Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-10-10.
Long before the Town of Buffalo was settled and the Buffalo Lighthouse established in 1818, many groups had called the area home. In the mid-1700s, the French had settled the area known as Buffalo Creek, near the junction of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. As the British took control of Fort Niagara in 1759, the French destroyed most of the buildings during the evacuation.
By the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British had control of the entire region. The first permanent settlers arrived in 1789 and set up a store to trade with the Native Americans. Due to British control over the area, others were prevented from settling until 1796 when the British were driven from Fort Niagara.
In 1804, Joseph Ellicott, a principal agent of the Holland Land Company, laid out the series of roads and grids. On March 3, 1805, an act of Congress designated the Village of Buffalo as a port of entry. By 1810, the village was upgraded to the Town of Buffalo, and in April of 1811, New York State lawmakers adopted a cessation "with respect to a piece of land for a light-house in Buffalo, Niagara County."
The lighthouse wouldn't come to fruition as the War of 1812 would take precedence. As control of the Great Lakes was crucial, the British immediately seized control of Lakes Erie and Ontario. On December 15, 1813, Americans had abandoned land they controlled around Fort George. As they were retreating, they set fire to the village of Newark, today known as Niagara-on-the-Lake, leaving many inhabitants without shelter.
To retaliate, the British attacked three days later, capturing Fort Niagara. The following morning, they led an assault on the neighboring town of Lewiston, burning homes and killing civilians. On December 30, 1813, invading British troops set fire to the entire Town of Buffalo, sparing only four buildings.
The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent. After being ratified by the British on December 27, 1814, it arrived in Washington on February 17, 1815, where it was ratified and went into effect, finally ending the war.
In 1817, Oliver Forward, collector of the port of Buffalo, was commissioned to secure a site for a lighthouse at Buffalo. A parcel of land at the mouth of Buffalo Creek was chosen, and to pay for the site, he used $351.50 of his own money. One year later, a 30-foot stone tower was erected and placed into service.
Although there is controversy around which lighthouse was the first American-built lighthouse on the Great Lakes, most believe it was the Erie Land Lighthouse, formerly known as the Presque'isle Lighthouse, and not the 1818 Buffalo Lighthouse. Documentation exists showing the two lighthouses were included in one contract, setting aside $15,500 for both lighthouses.
Buffalo's rise to prominence started in 1825, when the western terminus of the Erie Canal was completed, linking Buffalo to New York City. Soon after the opening of the Erie Canal, the government started fielding complaints that the lighthouse was useless. It was often obscured "by the smoke of the village."
To assuage the complaints, the government agreed to erect a new tower at the end of a long stone pier. In 1826, the treasury department appropriated $2,500 "to erect and build a pier, and lighthouse and ice-breaker." The contract stipulated that the work was to be completed by November 15, 1829.
November 1829 came and passed, while work progressed on the pier. The new Buffalo Lighthouse wasn't completed until 1833, a year after Buffalo was officially incorporated as a city.
The octagonal Buffalo Lighthouse was built of cut gray limestone resting on a stone foundation. The diameter of the tower measured 18'6" at the base and tapered up to 11'3" at the parapet. At the top, a ten-sided iron, brass, and copper lantern resided bringing the tower's height to 44 feet.
Inside the lantern was a Winslow Lewis patented Argand lamp and reflector system with a unique greenish lens meant to intensify the light. The harbor superintendent and the collector of the port tested the lens from out on the lake and determined that the reflectors alone produced a better light, and the lens was removed.
By 1838, the traffic into and out of the port of Buffalo had expanded. Lieutenant Charles T. Platt, U.S. Navy, was asked to survey and inspect the lighthouses on the Great Lakes. In his report of Buffalo, he noted the congested nature of the harbor, how a second entrance would benefit the harbor, and that the lighthouse "well tended."
Commencing with Buffalo, I found that the light-house was situated on the extreme outer end of the mole, and that it was a new building, in perfect order. The number of lamps is fifteen, stationary; the chimneys are too short, not extending above the scallops of the reflectors; the smoke consequently partially destroys the brilliancy of the reflectors, so important to the navigator; otherwise the materials furnished by the contractors are faultless. The dwelling, standing on the site of the old light-house, has been recently repaired and rendered comfortable. This light-house is well tended, and as its location affords to the navigator a sure and safe guide to the only entrance to the harbor, is, for the present, fully adequate to the increasing commerce of this lake.
On approaching Buffalo, and observing the number of vessels of all sizes and descriptions constantly arriving at and departing from that port, I was most forcibly impressed with the insufficiency of the present entrance to the harbor, and the imperious necessity of another channel of communication between it and the lake. This appeared obvious from the elongated shape of the harbor, which is formed by Buffalo creek - a narrow but deep stream, varying from twelve to eighteen feet in depth, being sufficient to float any vessel on the lake. At its mouth, Government has erected a substantial pier, which effectually protects and keeps open the entrance; and here is a light-house duly furnished and well tended, affording to the mariner a certain guide into port.
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 to be shipped in bulk.
Starting on October 15, 1844, a strong northeast wind had driven water up the lake, elevating the lake levels near the City of Buffalo. On the evening of October 18, the winds had shifted, blowing from the southwest, forcing the elevated lake waters into the city, submerging many areas in up to eight-feet of water.
It would become known as The Great Storm of 1844. The Great Storm of 1844 would cause significant breaches in the breakwater extending to the lighthouse. Many stones, some weighing as much as two-tons, were moved more than twenty feet from their original positions. The storm would also cause significant property damage and loss of life.
The following year, the government began rebuilding the breakwall by bringing in stones averaging four feet in length, and weighing between one and three tons. To ensure they would stay in place, they were set with hydraulic cement. The work would be suspended in 1846, but resumed again in 1853.
With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood the business.
Starting around 1852, most lighthouses in the United States were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens, and that year, the Buffalo Lighthouse was recommended as one of 20 principal lake lights that should get a third-order Fresnel lens. That same year, $2,500 was appropriated for a fog bell at the Buffalo Lighthouse, however, due to performance issues of similar signals along the coast of Maine, installation of the fog bell at Buffalo was delayed until 1856 to "perfect the fog-bell machinery."
Prior to the installation of the third-order Fresnel lens, the Buffalo Lighthouse received a new "chandelier-style" light in 1854. The new light, which was only used for two years, reduced the arc of illumination from 180° to 110°, but increased its intensity.
Buffalo Main Lighthouse courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1856, the Buffalo Lighthouse finally received its third-order Fresnel lens, however, the tower would have to be reworked prior to its installation. As the old lantern was too small to house a third-order lens, it was removed. An additional story of stone casement windows was added, topped off with a new two-story lantern which featured a service room. This work brought the tower's height to 68 feet.
This same year, the offshore Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse exhibited a fixed white light varied by a white flash for the first time.
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.
To handle the increase in the number of vessels, construction of a 4,000-foot breakwater was started in 1868. On July 15, 1870, an appropriation of $30,000 was made for the construction of two lighthouses. By 1872, the Buffalo Breakwater, North End Lighthouse was completed, exhibiting a fixed red light. At that time, the fog bell from the 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse was moved to the new breakwater light.
As only 1,750 feet of the breakwater was completed, a temporary frame beacon was erected to mark the unfinished southern end of the breakwater.
By 1885, the station was in need of repairs. The keeper's dwelling and boat house were repaired, and 177-feet of boardwalk were relaid. That same year, the well was deemed unfit for consumption, and was filled in. For water, the keeper's dwelling was connected to the city water supply by a heavy 2-inch lead pipe laid across the bed of the river.
Ten years later, the pipe was snagged by a vessel's anchor and broken. The water line was replaced, and was subsequently broken again by a vessel dragging an anchor. In 1898, it was repaired again. To ensure it wouldn't happen again, it was laid in a trench dredged to depths varying between 23 and 26-feet as the underlying rock would permit.
To provide better shelter for the keeper, the dwelling was rebuilt in 1899. The following year, the boathouse was rebuilt and moved to the south side of the south pier, which was about 150 feet west of the lighthouse. That same year, the lighthouse tower was painted white.
In 1904, the keeper's dwelling was moved to a new location, 127 feet north and 53 feet to the west. To finish up the site, 550 feet of board fence were built to partially enclose the dwelling.
Just after the turn of the century, due to hydroelectric power from nearby Niagara Falls, Buffalo became the first American city to adopt the use of electric lights, earning it the nickname "City of Light."
The widespread use of electric lights in the city led to confusion amongst mariners as they were unable to pick the beam of the lighthouse out from all the other lights on shore. So, in 1905, the Lighthouse Board decided to alter the characteristic to make it easier to discern. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
80. Buffalo, entrance to Inner Buffalo Harbor, Lake Erie, New York - The old illuminating apparatus was on April 8, 1905, removed from the lantern and in its place was installed a new revolving lens to give the light a characteristic of flashing white every 5 seconds, instead of fixed white, as heretofore. A square iron oilhouse was erected on a concrete foundation. Various repairs were made.
The new four-panel third-order Fresnel lens was purchased from Chance Brothers & Company in England at a cost of $3,386.74.
That same year, the lighthouse inspector informed the Lighthouse Board that the keeper reported that the stove in the tower was insufficient to provide warmth to the watchroom. To combat the problem, a two-ton coal bin was installed in the base of the tower in 1906.
As the Buffalo Lifesaving Station sat next to the Buffalo Lighthouse, there were initial talks that the Lifesaving Service would use the tower as a lookout post, however, those plans were abandoned when a new pagoda-like tower was erected on the pier near the lighthouse.
The new tower earned the nickname "Chinaman's Light" due to its form and function. The tower would serve double-duty to watch for mariners in distress and for illegal Chinese immigration across the Niagara River from nearby Canada.
By 1902, the breakwalls that were constructed to establish the outer harbor at Buffalo were completed. As Lieutenant C.T. Platt had recommended in his 1838 report, a second harbor entrance was finally established around 1900.
To mark the new southern entrance to the outer harbor, the Lighthouse Board established the South Buffalo Southside Lighthouse in 1903. The northern entrance was marked by the Buffalo Breakwater, North End Lighthouse. As the 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse sat much further inland, its usefulness was waning, and by 1910, it had become a pierhead lighthouse.
In 1914, the third-order Fresnel lens in the Buffalo Lighthouse was moved to the Buffalo Breakwater, North End Lighthouse, which had become the main harbor lighthouse for Buffalo. The tower remained dark for many years, and was only used sporadically as a watchtower for rum-runners during prohibition. When the pagoda tower was torn down, the 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse inherited the "Chinaman's Light" nickname.
By the 1950s, the Buffalo Lighthouse was part of the U.S. Coast Guard installation and was primarily used as a storage facility. Around that time, the Army Corps of Engineers had planned to widen the mouth of the Buffalo River, which would have required the demolition of the lighthouse. The public protested and started a campaign to save the lighthouse.
On July 26, 1958, the freighter Frontenac, while leaving the Buffalo River, swung too wide. Before the anchor chains could be dropped to stop the vessel, the Frontenac smashed into the Buffalo Breakwater, North End Lighthouse. The freighter hit with such force that the whole lighthouse was moved nearly 20 feet, left with a 15-degree tilt, and knocked the lighthouse out of service.
A temporary light tower took the place until 1961 when a new lighthouse was established on the outer breakwall. Later that year, a contract was awarded to the American Demolition Company of Pittsburgh to take down the "leaning lighthouse."
The third-order Fresnel lens that was in use in the Buffalo Breakwater, North End Lighthouse was removed before demolition. At some point, it was put on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, where it remains today.
The following year, the South Buffalo South Side Lighthouse was automated, relieving the last three lighthouse keepers. That same year, a restoration effort was started to preserve and restore the long neglected 1833 lighthouse.
The tower was lit with floodlights for America's Bicentennial celebration in 1976 and the city's Sesquicentennial in 1982.
Although the Buffalo Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May of 1979, neglect once again set in. In 1985, the Buffalo Lighthouse Association was formed to preserve and restore the aging lighthouse, obtaining the tower in a 30-year license from the Coast Guard.
After restoring the tower, the group set about having the lighthouse relit in time for the first international Friendship Festival in 1987. To achieve that goal, the Buffalo Lighthouse Association obtained the fourth-order bivalve Fresnel lens that was originally used in the South Buffalo Southside Lighthouse.
Although the lighthouse sat on the grounds of an active U.S. Coast Guard base, civilians were allowed on the base to visit the tower. After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the grounds were closed, and visitation denied.
As the City of Buffalo began to formulate plans to revamp its waterfront and harbor in 2006, Congressman Brian Higgins worked with the city and the Coast Guard to restore access to the area. The Coast Guard was able to reconfigure their base to free up several acres of land and still keep the base secure.
The new area became Buffalo Lighthouse Park, which opened in late October of 2011. The park includes a picnic shelter, informative plaques, historic timelines, fog bell, ship's anchor, and the Buffalo North Breakwater, South Side Lighthouse or the "bottle light," as it's commonly called.
By 2013, the fourth-order Fresnel lens in the Buffalo Main Lighthouse began to show the effects of age and exposure. As the lens is rare and priceless, the decision was made to remove it from the lighthouse for restoration and conservation. After restoration, the lens was put on display at the Heritage Discovery Center, 100 Lee Street, Buffalo, NY.
The lantern of the 1833 lighthouse won't sit empty for too long. The Buffalo Lighthouse Association is having a replica of a mid-19th century third-order lens built by Artworks Florida. The new lens should be installed in the 1833 Buffalo Main Lighthouse sometime in October of 2014.
Directions: Coming from Buffalo, take Route 5 south across the Buffalo Skyway and get off at the Fuhrmann Blvd. exit. Take Fuhrmann Blvd heading north to the end. Park on the street, and walk the path next to the Buffalo Coast Guard station. The light sits in Buffalo Lighthouse Park next to the Buffalo Coast Guard Station.
Access: The tower is managed by the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.View more Buffalo Main Lighthouse pictures