Located on the shores of beautiful eastern Lake Ontario, in central New York you'll find Oswego, an area rich in Great Lakes maritime history.
It is here that one can visit historic Fort Ontario, a military installation that has its roots dating back to the French and Indian War, and the H. Lee White Marine Museum which features a fascinating variety of artifacts, paintings, models and intriguing stories of the area's maritime heritage.
However, very few people know that Oswego was also the site of four lighthouses and only one of them remains standing today.
The earliest light, according to a story in the May 25, 1821 edition of the Oswego Palladium was approved that year. However, it was not actually constructed until 1822. It stood on the bank just below Fort Ontario, on the east side of the Oswego River, in what was then known as the town of East Oswego. The Oswego River empties into Lake Ontario to form a natural harbor and dividing the city. East Oswego and Oswego remained two separate villages until they were merged together in 1848.
The next light was built on the east end of a new set of piers jutting out from the west side of the river about 1836. By 1838 a report on Great Lakes Lighthouses details the new light and reports that the old light was in poor condition. The old light was sold on Aug. 4, 1841 and presumably dismantled in 1842.
The next lighthouse, an iron structure, was placed on an outer western breakwater in 1876. According to the book, Old Shipping Days in Oswego by J. Leo Finn, the lighthouse was dismantled and moved to a newer breakwater in 1881. A new light was constructed on the west breakwater in 1889 and lasted until 1934 when it was torn down and replaced with the current lighthouse that stands there today. The inner harbor light was dismantled in 1929.
Captain John Budds was one of the early keepers at Oswego, serving there for twenty-two years. He had an interesting life having been born in Kent England in 1819. His father, a fisherman, emigrated to Canada making a home for them in Hamilton, Ontario. When Budds was 17 years old, he signed on as a crewman on the schooner Fanny of Niagara. The schooner Fanny sailed to Cleveland, Ohio where it picked up a load of coal which was delivered to Toronto, making it the first vessel to bring a load of coal to Lake Ontario.
After this, Budds shipped on a number of vessels, including the Sovereign. While a crewman, the Mackenzie Rebellion in Canada took place, and he was a witness to twelve of the captured leaders being hanged in Kingston.
During his shipping career, he worked his way up to mate and then to Captain. In 1874, he gave up his shipping career to become assistant keeper under William Munson at Oswego Lighthouse. He later was appointed as keeper and served for twenty-two years until his retirement in April of 1896. He died September 26, 1907.
In 1941, tragedy struck the Oswego Lighthouse. While changing keepers at the light, the boat capsized claiming three lives. In 1996, 55 years to the date of the tragedy, a memorial service and a wreath was thrown overboard at the site of the accident. (For more on this tragedy see the January 1997 issue of Lighthouse Digest).
Today, the red plexi-glass panels of the Oswego Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse shines its light not only as an aid to navigation, but as a memorial to the previous lighthouses of Oswego and to people who not only dedicated their lives to saving others, but sometimes, in doing so, lost their own.
This story appeared in the
May 2000 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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