A great destination for the true lighthouse buffs is Fairport Harbor, Ohio. Located midway between Cleveland and Ashtabula, on the inland sea of Lake Erie, Fairport Harbor is a large manmade harbor that protects the mouth of the Grand River. The village of Grand River, with a population of around 450 people, lies on the west bank and the village of Fairport Harbor, with a population of around 2800 people, lies on the east bank of the river.
It is here in Fairport Harbor where one can visit one of the first and oldest museums in the United States to be housed in lighthouse.
The first keeper at the lighthouse, established in 1825, was Samuel Butler, an active abolitionist. In fact the light served as a guardian of one of the northern terminals of the “Underground Railway” before the War Between the States and guided many runaway slaves to safety in Canada.
In 1868 it was reported that the lighthouse was in such bad shape that it had to be discontinued and a light was established on a temporary tower. A new lighthouse was finally completed and first lit on August 11, 1871.
Captain Joseph Babcock was the first keeper at the new station. He himself led such an interesting life prior to becoming keeper that a movie could have been made of it. The Captain escaped death in an Indian attack at age eight because his mother was Indian and before becoming keeper, he served an illustrious career in the Civil War. Two of his children were born at the lighthouse and one of them, a son, died of smallpox at the lighthouse. Another son, Daniel, served as assistant keeper from 1901 to 1919 and then as head keeper until the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1925.
It was reported that Captain Joseph Babcock’s wife spent a long period of time ill and bedridden on the second floor at the lighthouse. She kept a number of cats to comfort her and help her pass the time.
For a number of years, Paula Brent, a curator who lived at the museum for a number of years, had reported seeing the ghost of a gray cat. She told local newspaper reporter Magi Martin in an interview, “It would skitter across the floor near the kitchen, like it was playing. I would catch glimpses of it from time to time. Then one evening I felt its presence when it jumped on the bed. I felt its weight pressing on me. At first it kind of freaked me out. But ghosts don’t bother me. They are part of the world.”
Obviously many people thought she was imagining things or perhaps dreaming. However, in a story worthy of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” those people must have quickly changed their minds when they heard that a work crew, installing air conditioning vents, found the mummified remains of a cat in a crawl space beneath the lighthouse.
In 1925, the lighthouse was discontinued and darkened in favor of a new lighthouse and fog signal station, which was installed on the west breakwater pierhead and established on June 9, 1925.
The new breakwater lighthouse was fabricated in Buffalo New York and transported by barge to Fairport Harbor. However, the actual tower and lantern room were actually built on the station when it arrived in Fairport Harbor.
Over the years there were a number of other breakwater structures that were also taken care of by the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse keeper.
In the meantime, orders came from Washington to tear the old Fairport Harbor Lighthouse down. Local protests were loud and clear, so the government backed down and left the building standing. But it remained standing as an abandoned relic of another time. When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939 they also talked of tearing it down; there was simply no reason for them to keep it. Local protests were loud and clear, but this time there was a plan for the structure—a museum.
Today, the Fairport Historical Society runs a wonderful museum at the lighthouse.
Part of the museum is the pilothouse of the Great Lakes freighter Frontenac, which is attached to the lighthouse. Now, here is another tale that could be in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” The Frontenac is the same ship that in July of 1958 smashed into the Buffalo Breakwater Lighthouse, knocked it 20 feet backwards and caused it to have a 15 to 20 degree tilt.
The Buffalo Breakwater Lighthouse, later torn down, was a near twin to the current Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Pierhead Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
October 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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