Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-12-17.
Built to mark the Salmon River Harbor and Port Ontario, the Salmon River (Selkirk) Lighthouse was only in use for just over twenty years before being deactivated.
The Salmon River was an important waterway not only to the Native Americans but to the many European settlers that lived near it. The river took its name from the once abundant quantities of Atlantic salmon that would make their way into the river from Lake Ontario.
Most of the land on the north side of the Salmon River was purchased by New York's Governor, George Clinton, in 1788 from the Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga tribes. By 1801, the first permanent white settlement was established at the mouth of the Salmon River. Although most of the settlers fished the river and lake, others farmed the fertile land nearby.
In the early 1830s, a government engineer visited the Salmon River Harbor, and after a thorough analysis determined that the harbor could safely anchor thirty ships. To get the process started, the federal government appropriated $5,000 on July 4, 1836 for harbor improvements and on March 3, 1837, appropriated an additional $10,000 as well as $3,000 to establish a lighthouse.
On September 1, 1837, a location for the lighthouse was purchased from Sylvester and Daniel Brown. Shortly thereafter, Jacob Gould, Superintendent of Lighthouses on Lake Ontario published an official notice on September 4, 1837 calling for construction proposals of the lighthouse:
Proposals will be received by me at Rochester until the 10th day of October next, for building a Dwelling and Beacon Light-House on Lake Ontario, at the junction of the Salmon River with said Lake in the village of Port Ontario, in the county of Oswego, in said state, of the following description, viz: - The dwelling house to be of stone, 25 feet wide by thirty feet long from outside to outside. The outside walls to be eighteen inches thick, laid in good lime mortar, and pointed in good & workmanlike manner.
Joseph Gibbs and Abner French were awarded the contract. They, in turn, hired a local stonemason Jabez Meacham, who did most of the work. Meacham constructed a gabled fieldstone dwelling of stone quarried nearby. At the northern end of the dwelling, a wood-shingled tower, painted red, rose 16 feet.
Atop the tower was mounted an octagonal birdcage lantern with 15 small glass panes on each side. Surrounding and supporting the lantern were wrought-iron railings, made by a local blacksmith named John Box. Within the lantern sat eight lamps backed by 14-inch parabolic reflectors. From the 49-foot focal plane, the fixed white light was visible for 14 miles. At that time, the lamps used whale oil pulled from a 24-hour reservoir. During cold temperatures, a secondary lamp would warm the oil to keep it from congealing.
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 newly constructed Salmon River Lighthouse, he put the following text in his report:
Salmon-river light-house, or Port Ontario - This is a new light, just established, and is fixed on the keeper's dwelling. It is lighted with eight lamps, and the same number of bright reflectors, all in first-rate order. The supplies furnished by the contractors are good.
In the report, Lieutenant Platt went on to note that just off the mouth of the harbor was a sand bar with depths varying from five to nine feet. To remedy this, he proposed running a double line of piers to fourteen feet of water. This meant that the southwest pier would need to be 1,815 feet and the northeast pier, 1,090 feet.
Salmon River (Selkirk) Lighthouse
He went on to note in the report that future plans included a canal linking the Salmon River to Oneida Lake, and ultimately the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. Regarding the feasibility of the canal, he wrote "Of the practicability of constructing this canal, I believe there is no doubt, as it is asserted that the surveys warrant the belief of its easy accomplishment."
The Lighthouse Board officially adopted the Fresnel lens in the early 1850s and set about installing them in all lighthouses. In 1855, the Salmon River Lighthouse received a 270° sixth-order lens and was upgraded to a Hains mineral oil fountain lamp.
Normally, when a Fresnel lens was installed in a lighthouse, the result was a much brighter, more efficient light. Yet, that was not the case with the Salmon River Lighthouse. Due the bird-cage style lantern, the beam was broken up by the lantern's support bars and the numerous astragals that held the panes of glass in place.
By 1858, the mouth of the Salmon River was silting in, commerce into the port had dropped, and the planned canal to Oneida Lake was never built. Rather than replacing the lantern, which was necessary to correct the beam's pattern, the Lighthouse Board deactivated the Salmon River Lighthouse the following year.
During the period of just over twenty years, the station had only four keepers. Lewis Conant was the first keeper, serving until July 20, 1849. The second keeper was Lucius B. Cole. Charles M. Lewis relieved Cole on October 6, 1854 and Keeper A.H. Weed took over duties from him on March 2, 1857.
After the Salmon River Lighthouse was deactivated in 1859, Keeper A.H. Weed stayed at the light as a site caretaker. There, he continued to tend the light in an unofficial capacity while also maintaining the two pier lights. For some time during the 1870s and through the 1880s, the station was used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
Keeper Weed lived at the lighthouse until his death in 1891. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
Salmon River, entrance to Port Ontario, Lake Ontario, New York - (discontinued). A custodian was appointed at a nominal salary. The appointment was made necessary by the death of a former keeper who had occupied the premises since the light has been discontinued, 1859. The site will in due time be surveyed and platted.
Within a few years, as it was a source of care and expense, and there was no chance that it would be needed in the future, the aging property was up for sale at a public auction in 1895. Leopold Joh, a restaurateur and hotelier from Syracuse, NY purchased the station for $155 with intentions of turning it into a "clubhouse" per an article in the 1895 Syracuse Courier.
After initially purchasing the lighthouse, he kept the light burning for the benefit of mariners. Within a few years, he had acquired the adjoining property and constructed the prestigious Lighthouse Hotel in 1899. After Joh passed away in 1907, the family ran the complex until 1916, when it was sold to the Heckle family.
The Heckles doubled the size of the hotel and proceeded to run it for a number of years. In 1979, the lighthouse was put on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of four original lighthouses with a birdcage style lantern, and one of two lighthouses with the lantern still intact. The other intact lantern is on the Prudence Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island.
Two other lighthouses, the Waugoshance Lighthouse in Michigan and the Baileys Harbor Lighthouse in Wisconsin, both have original birdcage style lanterns, however, both are in dilapidated condition. The lantern of the Baileys Harbor Lighthouse is in such poor condition, it is in danger of falling in.
During November 1986, Jim Walker visited the area and fell in love with it. He was not initially looking to purchase the lighthouse, but after seeing that it was a unique property, in a great location, with a nearby marina, he decided to make the investment in 1987.
Walker's plan didn't originally include running a Bed & Breakfast, but after people began knocking on the door and asking to stay, he decided to do it as there was so much demand. In the years since he has run the business, he estimates that people from 90-100 different countries have stayed at the lighthouse.
On August 6, 1989, the Salmon River (Selkirk) Lighthouse was relit for country's lighthouse bicentennial celebration. Walker worked with the Coast Guard to get the lighthouse added to the NOAA charts as a Class II navigational aid. Inside the lantern is a photocell-actuated lamp with an automatic bulb changer sitting inside a 190mm lens.
In 2003, Jim Walker decided that it was time to sell the property to allow him time to focus on his other business endeavors. As the offers came in lower than expected, the property was taken off the market. Today, you can still book an overnight stay at the Selkirk Lighthouse by visiting their website at http://www.salmonriverlighthousemarina.com.
Directions: Located at the end of County Route 5 (Lake Road) just off Route 3 (Seaway Trail) in Pulaski.
Access: The lighthouse is privately owned. The ground are open. The tower is open to guests. You can book your stay at www.salmonriverlighthousemarina.com.View more Salmon River (Selkirk) Lighthouse pictures