The Lighthouses of Oswego Harbor
1822: Oswego's First Lighthouse
On August 6, 1821 John M. Canfield signed a contract for the construction of Oswego's first lighthouse and its associated keepers dwelling in partnership with Danial Warren and William Cobb of Rochester, NY. The Oswego Lighthouse was octagonal and of stone construction and was topped with a glass and copper birdcage lantern. The keepers dwelling (still in existence on the grounds of Fort Ontario), was of similar stone construction and originally contained just two rooms. In 1837 Oswego's second lighthouse was constructed and in 1841 the first Oswego lighthouse was sold and later dismantled in 1854. The keepers dwelling became the post hospital for newly re-garrisoned Fort Ontario.
This drawing of Oswego Harbor looking east shows Oswego's first lighthouse (circled), near Fort Ontario.
While photography did not exist during the days of Oswego's first lighthouse, this 1870s photo of the Genesee Lighthouse in Rochester, NY was of the same style and also built in 1822.
The keepers dwelling of Oswego's first lighthouse. It is still in existence today on the grounds of Fort Ontario.
1837: Oswego Harbor Lighthouse
With the anticipated completion of the Oswego Canal in 1828, the US Army Corps of Engineers began to improve Oswego Harbor with new breakwaters on the west-side. In 1833, Lieutenant Col. of Engineers Joseph Totton recommended the 1822 lighthouse be replaced with a new light on the new breakwater. On June 30, 1834 Congress appropriated funding for construction of Oswego's second lighthouse which was first lit on July 15, 1837. Below, and image of the lighthouse between 1876 and 1906.
Between 1852 and 1855, the foundation of the Oswego Harbor Lighthouse was rebuilt, and a new 4th Order Fresnel Lens was installed. In 1869, the Lighthouse was rebuilt increasing its height from 45ft. to 69 ft. and a larger 3rd oil storage house was erected at the lighthouse for safe storage of the kerosene fuel. The 1837 Oswego Harbor Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1917, and later dismantled in 1927. Seen below, a post-1906 postcard of the recently refurbished lighthouse.
1881: Oswego Breakwater Beacon
On July 11, 1870 congress approved a plan for the construction of a roughly 1 mile long outer breakwater for Oswego Harbor's west-side. An octagonal iron tower, manufactured by West Point Cold Springs Foundry, replaced the inner pier's mast light in 1877. That same iron beacon was relocated and placed on a crib adjacent to the new outer breakwater on October 17, 1881 giving Oswego its third lighthouse- the Oswego Breakwater Beacon. This lighthouse was equipped with a 4th Fresnel Lens, and the cast-iron tower was equipped with a locker, cupboard and bunk for the on-duty keeper. A fog bell was suspended from a bracket on the tower's north face. Above, the Oswego Breakwater Beacon in 1880s.
In 1882, a boathouse was added to the south side of the Beacon's crib and in 1900 the color of the iron tower changed from brown to white. In 1917, the Beacon was renamed the Oswego Light Station, and on October 12, 1920, the Light Station was changed from a fixed light to a double flash every twelve seconds and electrified the following year. In 1931, Oswego Harbor was made into its modern configuration, the Light Station was discontinued. Above, a post-1900 view of the newly painted Station.
1931: Grain Elevator Light
The Oswego Elevator Light was established in 1931 when the Oswego Light Station was dismantled in preparation of Oswego Harbor's modern arrowhead breakwater configuration. Between 1931 and 1934, it was the primary beacon in Oswego and the only period in Oswego Harbor between 1822 and the present when there was no lighthouse. The light was located on top of the 146 foot West Pier grain elevator and was in service as Oswego's primary light until 1967. Below an image of the towering grain elevator that once occupied this pier.
The Elevator Light was maintained by the US Coast Guard, and the 300mm diameter lens required periodic cleaning and bub replacements. The Light was outfitted with a 6 bulb automatic changer that rotated a new bulb into service when one blew out. The grain elevator, which stood just north of this building, was dismantled in the late 1990s. Below, in 1949, BMC Kenneth Otten supervises the lightkeepers cleaning of the lantern.
1934: West Pierhead Lighthouse
In 1934, construction of Oswego's most modern lighthouse was completed and began service. Resting at the end of the west arrowhead breakwater, the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse is built of riveted steel plates, and rests atop a concrete caisson. The West Pierhead Lighthouse was staffed with keepers from USCG Station Oswego until its automation in 1969. The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse was upgraded in the 1950s, changing some of the interior features to accomodate a more modern USCG. Above, the newly constructed Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse in 1934.
In 1995, the 4th Order Fresnel Lens was removed and loaned to this Museum. It was replaced by a solar powered beacon. In 2000, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2009 was acquired by the City of Oswego under the auspices of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In 2014, the H. Lee White Maritime Museum leased the Lighthouse from the City to spearhead the restoration, and provide public access and historic interpretation of the site.
The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse Construction & Outfitting
In 1930, the Federal Rivers and Harbors Act was approved which included plans for the expansion of Oswego Harbor to accommodate larger deep-draft Great Lakes commercial vessels. Included in that plan was funding for the 1934 Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse. Designed by the Office of the Superintendent of Lighthouses, Tenth District, in Buffalo in 1932, the Lighthouse was placed at the end of the new West Arrowhead Breakwater - contracted to the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. - and replaced the Oswego Breakwater Beacon.
In 1933, construction of the Lighthouse's caisson was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and construction of the Lighthouse's superstructure began by the US Lighthouse Service. Completed in 1934, and built of riveted steel plated and resting 17 ft. above the waterline, the Lighthouse was built to withstand the high winds, heavy surf, and destructive ice commonly associated with Lake Ontario.
Construction of the Lighthouse Crib-1931 From the Iskander Photograph Collection
Construction of Superstructure-1934
The Lighthouses was originally outfitted with a Forth-Order Fresnel Lens (as seen here), a fog horn, and in 1936 a radio beacon transmitter was added to enable ships with a radio direction finder to take bearing on the Lighthouse in poor weather conditions. At this time, the Lighthouse was staffed by a US Lighthouse Service Kepper, and a 1st and 2nd Assistant Keeper.
The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse Original Accommodations and Equipment
The basement, located within the Lighthouse's concrete caisson, contained crucial operational equipment. The electrical air compressor, the diesel air compressor and the air tanks for the fog horn, as well as the standby diesel generator, the power distribution panel and the transformer room can be seen above.
The radio room, on the main floor of the Lighthouse, featured a work station for the on duty keeper, as well as the radio beacon equipment and communication's equipment such as telephones.
The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse Keeping the Light
The Oswego West Pier head Lighthouse was originally outfitted with a Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris, France by L. Sautter, Le onnier & Co. in 1881. With the aid ofred-tinted panels, it produce flashing red light fifty-seven feet above the waterline.
Pictured right, the original Fourth Order lens (as seen in this exhibit) in service at the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse.
The Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse was staffed by US Lighthouse Service Keepers until 1939, and US Coast Guardsmen until the light was automated in 1968. Accessible only by water through entrances on the west and south sides of the caisson, Keepers used a tender that launched from the shore-based station.
When not on duty at the Lighthouse use, keeper's lived in the 22 W. 3rd Street dwelling (formerly 10 W. 3rd Street) between 1846 and 1957 (seen above left). In 1934, a new dwelling was constructed at 31-33 West 5th Street (seen above right) where the Keeper and First Assistant Keeper lived. Beginning in 1934, the Second Assistant Keeper occupied the 22 W. 3rd Street dwelling. Both are privately owned today.
The United States Lighthouse at Oswego, NY
The United States Lighthouse Establishment was formed in 1789 and operated under the US Department of Treasury when all U.S. lighthouses were transferred to the Federal Government which became the general lighthouse authority. By 1810, administration of the Establishment fell under the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury who delegated such responsibility to local customs officials. Local customs collectors became superintendents responsible for the construction, maintenance, land and keepers associated with aids to navigation.
In 1852, the quasi-military Lighthouse Board was created to address many mariners' concerns and to moderate the Establishment. In 1910, in favor of a more civilian organization, Congress abolished the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses that operated as the U.S. Lighthouse Service under the Department of Commerce until its merge with the United States Coast Guard in 1939, and this fell back under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury.
Above, the US Lighthouse Service facilities on Oswego's west-side (currently the site of USCG Station Oswego). Right, Burt Egelston, Keeper of three different lights at Oswego between 1929 and 1945.
At Oswego, NY the jurisdiction of all lighthouses was placed in the hands of the district superintendent. Oswego's first keeper was Orlo Stelle, in 1822. When merged with the USCG, US Lighthouse Service Keepers either enlisted in the Coast Guard as military personnel, or finished their career as civilians - by the mid-1950s, most civilian keepers had retired. In 1968 the West Pierhead Lighthouse was automated, thus ending the light keeper's profession in Oswego.
Augustin Fresnel: And the Advance of Lighthouse Technology
Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1755-1827) was a French physicist who made significant contributions to the science of light and optics. Best known for the lens that bears his name, he served as the Commissioner of French Lighthouses from 1819 until his death.
He studied the theory of light both mathematically and experimentally and was a member of the French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, but received little public recognition for his work during his lifetime.
The Fresnel Lens, actually a series of standardized lens sizes, is said to be the most significant contribution to lighthouse technology ever made. Today, Fresnel Lens technology is used in everything from illumination to photography, solar power, projection and much, much more.
So how does it work?
Fresnel's design was based on refraction, or the bending of light through glass. Through a series of circular reflective glass prisms, getting smaller in size as they move toward the center of the lens, light is captured and reflected seaward in a single horizontal direction.
For example, an open flame loses nearly 97% of its light. By placing a refractor behind it, it can project upwards of 17% of the light produced. Placing that same light inside of a Fresnel lens can capture upwards of 83% making it visible for many miles out to sea.
The Keepers of Oswego Harbor
Oswego Harbor Lighthouse
1822 & 1837 Lights Keepers
Orlo Steel: November 13, 1821-July 20, 1849 Resigned
Samuel Freeman: July 7, 1849-June 3, 1853 Resigned
Jacob M. Jacobs: June 25, 1853-November 6, 1861 Resigned
John D. Munson: October 19, 1869-June 9, 1884 Resigned
John Budds: June 12, 1884-April 30, 1896 Resigned
George Greenfield: May 1,1896-July 23,1903 Died in Service
Florence G. Garland: July 24, 1903-November 12, 1903 Daughter of Greenfield
Charles H. Tucker: June 1, 1904-1927 May have continued Service at Breakwater Beacon.
Thomas Wallace: April 25, 1864-April 11, 1866 Resigned
Hiriam D. Warner: April 11, 1866-July 22, 1871 rESIGNED
John Johnson: July 22, 1871-September 20, 1871 Removed
Edmond Chateau: September 20, 1871-September 24,1872 Deserted
Jessie Brown: September 24, 1872-June 15, 1874 Resigned
John Buddas: June 15, 1874-June 12, 1884 Promoted
William Box: July 16, 1884-March 3, 1887 Transferred
Horace R. Watts: July 20, 1912-September 1, 1912 Transferred
Arthur Shaw: 1922-April 1, 1928
**Both Horace R. Watts and Arthur Shaw are suspected to have been transferred to the Oswego Breakwater Beacon.**
Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse
Bert E. Egelston: 1934-1945. Retired
Olin W. Stevens: 1945-1951. Retired
1st Karl H. Jackson: 1934-December 4, 1942. Died in Service
2nd Osgar K. Elmar: October 9, 1935-April 1, 1941. Transferred
2nd Carl A. Sprague: April 8,1935-August 25th, 1935. Transferred
2nd Carl A. Sprague: April 1, 1941-? Transferred
Oswego Light Station
William Box: March 8, 1887-December 22, 1887 Removed
John Halleran: January 9, 1888-November 21, 1888 Removed
Thomas F. Cotter: November 21, 1888-March 26,1902 Resigned
Daniel J. Sullivan: April 23, 1903-1913?
Bert E. Eggleston: April 4, 1929-1931 Light Discontinued
John Halleran: March 22, 1887-January 9, 1888 Promoted
John McCalvin: March 21, 1888-May 3, 1888 Removed
John Cody: May 14, 1888-May 17, 1888 Cancelled
Thomas Cotter: August 9, 1888-November 21, 1889 Promoted
Edward Gibson: January 8, 1888-November 18, 1889 Removed
John W. Loveridge: December 14, 1889-April 1, 1891 Resigned
George Greenfield: July 13, 1891-May 1, 1896 Transferred
Charles H. Tucker: May 4, 1896-November 1, 1897 Transferred
Richard Tonge: November 30, 1897-March 15,1898 Transferred
Daniel J. Sullivan: June 23, 1898-April 22, 1903 Promoted
Sylvester Burke: July 16, 1903-May 31, 1907 Resigned
James G. Southgate: May 20, 1904-March 31, 1907 Resigned
Edward C. Wendell: April 13, 1907-March 31, 1908 Transferred
Paul H. Chauncey: May 29,1908-April 9, 1909 Transferred
Arthur I. Litogot: April 21,1909-November 30, 1909 Transferred
George W. Clark: January 1, 1910-1912? Resigned
Horace R. Watts: July 20, 1912-September 1, 1912 Transferred
Arthur Shaw: 1922?-April 1, 1928 Transferred
Karl H. Jackson: 1928-1932 Transferred
Keepers of USLSS Station Oswego
William Williams: September 8, 1876-1877
John Blackburn: October 1, 1877-October 23, 1889
Edwin E. Chapman: October 23, 1889-October 1, 1892 *
Frederick W. Anderson: October 28, 1892-1915*
*Edwin E. Chapman was appointed District Superintendent in 1889. Frederick W. Anderson was responsible for the USLSS/USRCS merge into the USCG at Station Oswego. *
Officers-In-Charge at USCG Station Oswego
Frederick W. Anderson: January 28, 1915-August 15, 1916, Retired
George E. Henderson: August 15, 1916-September 8,1916 Acting
Everett J. Clemons: September 8, 1916-November 2, 1920 Transferred
George E. Jackson: November 9,1920-December 31,1935 Transferred
Mason B. McCune: January 1, 1936-March, 1942 Transferred
Alston J. Wilson: March, 1942-December 4, 1942 Died in Service
Joseph H. Herbert: January, 1943-July 1946/
Hugh M. Brown: July 30, 1946-February 1948. Transferred
Kenneth T. Gavitt: 1952-September 30, 1954. Retired
William T. Tutten: 1948-April 18,1951 Transferred
Howard T. Gavitt: 1952-September 30,1954, Retired
Henry E. Brunet: September 30, 1954-March 3, 1956 Transferred
Charles E. Marcaeu: March 3, 1956-1957. Transferred
Benjamin Check: July 17, 1957-? Transferred
Robert Betz: 1958-? Transferred
Lawrence M. Coale: February 26,1959-September 30, 1960 Transferred
Freeman E. Stuart: September 30, 1960-November 19,1962 Transferred
Richard F. Seymour: November, 1962-November 1963 Transferred
Karl W. Gillette: November, 1963-August 29,1966 Retired
Lester H. Green: July 1, 1966-August 29,1966 Transferred
William H. Bellows: August 29,1966-1986. Retired.
If you have any additional information on the keepers of Oswego Harbor, we'd love to hear from you. Mention it to one of our Museum Staff Members during your visit.