Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-09-30.
Construction of a new 2,204-foot-long north breakwater to expand the outer Buffalo harbor was started in 1897. Its construction would necessitate a new lighthouse and several new beacons to mark the new entrances, including the Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Light, commonly called the "bottle light."
Buffalo's rise to prominence started in 1825, when the western terminus of the Erie Canal was completed, linking Buffalo to New York City. At the time, Buffalo's population was 2,400 people. Within five years, the population had surged to 8,668, and in 1832, Buffalo was incorporated as a city.
In June of 1843, a local merchant named Joseph Dart, Jr. and an engineer named Robert Dunbar revolutionized the grain industry with their conception of the "Dart Elevator," which was the first steam-powered grain elevator. Previously shipped in bags, this new invention allowed grain to be shipped in bulk.
During the 1840s through the 1850s, more than a dozen grain elevators were built in the Buffalo Harbor. This helped fuel Buffalo's growth in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bringing a massive influx of shipping traffic in the harbor. Most of the pioneers that would settle the West, would pass through Buffalo and continue their journey west via rail or lake.
Buffalo Bottle Light (Courtesy National Archives)
To handle the increase in the number of vessels, construction of an outer harbor was started in 1869. A 7,609-foot breakwater was erected where the mouth of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie met, and paralleled the shoreline. Although it would take time, work was completed in 1893.
In 1897, several harbor improvement projects were initiated. At the southern end of the harbor, the 1,603-foot-long Stony Point breakwater was constructed. That same year, a 2,204-foot-long north breakwater was started just to the north of the Buffalo River.
The big project started at that time, was the 10,200-foot-long south breakwater, which would enclose the rest of the outer harbor from the original section, completed in 1869, to the Stony Point Breakwater. The construction would take five years, and finish up in 1902.
An act of Congress approved on June 6, 1900 appropriated $45,000 to establish a lighthouse and fog signal to mark the southern entrance to the Buffalo Outer Harbor. Designs for the new lighthouse, fog signal, foundation and pile protection were completed by the end of the year, and plans for the keeper's dwelling were being prepared.
The state of New York conveyed to the United States, a strip of land at the south end of the Buffalo Harbor where the new lighthouse would sit. As this lighthouse would mark the southern entrance on the south side of the channel, it was called Buffalo Breakwater, South Side Lighthouse.
When the construction of the breakwalls were completed in 1902, there were two distinct entrances to the Buffalo Outer Harbor. The northern entrance, which was near the Buffalo Main Lighthouse, and the newly created southern entrance. A red post lantern was temporarily established on the south side of the north breakwater, opposite the Buffalo Main Light.
To mark the opposite sides of both the north and south entrances to the harbor, it was determined that additional beacon lights would need to be established. On August 5, 1901, Major Thomas W. Symons, engineer of the 10th Lighthouse District in Buffalo drew up plans for the two beacons, which would become known as the "milk bottle" design as they resembled milk bottles.
Prior to the creation of the "milk bottle" design, the Lighthouse Board had used a "Pagoda-style" design, a wooden beacon covered with corrugated iron panels. The Pagoda design was in use at six locations on Lake Michigan from 1898 to 1912, but didn't stand up well to harsh winter gales on the Great Lakes.
After a few revisions to the drawings, an advertisement for the construction of the Buffalo Breakwater, South Side Lighthouse, the fog signal, and the two beacons was published in seven newspapers in four cities on January 2, 1902. Although estimates for construction of the bottle lights were $1,750 each, the actual contracted cost was nearer to $3,600 per light.
After processing the bids on February 28, 1902, the Buffalo Dredging Company had submitted the lowest bid, and was officially awarded the contract on March 20. The contract came with conditions that the work for all structures be completed by December 31, 1902.
Due to many unforeseen problems, such as the price for labor, raw materials, and wood being in short supply, the Buffalo Dredging Company requested a contract extension, pushing out the work until July 31, 1903. The Lighthouse Board denied the extension, however, due to winter's arrival, work ceased.
Work resumed in May of 1903. On August 8, the two "bottle lights" were completed and a notice to mariners went out. Below is the Notice to Mariners for the South Entrance, North Side Light; an identical notice would have been placed for the Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Light.
Notice To Mariners
Buffalo Breakwater South Entrance, North Side. Notice is hereby given that on or about September 15, 1903, a fixed white lens lantern light, illuminating the entire horizon, will be established 36-1/4 feet above mean lake level, in the structure recently erected on the north side of the main south entrance through the Buffalo Breakwater to Buffalo Harbor, NY, on the breakwater pierhead, and about 23 feet from the end or channel face.
The structure is of iron, bottle shaped, and painted white.The light should be seen in clear weather 13 miles, the eye of the observer 15 feet above the lake level.
Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Light was exactly the same as the South Entrance, North Side Light, except instead of displaying a fixed white light; it displayed a fixed red lens-lantern light, which took the place of the temporary red post-lantern light. Both bottle lights were lighted for the first time on September 1, 1903.
The lower half of the bottle provided an area where the keeper could service the lantern. A metal table provided a workspace where the lens lantern could be lowered, filled with a five-day supply of kerosene (about 3 gallons), and then hoisted back into position with a hand winch, which was bolted to the floor.
As the bottle lights required minimal maintenance, they were never assigned a full-time keeper. As this light sat on the north breakwater just across the northern entrance to Buffalo Harbor, the lighthouse keeper assigned to the Buffalo Main Lighthouse maintained it.
As the bottle lights were an experiment by the Lighthouse Board, the secretary of the Lighthouse Board made a request in May of 1906 inquiring about their performance, and more specifically, how they withstood the sleet and icy conditions of winter on the Great Lakes.
The engineer of the 10th Lighthouse District reported: "The light is exhibited from this beacon only during the season (approximately April 10 to December 20th) of open navigation and no trouble from sleet and ice has been experienced with the lens lantern."
Alterations took place beginning in 1932. The Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side light was converted from a fixed red to a fixed green. Four years later, the light was electrified and automated. In 1955, the characteristic of the light was changed from fixed green to flashing green. In 1960, the hoistable lens lanterns were taken out and replaced with fixed acrylic lens.
By 1985, the Coast Guard had found that both bottle lights were no longer required. Plans were made to remove the lights and scrap them. As the lights were unique, the Buffalo Lighthouse Association made plans to preserve them and make them available to the public.
After being restored, the South Buffalo, North Entrance beacon was moved to the grounds of the Buffalo Main Lighthouse, where it stands today. Unlike the South Buffalo, North Side light, the Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Light had its egg-shaped ventilator dome reconstructed and restored to its 1903 appearance.
Although the bottle-style light was a superior design to the Pagoda-style lighthouse, the higher construction costs sealed its fate. The two bottle lights that were built in the Buffalo Harbor were the only two ever built. The Pagoda design was used until 1912, and to date, no known Pagoda-style lighthouse remains.
Directions: Coming from Buffalo, take Route 5 south across the Buffalo Skyway and get off at the Fuhrmann Blvd. exit. Take Fuhrmann Blvd heading north to the end. Park on the street, and walk the path next to the Buffalo Coast Guard station. The light sits in Buffalo Lighthouse Park next to the Buffalo Coast Guard Station.
Access: Grounds open, tower closed. The lighthouse is owned by the Buffalo Lighthouse Association.View more Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Lighthouse pictures