Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-12-23.
Oneida Lake, the largest body of water located entirely within the boundaries of New York State, is marked by three identical lighthouses. At the extreme eastern end of Oneida Lake stands the Verona Beach Lighthouse, marking the entrance to the Wood Creek Canal.
During the early 1800s, as there were no steamships or railways, the transportation of bulk goods was limited to pack animals traveling overland. Grain was largely grown in the large fields of the Western New York State and the Midwest. As it was a high-volume, low-priced commodity, it was not often worth the cost of transporting great distances to population centers such as New York City.
As most of the large cities were on the eastern seaboard at that time, it became clear that the city or state that succeeded in developing a low-cost, reliable route to the West would prosper economically, and see its port grow. Thus, many states were formulating a plan.
Although discussions of a canal in New York State were proposed as early as 1768, nothing was done. One of the earliest proponents of a canal in New York State was Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant living near Geneva, New York.
Hawley's struggle to send and receive shipments over the roadways at the time landed him debtor's prison. While serving his 20-month sentence, he published fourteen essays on the idea of a canal to link the Hudson River and Lake Erie.
Although he had no formal education or training as an engineer, he provided detailed analysis of the problems to be solved, and wrote with great eloquence and foresight that the canal would have on the state and the nation.
The idea for the Erie Canal was proposed in 1808. At that time, President Thomas Jefferson called it "a little short of madness" and rejected it. Hawley's essays interested DeWitt Clinton, the mayor of New York City at that time. Clinton would go on to become governor of New York in 1817, and although there was much opposition, he got the legislature to approve the Erie Canal.
Construction began on July 4, 1817. Many people were so sure that the project would fail, they began calling it "Clinton's Ditch." But slowly it progressed. The first section, Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. Additional sections would open as they were completed. On October 26, 1825, the entire 360-mile Erie Canal was officially opened for business. The cost was $7.143 million.
By the late 1800s, traffic had dwindled on the Erie Canal as it wasn't large or deep enough to handle the tonnage necessary to keep it competitive with the railways. In 1903, the New York State legislature authorized improvements to the Erie Canal, calling it the New York State Barge Canal.
Construction of the barge canal started in 1905 and linked the Erie Canal with the Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca and the Champlain Canals. It was completed in 1918 at a cost of $96.7 million and had a total length of 525 miles.
With the advent of diesel and steam-powered barges, tow paths and the related infrastructure were no longer needed. This allowed the "new" barge canal to take advantage of the myriad rivers and lakes within the state, which the original Erie Canal avoided, and sought to link cities that were bypassed, such as Rochester and Syracuse. Oneida Lake was one such lake.
Oneida Lake, at twenty-two miles long and five miles wide, is the largest body of water entirely within the boundaries of New York State. With an average depth of 22-feet and a maximum depth of 55-feet, it is a shallow lake making it prone to wind and waves.
When the Erie Canal was first opened, rules prohibited travel at night. Eventually, the rules were relaxed, allowing night travel. But as the canal itself was nothing more than a hand-dug ditch, simple stake lights were utilized.
But as larger rivers and lakes were opened to commercial traffic, a new system of lights was needed to provide safety. It is unclear why establishing aids to navigation didn't fall under the auspices of the Lighthouse Board, but starting in 1907, the State Department of Canals and Waterways designed a new system of aids to navigation to be used on the New York State Barge Canal.
To provide 24 hour passage on Oneida Lake, the firm of Lupfer & Remick of Buffalo, New York was contracted. Although they primarily built smokestacks for the many steel mills along Lake Erie, they received the contract to build the lighthouses. If you look at the photo, the light largely resembles a smokestack.
Their contract called for the construction of three concrete towers and two steel towers on Oneida Lake, one steel tower on Onondaga Lake, and various other gas-filled buoys and lamps. The cost for the project came in at just under $70,000, to be exact - $69,669.20.
For the construction of the lighthouses on Oneida Lake, land was purchased in 1916 and construction started in October for the lighthouses at Verona Beach and Brewerton. The lighthouse on Frenchman's Island was not started until the summer of 1917.
Each of the three towers were to be erected on a large, square, concrete base. The base would provide a foundation and entrance to the tower as well as an area for fuel storage. The towers were built using pre-fabricated 18-foot concrete sections for the exterior. Each section was barged to the location from Buffalo.
As each 18-foot exterior section was put in place, 4½ pre-fabricated interior sections were dropped in from the top. Once the two sections were equal, steel cross beams were installed, and steel ladders were set in place. Switchback platforms were set at every third interior section.
Each of the three towers were to be 85-feet tall and would act as a range light with the others across the lake. Both the lights at Brewerton and Verona Beach were completed by August 31, 1917, but some minor work and the appointment of keepers kept them from being lit until the spring of 1918. The lighthouse on Frenchman's Island wasn't completed until 1918.The lights on Verona Beach and Frenchman's Island showed occulting white lights of 1,500 candlepower, while the light at Brewerton showed a fixed red light of 1,000 candlepower. When completed, each was powered by acetylene gas, but within a few years, the lights at Brewerton and Verona Beach were converted to electricity.
Prior to 1920, the maintenance of the lighthouses was handed out to anyone, state employees, family, or friends. New York State overhauled the process by which jobs were assigned in 1920. The State Superintendent of Public Works placed the keeper assignments under the civil service program, requiring potential candidates to take a competitive exam.
When hired, the keepers were supplied with a motorboat, would patrol a ten mile sector, and were required to conduct a daily inspection of each ad. The keepers were also subject to scheduled reviews and regular inspections. It is unclear when the "keepers" were let go, but currently the towers get an "inspection" twice a year by engineers.
The Verona Beach Lighthouse Association, a non-profit public charity, was formed in 2002 by a few residents with a common goal of preserving and restoring the lighthouse. A few of the tasks the group has undertaken include installing a new door and windows, removing brush and asbestos, installing a cement pad and sidewalks and placing informational signs.
Although all three towers are still active today, the Brewerton Rear Range Light is no longer visible from the lake, having been blocked by the bridges for US-11 and I-81. The light on Frenchman's Island was raised by the addition of a 20-foot section in 1949. Even with this addition, today, the light is barely visible over the tree tops.
Directions: In the Town of Verona Beach, take Route 13 to Oneida Street. Follow Oneida Street west to the lake. Now make a left onto Forest Ave and head south. The lighthouse will be on your right-hand side between 3rd and 5th ave. From what I hear, you have to look very closely as it is tucked in amongst trees.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by New York State Canal Coprporation. It is managed by the Verona Beach Lighthouse Association. The grounds are open, tower closed.View more Verona Beach Lighthouse pictures