Rochester Harbor Lighthouse

Rochester, New York - 1995 (1838**)

Photo of the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse.

History of the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-01-09.

As the Port of Charlotte and the City of Rochester continued to flourish in the early 1800s, an effort of increase navigability of the Genesee River resulted in a set of piers and the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse being constructed.

Although the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, constructed on a high bluff on the west side of the Genesee River, helped with navigation into the harbor, the sand bar at the mouth of the river still caused frequent groundings.

To remove the sand bar, the federal government appropriated $10,000 for harbor improvements. Their plan was to erect a pair of 2,700 foot-piers, which would collect the sand along the sides, keeping the river clear.

The Army Corps. Of Engineers started construction of the piers in 1829. While construction was ongoing, Congress appropriated $4,000 in 1834 and another $3,750 the following year for beacon lights on the piers on Sodus Bay and the Genesee River.

Although money was earmarked for a lighthouse on the pier, it wouldn't be constructed for several years as construction of piers wasn't completed until 1836.

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, Lieutenant Platt pointed out the poor condition of the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse. Some items that he noted, were the lamps worn out, the lighthouse deck leaked, the lantern needed glazing, and many panes of glass were broken.

In another section of Lieutenant Platt's report, he had recommended to the government "the building of a permanent light-house, on a solid and durable foundation" at a cost of nearly $11,000.

Throughout that section of his report, he went on to detail the construction of a 45-foot tall lighthouse at the end of the pier, the materials to be used in its construction, and the specifications that it should be built to.

His recommendation for a new lighthouse on the pier, rather than a beacon light, was that it was more cost effective. If a new lighthouse was erected on the pier, the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse could be discontinued, resulting in reduced costs.

If a beacon light was built, the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse would still be needed, which would require its immediate repair and ultimately its replacement at some point in the future resulting in greater cost to the government.

It appears that Lieutenant Platt's advice was not adopted as government documents describe the Genesee River beacon as follows:

Of the Genesee river beacon light - Upon the west pier in the lake, at the distance of 2,700 feet from the shore, a beacon of stone has this year has been erected, twenty-five feet high, an octagon of twenty feet in diameter, upon a foundation of forty feet square, in fifteen feet depth of water; the beacon tapering to a diameter of ten feet at the top, agreeably to the plans heretofore submitted to the Department.

Due to its exposed position on the lake, the beacon was subjected to frequent gales, and by 1853, it had been swept away. The west pier, on which the beacon sat, was breached in multiple locations, but was able to be repaired. The east pier was in worse condition, and it was recommended to be completely rebuilt.

A new temporary frame structure was erected by September 30, 1854, and was awaiting the installation of a 270° sixth-order catadioptric Fresnel lens. At that time, an elevated catwalk was installed to allow the keeper to safely access to the beacon during high seas.

Over the years, minor repairs were made to the beacon, but nothing was worth mentioning in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board until 1880. The report called out that at the opening of the navigation season, the color of the light was changed to red, and the elevated catwalk was repaired. The report also noted that a new iron beacon was under construction.

By the following year, the new iron tower was complete. At that time, the fourth-order Fresnel lens of the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was placed in the lantern of the new tower, and on February 28, 1881 the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was discontinued.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1881 had the following entry:

574. Genesee Beacon, on outer end of west pier, entrance to Charlotte Harbor, mouth of Genesee River, Lake Ontario, New York - The elevated walk, which has been damaged by a schooner, was repaired at the expense of the owner of the schooner. The crib foundation for the new iron beacon was built, and a new iron beacon was placed thereon, glazed and painted. The tower windows, ventilators of lantern, and holes in the cowl were furnished with brass-wire screens, the beacon was lined with wood, lockers and bunk were built, and a fog-bell and striking apparatus were put in the structure; the fourth order lens formerly at the main light was placed in the beacon, and the old one packed up and stored in the depot at Buffalo.

Although the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was discontinued, the dwelling was still used to house the keeper of the upgraded pier light and thus continued to be maintained. The following year, the fence enclosing the dwelling was rebuilt and some 236 feet of plank walk around the dwelling were replaced.

Although it is unclear as to why, the iron tower on the pier was discontinued on March 18, 1884, and was eventually transferred to Cleveland Harbor.

A new wood framed beacon was erected on the outer end of the west pier. The lantern on the new tower was taken from the discontinued Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse. To finish off the installation, the elevated catwalk was extended to it.

The exposed nature of the pier, extending nearly 2,700 feet into Lake Ontario meant constant maintenance was always needed. In 1886, the beacon required some leveling and the steps going from the outer end of the walkway to the pier were replaced. At that same time, 1,424 lineal feet of the elevated catwalk were rebuilt.

At the dwelling on shore, 198 feet of plank walk were taken up, graded, and then re-laid with new material. Likewise, the sills, floor, and approach to the barn were replaced.

On October 2, 1888, Congress appropriated funds to establish an "inner light" to range with the pierhead light, and guide vessels into the harbor. The Lighthouse Board planned to have the tower completed by the fall of 1889.

By April 21, 1889, the outer beacon light was moved and additional 210 feet out on the pier, and the elevated catwalk was extended to it. This was done in preparation for establishing the range lights. In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year, the tower was listed in "fair condition."

That same year, the "inner" range light was established and displayed for the first time on the night of October 7, 1889. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year described the inner range light as the following:

1037. Charlotte Harbor range-light, on the inner end of the west pier, Lake Ontario, New York - A square pyramidal wooden skeleton structure was erected at the shore end of the elevated walk on the west pier, 1,923 feet from the outer entrance to Charlotte Harbor. The light consists of three fixed lights, shown from lens lanterns, two red and one white, arranged vertically, with the white light in the center. The lights, which are spaced 4 feet apart, are at a height of 60 feet above the level of the lake, and form a range with the light on the outer end of the pier, on a line with the direction of the pier.

Photo of the Genesee East Pierhead LighthouseGenesee East Pier Light (USCG)

The fog bell located on the pier at the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse faced issues similar to the breakwater light at Oswego; mariners complained that they couldn't hear it until they were within a half-mile of the lighthouse.

In 1890, the Lighthouse Board, like the Oswego Harbor station, had recommended that the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse receive a steam fog signal at a cost of $4,300. On March 3, 1891, Congress appropriated the necessary funds.

During the summer of 1893, the west pier was selected for the fog signal building, and was strengthened before construction began. A wood-framed structure was erected; the outside was covered with corrugated iron, while the inside was covered with smooth iron. It was completed and ready for operation on September 30, 1893.

By 1896, west pier was extended and the outer pierhead beacon was moved nearly 500 feet to its end. At that time, the fog signal building was moved nearly 1,000 feet to a position near the end of the pier. Once both moves were completed, the elevated catwalk was extended to the new structures.

On April 3, 1899, the characteristic of the rear range light was simplified. The system of three lights, arranged vertically, was removed. In their place was a single fixed red light, being shown from a single lens lantern.

On November 22, 1900, the steam whistle on the west pier was upgraded from a 6" whistle to a 10" whistle.

On May 25, 1902, a new light on the east pier was erected. The new beacon was white, square, pyramidal above the first story and covered with corrugated iron. From the lantern, a fixed red light was shown from a focal plane 36¼ feet above the lake level.

When the new east pier beacon went into service, the inner light on the west pier was discontinued, and torn down. The outer beacon on the west pier was sheathed below the gallery, and covered 8 feet high with corrugated iron.

At that time, the arc of illumination of the fixed red light on the west pier light was increased from 180° to 270° making it visible from all points of approach on the lake.

In 1903, numerous changes took place near the west pier light. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board detailed them:

68-69. Genesee, Charlotte Harbor, Lake Ontario, New York - An iron oil house was erected on a concrete foundation on the west pier. An iron fence with a gate was built across the west pier. A boat hoist and a boat platform were built and supplied with a boat-hoisting apparatus. Some 1,600 running feet of old wooden elevated walk was removed and some 1,540 running feet of iron walk was substituted. A boathouse was built. It is a wooden shed with canvas covering. Various repairs were made.

Photo of the Genesee West Pierhead LighthouseGenesee West Pier Light (Courtesy Coast Guard)

The principal keeper, serving both pier lights continued to live in the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, while the assistant keeper was paid a little more per year, but was required to find his own residence elsewhere.

By December 1904, the Lighthouse Board was requesting an additional residence for the assistant. They were of the opinion that it was better to have the person in government housing where "they could be found when wanted." For the project, they requested an appropriation of $4,000.

From the reports, it appears that nothing was done. The same entry requesting an additional dwelling for the assistant keeper appeared in both the 1905 and 1906 Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board.

Two $75,000 appropriations were made for keeper's dwellings at numerous stations, one in 1907 and one in 1908. However, the appropriations ran out both times before a dwelling could be constructed for the assistant keeper.

By 1908, it was reported in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board that the assistant keeper, whose salary was "$450 per annum, and 30 cents a day for rations" was living in the fog signal house.

In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1917, it was reported that an act of August 28, 1916 authorized construction of dwellings at 16 lighthouses; however, no appropriation was made to fund the act and therefore nothing was done.

Both pier lights were electrified in 1917 at a cost of $1,334. Electric generators with storage batteries were installed near the pier lights. At that time, the characteristic of the west pier light was changed from a fixed red to an occulting white light.

In 1931, the wooden lighthouse was removed from the end of the west pier and replaced with a steel skeletal tower. The new tower supported a large square gallery, watch room, and lantern. To operate the light, a control station was built on shore near the pier.

Both pier lights were automated in 1947, relieving the keeper, Wilbur L. Folwell, Sr. from his post. At that time, the wooden Charlotte-Genesee East Pier Light was replaced by a modern steel skeletal tower in 1947.

Keeper Folwell was transferred to the lighthouse at Oswego. He then went on to serve at other stations, before returning to Oswego, where he would eventually retire.

When Keeper Folwell left for Oswego, the local chief of the Coast Guard moved into the dwelling at the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, where he lived until 1982.

The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society was formed in 1982 to care for and restore the old buildings. Students from a local technical high school constructed a new lantern and the Coast Guard loaned the group a fourth-order lens, allowing the tower to be relit in June of 1984, one hundred years after it had been discontinued.

In 1992, the Charlotte-Genesee Light was permanently relit to act as a rear range for the west pier light. After serving for 64 years, the red steel skeletal tower established in 1931 was replaced by a "D9" style cylinder tower in 1995, which continues to shine today.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
  3. Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, Larry & Patricia Wright, 2011.
  4. "The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse and the Lights of Rochester Harbor," Timothy Harrison, Lighthouse Digest, January/February 2011.

Directions: The best vantage point for photographing this is from Ontario Beach Park and the north end of Lake Avenue. I walked into the park and took this shot with a 500mm telephoto lens rather than walk the pier since I was short on time.

Access: The tower is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The grounds are open, tower closed.

View more Rochester Harbor Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 35.00'
Focal Plane: Unknown
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 43.26400 N
*Longitude: -77.59900 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.