Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-02-04.
Long before the Dunkirk Lighthouse was established at Point Gratiot, the first white men to come through Dunkirk were a party of surveyors under Andrew Ellicott, Surveyor-General of the United States. This took place in 1790 while traversing Lake Erie to map the western boundary of New York State.
The first white settlers of the area came in 1805. Four years later, Solomon Chadwick cleared the land surrounding the bay, which later became known as Chadwick's Bay.
With the outbreak of the War of 1812 and with Chautauqua County thinly populated at that time, it was more exposed to invasion than other areas.
After the conclusion of the War of 1812, commerce increased at Chadwick's Bay. A new hope for the harbor emerged on April 15, 1817, when an act authorizing the construction of the Erie Canal was passed. The harbor was one of the best on Lake Erie and at one point, it was spoken of as the most suitable point for the western terminus of the Erie Canal.
Although the area continued to grow throughout the years, a decision was made in 1823 making Buffalo the western terminus of the Erie Canal. This decision put a damper on Dunkirk and its expected prosperity, and by 1825, its population was 50 people.
Walter Smith, a young merchant from nearby Fredonia, was attracted to the possibilities of Dunkirk, so much so, that in 1825, he bought the undivided half of the property of the Dunkirk Company for $10,000. With that purchase, he immediately sought to develop the area.
By 1826, Mr. Smith had donated several acres of land on Point Gratiot to the United States for construction of a lighthouse. On May 18, 1826, Congress appropriated $6,000 for its construction, and by the following year, it was complete.
Buffalo contractor, Jesse Peck, constructed a one-story keeper's dwelling and 50-foot conical tower. A small enclosed walkway connected the dwelling and the tower. Sampson Alton made bricks from clay harvested from the shores of Dunkirk Harbor, which were then used in the construction of the structures.
Atop the tower was a lantern made by a local blacksmith named Adam Fink. Inside the lantern, thirteen lamps and reflectors fueled by whale oil, provided the light.
To improve the harbor at Dunkirk, Congress appropriated $3,000 on March 2, 1827 for construction of a pier. Between 1828 and 1834, Congress appropriated an additional $26,600 for harbor improvements at Dunkirk.
On March 3, 1837, Congress appropriated $2,700 for a pierhead beacon at Dunkirk. When completed, the beacon light on the pier and the Dunkirk Lighthouse on the nearby bluff formed a range guiding vessels through the most difficult part of the channel. The keeper of the Dunkirk Lighthouse was responsible for both lighthouses.
When the pierhead lighthouse was established in 1837, Congress felt the 1827 lighthouse was unnecessary, and ordered it to be discontinued.
By 1838, 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 reviews.
In his report, he stated that the harbor, partially formed by artificial means, was spacious and well protected. He went on to report that the lighthouse was discontinued by the authority of congress and had this to say about it:
The light-house at this point has, by the authority of Congress, been discontinued, at your discretion. This step has been taken, in my opinion, unadvisedly; or, rather, the evidence before Congress, upon which decision is predicated, was premature. It is a matter of surprise to me that it should have been recommended. Surely the recommendation could not have emanated from the ship-masters navigating the lake; for there is not a light-house on the south shore of Lake Erie that is more conspicuous, or can be seen to a greater distance.
It might have been presumed that the beacon would supersede the necessity of the light-house. This, however, is not the fact; for a single light upon the piers would require an elevation of one hundred and twenty-five feet to overtop the bluff point on the northwest, and even in that case not afford the proper facilities for navigation.
He concluded his report stating that the lighthouse, the dwelling, and the beacon were all in excellent order, with no deficiencies. Shortly after the filing of his report, the Dunkirk Lighthouse was reinstated.
With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood the business.
Starting around 1852, most lighthouses in the United States were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens, and by that year, the Dunkirk Lighthouse is listed as a fourth-order, 360° fixed light, varied by flashes. It was powered by a valve lamp and two burners.
In 1857, the lighthouse was "thoroughly repaired and fitted with a third-order lens and new lantern." By the following year, it was listed as being powered by nine lamps.
By 1869, the Dunkirk Lighthouse had required considerable maintenance. The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances had listed the following as being done:
27 and 28. Dunkirk and Beacon - The tower has been pointed and whitewashed outside, and thoroughly repaired inside. The dwelling has been refloored, reshingled, replastered, and painted; new windows have been cut to increase the ventilation; sash and blinds have been renewed, new covered way to the tower made, new privy and substantial fence put up; the cellar has been supplied with enlarged windows to increase the ventilation. The exterior of the beacon has been resheathed, painted, and sanded; its foundation strengthened, new stairs and ceiling supplied, decking and glass frames repaired, and lantern door refitted. The station is now in perfect repair.
The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for 1874 painted the Dunkirk Lighthouse in a very poor light. Below is the text of the report:
521. Dunkirk, Lake Erie, New York - The old tower is in a very precarious condition; large sections of the outer shell may fall off at any moment, thereby endangering not only the whole tower with the apparatus, but also the dwelling and its tenants. It is urgently recommended to rebuild the tower at the earliest possible time. An appropriation of $15,000 is required.
Not only was the tower falling down, much of the bluff that the lighthouse and dwelling stood on had started eroding as well. For the start of the 1875 navigation season, a temporary tower was erected and lit.
Dunkirk Lighthouse courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard
Congress appropriated $15,000 on March 3, 1875. By spring, work crews were tearing down the old tower, and by June 16 that year, the ground was broken for the new tower and dwelling, roughly 160 feet west south west of the old tower.
The work of constructing the new lighthouse was completed by June 30, 1876. The new keeper's dwelling was constructed in a High Victorian Gothic style. The facade of the dwelling was symmetrical in nature with three larger dormers featuring decorative finials. Adorning the gabled ends were turned braces and brackets.
When completed in 1876, the lighthouse tower was originally circular, made from blocks of local siltstone. Inside the tower was an ornate open-patterned, spiral, cast-iron staircase which led to the decagonal lantern. The tower was later squared off to complement the Victorian architectural style of the keeper's dwelling.
Inside the lantern was the third-order Fresnel lens, which was moved over from the original tower. It displayed a fixed white light varied by white flashes at an interval of 90 seconds. The light was shown from the tower for the first time on July 1.
At that time, the temporary wooden lighthouse, which was displaying a fixed white light from a sixth-order lens, was taken down.
In 1880, a bunch of maintenance items were taken care of. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
573. Dunkirk (main light), Lake Erie, New York - The roofs of the dwelling and barn were repaired and a roof put over the porch. The cistern was replastered and the tile floor in the tower relaid. A lamp locker was built inside the tower.
The grounds of the lightstation received some work in 1887. The fence, enclosing it on three sides, was rebuilt, 200 feet of plank walk on the premises were relaid with new material, and the flooring of the porch was relaid.
In 1896, the keeper's dwelling received running water via 976 feet of 2½-inch pipe ran from the City of Dunkirk's waterworks. The following year, a sewer line was run from the keeper's dwelling, into the lake.
Many other changes came in 1897, which included the barn being rebuilt and enlarged, 733 square feet of cement walk being laid, a new fence, and the rebuilding of the assistant keeper's dwelling.
By 1899, several improvements had taken place. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the details:
78. Dunkirk, Dunkirk Harbor, Lake Erie, New York - The bathroom was connected with the sewer and city waterworks. A 40 gallon hotwater tank was placed in the kitchen. A galvanized iron fence was built on the east and northerly side of the light-house lot. An iron oil house was erected. Various repairs were made.
On April 19, 1901, the characteristic of the light was changed. It originally was a fixed white light varied by a white flash every 90 seconds. This was changed to a fixed white light varied by a white flash every 45 seconds.
Over the years, the illuminant has changed with the times. The tower was changed over to incandescent oil vapor in 1912, and then to electricity in 1923. The lighthouse was automated in 1960, relieving the keeper from his duties.
At some point after automation, the City of Dunkirk took over care of the lighthouse. When the city's lease was up in 1984, they weren't interested in renewing it. That's where Harold and Barbara Lawson stepped in.
The Lawsons took over the lease and saw an opportunity to bring tourism to the area by turning it into a museum. After extensive cleaning and repairs, the couple was able to open the museum in 1985.
Today, the lighthouse serves as a veterans museum with each of the ten rooms of the keeper's dwelling featuring a different display. Five of the rooms cover each branch of the service: Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The other five rooms cover displays of the Viet Nam War, the lighthouse keeper, the keeper's kitchen, bedroom, and a maritime display.
On the grounds of the Veterans Park Museum are a 40-foot lighthouse buoy tender, 21-foot rescue boat, the Grand Island Front Range Lighthouse, the South Buffalo Northside "bottle" light, the 1939 Dunkirk Pierhead skeletal tower, and assorted buoys and anchors.
Over the years, erosion has taken a big part of the bluff. It 2010, the erosion revealed a minor part of the original 1827 lighthouse foundation. As the exposed section was small, members of the Veterans Park Museum thought that it might be a portion of the well or cistern.
Upon further review, the group found that it was the original foundation of the 1827 lighthouse. Heritage Preservation and Interpretation, Inc. was brought in to conduct an archaeological dig to try and preserve the original tower's foundation. The group hopes to learn about the construction techniques of the era.
The Dunkirk Lighthouse caretaker / museum curator, the late Harold Lawson, has reported that pictures have been moved overnight on numerous occasions, leading him to believe that it is indeed haunted. He has dubbed the ghost "Charlie."
Other staff at the lighthouse have reported seeing a shadowy figuring roaming the grounds as well as moving through the lighthouse itself. Other reports included hearing footsteps in the tower and feeling a cold presence.
Some staff believe that "Charlie" was a friend of a lighthouse keeper from the 1800s that drown while trying to help the keeper rescue some kids on Lake Erie. Other staff have reported seeing a young boy in period clothing.
The young boy, likely a ghost of one of the children that perished in the 1841 Erie steamship disaster, has been reported to be mischievous, occasionally tugging on pant legs and moving objects primarily objects associated with a child, such as a ball or dolls.
On June 29, 2013, the Shadow Chasers traveled to the Dunkirk Lighthouse to investigate for paranormal activity. During their investigation, the group was able to document a number of audible phenomena that sounded like footsteps and voices within the keeper's dwelling, as well as capture a shadowy figure moving past the staircase on the second floor, concluding that the site is indeed haunted.
Today, the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Museum run "Ghost Hunt" tours in which they invite the public to visit the site at night, typically running from 7 p.m. to midnight. These tours have proven popular, typically selling out in advance.
Directions: From I-90, get off at exit 59 (Dunkirk) and take Route 60 north towards the lake. At Route 60 and Route 5 intersection, make a left onto Route 5. Follow Route 5 for a little more than one mile west. You will now see signs leading you to the lighthouse. You will make a right onto Point Drive North, and follow that into Point Gratiot Park.
For more information, please visit the official website: http://www.dunkirklighthouse.com.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. The grounds and lighthouse are open in season.View more Dunkirk Lighthouse pictures