stone, a well, and an outhouse. Although $5,000 was appropriated, Campbell finished the work well under budget at $3,456.78.
The keeper's house was typical of the times, a one-story dwelling, divided into two rooms, each with three windows. A chimney in the middle of the dwelling was accessible to a fireplace in each of the rooms.
The tower was topped off by an octagonal lantern comprised of 21 small glass lights and three copper pieces filling the bottom tier of each octagonal panel. The lantern was made up of 16 iron rafters, topped with a copper dome with a ventilator.
Inside the lantern was eleven Winslow Lewis patented lamps backed by 14-inch reflectors. The lamps were originally fueled by whale oil, but on July 5, 1830, it became the world's first lighthouse to be lit with natural gas. The Fredonia Censor described it as:
The Lighthouse at Portland Harbor in the County of Chautauqua and State of New York is now illuminated, in the most splendid style, by natural carbureted hydrogen gas. Ever since the first settlement of the country about Portland, it has been known that an inflammable gas constantly issued from the fissures of a rock, which forms the bed of a little brook that empties into Lake Erie, near the harbor, in such quantity as to be easily set on fire by applying a flame to it.
Appointed by President Andrew Jackson, the station's first keeper, Joshua Lane, was described as a "deaf, superannuated clergyman, having numerous female dependents." He earned a salary of $350 per annum and served until his death in 1846.
On January 1, 1831, a contract was made to hire William Hart, a Fredonia gunsmith and mechanic, to provide the lighthouse with natural gas "at all times and seasons." The contract, at an annual cost of $213, also stipulated that he keeps the apparatus and fixtures in good repair.
That same year, many of the nation's lighthouses were being inspected and reported on by various members of the U.S. Navy. In the tenth lighthouse district, which spanned from the St. Lawrence River down into Ohio, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt handled the inspections.
He placed the following text in his report:
Portland light-house, lighted with natural gas; 11 lamps and reflectors; stationary.
Owing to a failure of gas, that may be attributed to the excessive drought, oil is now substituted. It is presumed, however, that the fall rains will replenish the stream from which the fountain is supplied, and thus prevent the escape and loss of the gas. The recurrence of such a drought will, if ever occurring, be at great intervals, and will not then, probably, render the use of oil for a long time necessary.
The public improvements for forming an artificial harbor are progressing, and the light-house now in use is amply sufficient for all the purposes of navigation, at least until the breakwaters are completed. If, then, it becomes necessary to erect a light on the breakwater, or on the end of the pier, as the case may require, the necessity of the present light will be entirely superseded.
The light-house needs a coat of Roman cement, which can be put on at a cost of one hundred dollars.
Slight repairs are necessary for the dwelling; fifty dollars will be amply sufficient for that purpose.
A new well will also be necessary, as the well formerly in use is unfit; this may be done at a cost of fifty dollars; making a total cost of two hundred dollars.
As the natural gas was sporadic by 1838, whale oil was used occasionally, as necessary. This continued on into the 1850s, as an 1851 report listed the Portland Harbor Lighthouse as still lighted with natural gas.
The harbor had three long docks and four warehouses that were in use in 1831. In 1844, the federal government spent $56,000 constructing a larger pier and breakwater to improve the infrastructure of the harbor.
Starting on October 15, 1844, a strong northeast wind had driven water up the lake, elevating the lake levels near the Portland Harbor. On the evening of October 18, the winds had shifted, blowing from the southwest, forcing the elevated lake waters into the town, submerging many areas with water.
It would become known as The Great Storm of 1844 and would affect many cities and towns in New York, including massive damage to the Buffalo Harbor. The Great Storm of 1844 would cause significant breaches in the breakwater and pier. The storm would also cause significant property damage, including ships, warehouses and docks and dozens of people would lose their lives.
After the Great Storm of 1844, Portland Harbor was rebuilt and lake commerce did recover, but it wouldn't last for long, as the Buffalo and State Line Railroad was chartered in June of 1849 to build a line from Buffalo, New York to the Pennsylvania state line.
Construction of the rail line started the following year in 1850 and the section from Dunkirk, New York to the state line, opened on January 1, 1852. The section from Buffalo to Dunkirk, opened on February 22 of that year.
A section of this line ran through nearby Westfield, New York, and had a damaging effect on the harbor. Most of the trade that was normally carried on ships, was siphoned off by the railroad as it was less expensive.
By 1854, the Portland Harbor Light was showing up in government finance reports. The entry is below:
18. Useless lights - The lights at Portland harbor and at Silver creek - no harbors or shelter existing at either of these localities - are deemed useless.
In 1855, the government was recommending that the Portland Harbor (Barcelona) Lighthouse be discontinued, however, government documents list a new "lens apparatus" being placed in the lighthouse in 1857. Two years later (1859), the Barcelona (Portland Harbor) Lighthouse was officially discontinued due to "mutations of commerce and changes of channels of harbors, and other causes."
1904 photo courtesy National Archives
It is unclear what the lantern of the tower looked like as no early photographs have surfaced. Most date from 1880, after it was decommissioned and its lantern was removed. Speculation states that it was likely a bird-cage style lantern, common in lighthouses that date from the early 1800s. It was capped off with an octagonal wooden roof covering the cement floor entry into the lantern room.
The original deed for the land stipulated that should the lighthouse be discontinued, the property was to revert back to the Holland Land Company. The property sat vacant until 1872, when it was sold by the Holland Land Company to George Patterson.
On June 14, 1929, around 200 guests gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Barcelona Lighthouse. At that party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Patterson chapter, presented a bronze plaque to owner Catherine Patterson Crandall. Today, the plaque is mounted above the door to the tower.
When the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1860, it sat dark until 1962 when a new gas beacon was installed in the tower. The Iroquois Gas Corporation replaced the piping within the tower and National Fuel Gas maintains and repairs the mantles, when needed. The light is not used for navigational purposes, but was relit for historical purposes.
In the 1880s, the keeper's house was remodeled adding dormers and an addition. Over the years, the lighthouse had stayed in the Patterson family until April of 1998, when it was sold to Bruce and Ann Mulkin of Fredonia, New York for $250,000.
They planned to try to make the lighthouse more accessible to the public, however, it appears that the owned the lighthouse for a little over ten years. According to public real estate records, on December 30, 2008, the Barcelona Lighthouse was sold for $565,000.
In 1960, the Government erected a 693-foot-long east breakwater and a 790-foot-long west breakwater to create more of a protected harbor. Extensions were added to both the east and west breakwaters in 1984, and today many pleasure craft call the harbor home.
Note: The lighthouse is private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- "Barcelona Lighthouse - Yesterday and Today," Dale E. Pappert, Lighthouse Digest, January 1999.
- Westfield (NY) (Images of America), Kathleen Crocker, Jane Currie, April 19, 2006.
- Energy and Light in Nineteenth Century Western New York: Natural Gas, Petroleum and Electricity, Douglas Wayne Houck, April 15, 2014.
Directions: From the I-90, take exit 60 (Westfield) and head north (Towards the lake) on Route 394. At the junction for Route 5, make a right, and the lighthouse will on the left-hand side. You can get good shots from the road, or from the public marina right next to it.
Access: The lighthouse is private property. The grounds and tower are closed.
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