Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse

Buffalo, New York - 1856 (1856**)

Photo of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse.

History of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-10-20.

Although there was already the Buffalo Main Lighthouse at the mouth of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie as early as 1818, that tower did little to mark the hazardous reefs that dotted the entrance to the Niagara River. That job would fall to the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse, just offshore.

Buffalo's rise to prominence started in 1825, when the western terminus of the Erie Canal was completed, linking Buffalo to New York City. By the 1840s and 1850s, vessel traffic into and out of the Buffalo Harbor exploded.

However, that lighthouse did very little to help mariners that had to navigate the narrows and head further up the Niagara River towards the harbors at Black Rock and North Tonawanda, which was nicknamed "the Lumber City."

On March 3, 1849, Congress had authorized "$10,000 for a light boat on Horseshoe Reef, Niagara River, or for a lighthouse on same point." For some reason, lawmakers thought that the amount would be sufficient for a lightship, and double that amount would suffice for a lighthouse, pending the outcome of a survey.

The survey was carried out, and less than a month later, U.S. Navy Commander Abraham Bigelow had recommended a lighthouse be constructed. The site he recommended was just offshore from the Buffalo Harbor, at a location where Lake Erie begins to narrow as lake waters are forced into the Niagara River. His estimated cost for the project was $45,000.

There was just one problem. The location selected was on Middle Reef as it was a more central location compared to Horseshoe Reef, however, that land belonged to the British Crown. Stephan Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Department, and the man that was in charge of the nation's aids to navigation, advised the Department of State to contact the British Government about getting the lighthouse constructed.

Pleasonton didn't have a lot of confidence that the request would be approved, as a similar request regarding a lighthouse in the Bahamas, that was denied in the past. The request made its way to the U.S. Minister in London, Abbott Lawrence.

Lawrence sent a note that made its way through several layers of government to the governor general who found it necessary to consult with the provincial government in Ontario. The note that was sent was accompanied by a memorial and petition signed by many merchants and residents of Buffalo.

As a river lighthouse stood to benefit Canadian maritime interests, the British had a decision to make. They could establish and support the lighthouse themselves, or they could cede a small portion of land to the United States, and let the Americans fund and build it.

On April 23, 1850, the Executive Council of the Province of Canada approved the proposal to cede the necessary land to the United States. That decision was sent back to London in December of 1850, where the U.S. Minister and the Foreign Secretary met to sign the agreement.

The British Government agreed to provide 1/3 of the Middle Reef, which was an acre of underwater reef, to the United States, provided they did indeed build a lighthouse, and refrained from erecting any kind of fortification. The deal was forwarded on to President Millard Fillmore for approval, which he later signed.

Congress appropriated an additional $25,000 on March 3, 1851 to be added to the $20,000 appropriated on March 3, 1849. On August 15 of that year, Isaac S. Smith submitted to the Lighthouse Board a detailed description of his plan to construct the lighthouse at Horseshoe Reef.

The Lighthouse Board responded back questioning Mr. Smith's plan.

The project is vague or not full, or, at any rate, not satisfactory to the board, as to the means of overcoming important practical difficulties; it relies for essential matters on untried, if not doubtful expedients; it does not contain estimates, calculated in detail, of the cost of executing the several parts, especially those deemed to be most difficult.

The committee must add that, with their understanding of the exposure of the site for which Mr. Smith's light-house was intended, they are very doubtful whether it will of itself be sufficient to resist the force of the ice that, under certain circumstances, might press against it; and if an icebreaker be indispensable to its security, their doubts are the greater as to its title to preference over projects founded on well known principles and processes. Accordingly, the committee does not feel warranted in advising its adoption by the government, either as a general project or for any particular site.

Even though the Lighthouse Board did not agree with the plan, Isaac S. Smith was awarded the contract to construct the Horshoe Reef Lighthouse. The discovery that the reef was not solid rock, bad weather, and other problems delayed the start of the project, resulting in Smith's contract being annulled.

1915 Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse, courtesy the National Archives.1915 Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse (Courtesy National Archives)

Due to the numerous delays, the appropriations had expired. A new appropriation of $45,000 was made on August 3, 1854. The following year, the government constructed a stone foundation and upon it, erected four iron columns which supported a single-story wooden lighthouse.

From the lantern of the new lighthouse, a new fourth-order Fresnel lens flashed for the first time on the night of September 1, 1856. Standing fifty feet above the river, the light was visible for ten miles into Lake Erie.

Two keepers were assigned to the station. They lived on shore, however, no dwelling was supplied for them. The lighthouse was outfitted with minimal provisions for extended stays when the weather made shift changes too dangerous.

During the spring of 1866, some general repairs that were authorized on May 12, 1864, but were postponed by the Lighthouse Board, were carried out. In 1869, the pier on which the lighthouse was set, was covered in iron to protect it from ice.

Repairs continued throughout the years. In 1872, the lantern was changed. In 1880, the stone pier was repaired and repointed, and the braces under the tower were repaired. Two years later, a boat launching apparatus was installed on the crib. In 1887, the sheathing on the south and west sides of the lighthouse was renewed.

Substantial work was carried out on the superstructure in 1888. It was documented in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:

859. Horseshoe Reef, at head of Niagara River, entrance to Buffalo Harbor, New York - The superstructure of the timber crib protecting the masonry pier, was rebuilt on three sides, five courses high and 147 feet long. The superstructure of the masonry pier was repointed and repaired in places, and a box 6 feet square for storing fuel was built and bolted to the top of the pier. The gallery platform around the dwelling was widened on the north side, nearly flush with the face of the crib and fitted with davits to take the boat from the crib when necessary and to stow her, bottom up, on the gallery floor. The entire woodwork of the floor of the gallery was taken up and relaid with new material. The sheathing of the dwelling was renewed and the decayed cross timbers underneath were replaced. This station is now in good order.

Due to the strong 11-knot current at the head of the Niagara River, stone ballast from beneath the crib, was carried away in 1891. Stone from the beach in front of the shore lighthouse was collected and used to replace it. To shore up the crib, 300 cords of stone riprap were delivered and placed on the exposed sides of the station in 1895.

Four years later, an additional 220 tons of stone, some weighing three to four tons each, were placed along the south side of the pier foundation and crib for protection from the force of the river.

Starting in 1902, the characteristic of the light was changed by reducing the intervals between flashes from 90 seconds to 30 seconds. That same year, the Lighthouse Board described the station as "one of the most comfortless and unattractive stations in the district."

Much like the two keepers assigned to the Buffalo Breakwater Lighthouse, the keepers of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse were not supplied a dwelling in which to live. Both sets of keepers had to row out to their respective stations during shift changes, however, the Buffalo Breakwater Lighthouse keepers were at least behind the breakwall where the waters would have been more calm.

The keepers of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse had to row out into the lake, through strong currents and at certain times, extremely hazardous conditions. If it was deemed too dangerous to land, the keeper on duty would have to remain at the station until the conditions were more favorable, which could sometimes be days later.

In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1902, the issue of the government not supplying a dwelling for the keepers of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse came up. The Lighthouse Board recommended that the government build a double dwelling on government land, near the south pier, at a cost of $5,500 and asked that the appropriation be made.

The exposed location of the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse continued to be problematic. In 1903, an additional 676 tons of rubble stone riprap were brought in to protect the pier on which the lighthouse stood. That same year, the Lighthouse Board again recommended construction of the keeper's dwelling.

Two years of inaction on the part of the Congress led to an increase of construction costs of the dwelling. Due to the increasing prices of material and labor, it was estimated that the new cost of completing the dwelling would increase to $6,200. The Lighthouse Board had recommended that the appropriation be made in 1904 and again in the 1905 Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board.

In 1905, the Lighthouse Board set about to rebuild the superstructure of the pier. An act approved on March 3, 1905 appropriated $5,000 for the work to be completed.

Congress finally appropriated the necessary $6,200 for the construction of the double keeper's dwelling on June 30, 1906, and plans were drawn up. As all of the bids received were in excess of the appropriation, the work was carried out by hired labor.

That same year, an iron oil house was erected on the pier, next to the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse. This would allow the commonly used kerosene, which was extremely volatile, to be stored safely in a fire-proof structure.

In 1907, the temporary lens in use was replaced with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. As such, a pedestal to support the lens was fabricated. Additionally, the annual report listed "Some 784 tons of large stone was placed about the base of the pier protection against the force of the seas, and a new fender timber extending the entire length of the south side of the pier was fitted bolted in place."

Authorized by a new treaty with Canada, an international commission formed in 1913, moved the Canadian border 100 feet to the west, placing the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse within the United States.

By the late 1800s, plans were being made for the construction of the Black Rock Channel, which would provide a protected channel, walled off from the Niagara River, running from the Buffalo Harbor to Black Rock, allowing vessels heading into the Niagara River to bypass the numerous reefs, rapids, and strong currents.

This new protected channel would be large and deep enough to handle the largest of Great Lakes freighters with a depth of 21 feet and the new lock that was capable of handling freighters up to 650 feet in length.

Construction of the new channel and lock was finished in 1914, effectively letting mariners bypass the dangerous entrance to the Niagara River and diminishing the need for the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse.

In the early 1900s, the City of Buffalo had established a new water intake in Lake Erie's Emerald Channel, not far from the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse. To mark it for mariners, two white lights were established on it in 1908 creating the Buffalo Intake Crib Lighthouse.

As the new intake crib light was significantly larger than the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse, the Horshoe Reef Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1920. From then on, it was effectively abandoned. Over the years, the wood has decayed, leaving only the metal frame to stand against the elements.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
  3. Maritime Buffalo, Michael N. Vogel and Paul F. Redding, 1990.
  4. "Horseshoe Reef: A Lighthouse on the Brink," Timothy Harrison, Lighthouse Digest, March / April 2011.

Directions: The light sits off shore in Lake Erie near the mouth of the Niagara River. It can be viewed from the Buffalo Main Lighthouse or from Lasalle Park in Buffalo. To get to Lasalle Park, whether taking the I-190 North or South, get off at the Porter Ave. exit. From here, you will either take a right or a left, but you want to head towards the lake. At the foot of Porter Ave, you will make a left onto Amvets Drive. From here, you should be able to use a telephoto lens to get a pretty good shot light.

Access: The site is still owned by the Federal Government. Grounds closed.

View more Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 50.00'
Focal Plane: Unknown
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1920)
*Latitude: 42.88000 N
*Longitude: -78.91200 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.