Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-10-03.
Construction of a new 10,200-foot-long south 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 South Buffalo, North 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 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 via rail or lake.
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 kicked off. 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 largest undertaking 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.
To distinguish 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 were 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. They were known as the South Buffalo Northside Lighthouse and the Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Lighthouse.
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.
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 hoist it 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 breakwater just across the southern entrance to Buffalo Harbor, it was kept by the lighthouse keeper assigned to the South Buffalo, South Side Lighthouse.
As the bottle lights were an experiment by the Lighthouse Board, a petition was fixed by the secretary of the Lighthouse Board in May of 1906 inquiring about their performance, and more specifically, how they withstood the sleet and icy conditions of winter along 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."
As the names of the lighthouses along the southern part of the Buffalo Harbor were confusing, a request to rename the lighthouses was sent off to the Lighthouse Board. The Board approved the name change on March 17, 1909. The Buffalo Breakwater South Entrance, North Side (bottle light) was renamed to South Buffalo, North Entrance and the Buffalo Breakwater, South Side (bottle light) was renamed to South Buffalo, South Side.
Changes took place starting in 1932. The South Buffalo, North Side light was changed from a fixed white 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 removed and replaced with fixed acrylic lens.
By 1985, the Coast Guard had determined that both bottle lights were no longer needed. Plans were formed to get rid of the lights and junk 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 Dunkirk Lighthouse, where it stands today.
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 constructed for the Buffalo Harbor were the only two ever constructed. The Pagoda design was used until 1912, and to date, no known Pagoda-style lighthouse remains.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of the Dunkirk Lighthouse. From I-90, get off at exit 59 (Dunkirk) and take Route 60 north towards the lake. At Route 60 and Route 5 intersection, make a left onto Route 5. Follow Route 5 for a little more than one mile west. You will now see signs leading you to the lighthouse. You will make a right onto Point Drive North, and follow that into Point Gratiot Park.
For more information, please visit the official website: http://www.dunkirklighthouse.com.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. The grounds are open, tower is closed.View more South Buffalo Northside Lighthouse pictures