Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-01-02.
The area around the Great Sodus Bay was first settled by European immigrants in 1794. To mark one of the largest and deepest bays on Lake Ontario, the federal government erected the Sodus Point Lighthouse in 1825, making it one of the few early navigational aids on Lake Ontario.
Requests began coming in for a lighthouse at Great Sodus Bay as early as December 28, 1821 when Mr. Sterling presented a "petition of sundry inhabitants of the counties of Ontario, Seneca, and Cayuga, in the state of New York, praying for the erection of a light-house at the entrance of Sodus Bay, on Lake Ontario."
The request was referred to the Committee of Commerce. It would take several years to work itself through government, but on May 26, 1824, Congress appropriated $4,500 for a lighthouse at Sodus Bay. On November 20, 1824 three acres of land were purchased from William Wickham for the sum of $68.75.
By the following year, a 40-foot conical tower of rough split stone, topped with an iron lantern, was constructed. Inside the lantern were ten of Winslow Lewis' patented lamps backed with reflectors.
To supply a dwelling for the keeper, a house measuring 34 by 20 feet was constructed. The dwelling was divided into two rooms, each containing a fireplace and at the south end, a 12 by 14 foot kitchen.
The first keeper appointed was Ishmael D. Hill, a veteran of the War of 1812.
To mark the entrance to the Sodus Bay, piers at the mouth of the harbor were constructed between 1829 and 1834. Over the two year period between 1834 and 1835, Congress appropriated $7,750 for two beacons. A beacon on the pier on Sodus Bay and a beacon on the pier on the Genesee River.
By July 1837, the beacon light at the end of the Sodus Bay west pier was complete. The thirty-foot-tall stone lighthouse, built to mark the entrance to the bay, was lit on the night of July 15, 1837.
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 inspections. For the Sodus Point Lighthouse, he put the following text in his report:
Sodus-bay light-house - This is a first-rate revolving light, and, from its conspicuous location, affords to the mariner all that can be expected. It is lighted by 10 lamps and the same number of reflectors, without fault.
The beacon, on the west pier, is built of stone, and fully answers the purposes for which it is intended - a mere guide for entering the harbor.
The excellent qualities of this harbor are too well known by the mariner to need further comment, and it must eventually become a port of immense importance in a commercial point of view. Nature has given to it that protection which must entitle it to the most favorable consideration of the Government.
Due to the natural attributes of Sodus Bay, it was considered an ideal harbor to export goods. In 1852, a proposal was put forth to construct a railroad connecting Sodus Bay and the coal fields in Pennsylvania, allowing coal to be transported via the Great Lakes.
It would take nearly twenty years to construct the rail line, but by 1872, the line was complete and a small trestle at the west end of the bay was established.
The Lighthouse Board officially adopted the Fresnel lens in the early 1850s and set about installing them in all lighthouses. In 1856, it recommended that the Sodus Point Lighthouse receive a fourth-order flashing Fresnel lens and a sixth-order, 270 ° Fresnel lens for the Sodus beacon light, both with a single burner fountain lamp. Neither lights received the new lenses that year.
1858 Sodus Bay Lighthouse (National Archives)
In 1857, a gale on Lake Ontario destroyed the beacon on the pier. It was replaced by smaller masthead light the following year. In 1858, the Sodus Point Lighthouse was outfitted with a fourth-order catadioptric Fresnel lens.
By 1869, the station at Sodus Point was in poor condition. The Lighthouse Board had urged the construction of the new dwelling with attached tower, at a price of $14,000. Recognizing that it would take time, the old dwelling and tower were repaired sufficiently to allow them to get through winter.
An act of Congress dated July 15, 1870 appropriated the necessary funds to allow for a new lighthouse at Sodus Point. By August, the tower, built on the same general plan as the lighthouse at Stony Point, was well underway using limestone quarried from Kingston, Ontario.
The new Sodus Point Lighthouse was completed on June 30, 1871. At that time, the old lighthouse and dwelling were torn down and the debris was used in the construction of a rough stone jetty. To prevent erosion, the jetty extended into the lake at the west end of the lot in front of the lighthouse.
Along the pier, a new front range beacon was erected between September and October of 1872. An entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1873 had the details:
496. Big Sodus Beacon, (front,) New York - A wooden beacon was built in September and October, 1872, on the Light-house Crib at the head of west pier, and a fixed white light has been exhibited since October 29, 1872, from a sixth-order lens illuminating 360°. The former front "Range" beacon was removed from the middle of west pier. An elevated walk 1,150 feet long was erected from new beacon.
In 1880, new wallpaper was put up in the dining room, the woodwork in the house was repainted, and the fence and tower were repaired. Over the next decade, only minor repairs were required here and there.
During the 1880s, most lighthouses had changed over to kerosene as an illuminant as it burned brighter and was more cost effective. The only drawback was its volatility. As such, isolated iron oil houses were being furnished to stations all over the United States.
By 1891, the metalwork for a circular oil house was delivered to Cleveland, Ohio, and brought to the station by a lighthouse tender. By 1892, the storm porch over the back of the dwelling was enlarged to create a summer kitchen and the oil house was erected.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry detailing the work:
1017. Big Sodus, Main Light, Lake Ontario, New York - The large storm house over the rear entrance to the dwelling and cellar was enlarged so that the structure will do for a summer kitchen. The fence around the reservation was rebuilt, and a new conductor for leading water into the cistern, was provided. A circular iron oil house was erected upon a concrete foundation, and the shell of the oil house was lined with brick. It is located some 128 feet south of the keeper's dwelling and about 109 feet from the barn. Various repairs were made.
A few years later, in 1895, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board listed "extensive repairs and improvements were made to the keeper's dwelling, much of which was rebuilt." The report also detailed that a new picket fence was built around the dwelling and 325 feet of sidewalk were laid.
In 1899, some 108 feet of sewer was relaid. Two years later, the outer pierhead light was raised 15 feet and the fourth-order Fresnel lens from the Sodus Bay Lighthouse was installed in the tower.
At that same time, the Sodus Bay Lighthouse was discontinued. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1901 had the following entry detailing the changes:
66, 67, 68. Big Sodus, at Sodus Bay, Lake Ontario, New York - The outer pierhead beacon was raised 15 feet. The timber bed sills were replaced with four concrete piers, built up from the water level to the beacon sills. On June 10, 1901, the characteristic of the light was changed from sixth-order fixed white to fourth-order fixed white, varied by a white flash every two minutes. Various repairs were made. On the same date the main light on the bluff, three-fifths of a mile westerly of the entrance to Big Sodus Bay, was permanently discontinued. The oil house was moved near the inner pierhead beacon.
Although the station was discontinued, it still remained the keeper's residence for the pier lights, therefore upkeep on it continued over the years. In 1902, some 328 feet of board fence were rebuilt around the station. And in 1903, the protective jetty along the shore required some 75 feet to be rebuilt.
Over the years, coal had remained the main export. By 1927, well over three million tons of coal had made its way through the harbor, and there was no sign of it slowing down. That year, the coal trestle was completely rebuilt. Its length was extended to 800 feet and its height was raised to 60 feet.
In 1939, two outbuildings near the lighthouse were torn down. At that time, a garage was built and a concrete driveway was put in.
The Sodus Point Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 8, 1976.
Coast Guard personnel continued to occupy the lighthouse until 1980. When the outer pier light was automated in 1984, the Coast Guard turned the Sodus Point Lighthouse and outbuildings over to the Town of Sodus Point.
The Sodus Bay Historical Society, founded in 1972, leased the buildings from the town and opened the historic lighthouse as a maritime museum on July 4, 1985. The group also operates a gift shop within the museum.
In 1988, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was returned to the tower, where it still resides today.
Directions: Starting at the intersection of Route 104 and Route 14, Make the turn onto Route 14 and head north towards the lake. Follow it to the village of Sodus Point. Make sure you follow Route 14, it does a few zig-zags, but if you follow the signs, you will be fine. Make a left onto Ontario Street (at fire hall) and follow it to the end, there will be the lighthouse on the right. From the grounds, you can see the Sodus Pierhead Light. If you follow the lake front, it will lead you to a small park where you can walk out to the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Town of Sodus Point. Grounds are open, tower open during the season.View more Sodus Bay Lighthouse pictures