For lighthouse enthusiasts, Pennsylvania isn’t a state that readily conjures up images of historic lighthouses. In fact, only the more studious are aware of Pennsylvania’s three existing lights on the Great Lakes that include Presque Isle, Erie Land Light and Erie Pier Head Light. To the surprise of many, lighthouses also once dotted the banks of the Delaware River in the Keystone State. While the heavy hand of time has effectively removed nearly every physical vestige of lighthouse history along the western banks of the Delaware River, the passage of time has also managed to fade the memory of their existence as well. The historic sites where the river sentinels once stood are now occupied by the presence of billowing oil refineries and industrial complexes - a landscape that bears no resemblance to a bygone era when lighthouses once stood tall atop green marshes and farmland.
The first Pennsylvania lighthouse built along the Delaware River was the Fort Mifflin Blockhouse Light in 1849. The lighthouse was built on an unattached wooden pier in the river approximately 1,900 feet from land. Light lists of the era described the sentinel as a frame building situated “on brick foundations, two stories high, with cedar shingle roof, weather-boarded on outside and lathed and plastered on the inside.” Fort Mifflin Blockhouse Light was originally outfitted with a 6th order Fresnel lens but later received a more powerful refurbished 4th order lens that was installed in 1875.
Like so many structures on the Delaware River & Bay, ice floes posed the biggest problem for the structural well being of the Fort Mifflin beacon. The U.S. Lighthouse Service consistently recorded repairs to the station and placement of additional riprap around the pier in many annual reports. The beginning of the end for Fort Mifflin Blockhouse Light occurred in 1880 when the USLHS arrived at the conclusion that repairs to the station were becoming too costly, therefore a decision was made to decommission the lighthouse after the completion of the new Horseshoe Shoal Ranges. On October 1, 1881, Fort Mifflin Blockhouse Light was discontinued and one month later the lighthouse structure was sold at public auction.
As the old Fort Mifflin beacon was darkened, a new set of Pennsylvania lights was lit in the form of the Horseshoe Range, West Group. This unique arrangement of lights included two range front lights and one range rear light. Due to the close proximity of the lights, only one lightkeeper was required to keep them burning.
Unlike most lighthouses that warn mariners of dangerous shoals, the Horseshoe Range, West Group was built as a range to help mariners stay in the center of the shipping channel. A range is typically comprised of a front light at river’s edge and a rear light situated on a taller tower further inland. The concept is that when a pilot of a ship passes the range and observes the rear light directly overtop of the front light he then knows he is in the center of the channel or good water. If the rear light is shining to the right or left of the front light, he knows to alter his course until the lights are in line above each other. The Horseshoe Range, West Group was designed with a rare third light, which was used to help prompt mariners to make a turn in the river and avoid dangerous shoals lurking in the water.
The lightkeeper for the Horseshoe Range, West Group resided in a dwelling at the site of the range rear light. A 1910 U.S. Lighthouse Service inspection report describes the keeper’s house as “white, with lead-colored trimmings and green shutters.” The dwelling was constructed of wood and was designed with six rooms to adequately house the lightkeeper and his family. An architecturally beautiful lighthouse towered 74 feet above the keeper’s house to complete this one-of-a-kind light station. The tower was 17 x 17 square at its base and ascended in pyramidal fashion until it reached the lantern room where a 4th order Fresnel lens displayed a fixed white light. The two front lights for the Horseshoe Range, West Group were located on a levee at the river’s edge. The lightkeeper accessed the lower range front light by an elevated wood walkway 1600 feet in length from the rear light. He then proceeded another 208 feet northeast along the levee to the upper range front light before retracing his steps back to the keeper’s dwelling.
Changes to the Horseshoe Range, West Group began in 1920 when the historic range rear light tower was torn down and replaced by a skeletal tower. By 1931, the U.S. Lighthouse Service eliminated the upper front light for the range thereby making it a standard two-light range. The range remains active today, though its name has been changed to the Eagle Point Range.
Two other lighthouses once graced the Pennsylvania banks of the Delaware River, forming the Schooner Ledge Range. The 1879 Annual Report of the U.S. Lighthouse Service described the navigational dangers necessitating the construction of a range, saying, “Schooner Ledge is a rocky reef in the river, about two miles below Chester (PA). The 24-foot channel at this point is only about 100 feet wide.”
Schooner Ledge range was first lit in December 1880 and consisted of a range front and range rear light. The front light was situated in a reed marsh and was constantly threatened by flooding and erosion due to its location in low-lying mud flats. A 1907 inspection report noted that the lighthouse was a frame structure built atop cast iron columns and containing five rooms. The structure was painted white except for the lantern room that housed a 4th order Fresnel lens, which was painted black. The light station also included an oil house, privy, tank house, two storehouses and a boathouse. The historic Schooner Ledge Range Front Light was discontinued in 1909 when a new channel was dredged in the river and thus necessitating the relocation of the range. Rather than move the lighthouse, the USLHS decided to build a detached wooden light tower out in the river upon a foundation of rocks and concrete. As for the original lighthouse, its demise remains a mystery.
The range rear light for Schooner Ledge was a 104-foot tall tower described as a “black, pyramidal, skeleton, iron tower with daymark of horizontal slats on either side of the upper end of the stair cylinder,” according to the 1901 Light List. When the Schooner Ledge range was discontinued in 1915, the U.S. Lighthouse Service dismantled the rear tower and shipped it on rail to the Great Lakes region where it was re-erected as the Michigan Island Lighthouse on Lake Superior in 1929. The keeper’s dwelling was reportedly destroyed by fire in 1947.
By 1920, the last “lighthouse” disappeared forever from the riverbanks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania. Despite the historical loss of lighthouses, the present day importance of guiding lights for ships calling on the port of Philadelphia and other key destinations in Pennsylvania is not diminished. A little known fact is that Pennsylvania boasts 16 major lighted ranges to help guide shipping along the Delaware River which are kept “winking and blinking” by the “lightkeepers” at U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Philadelphia. For captains and pilots of ships on the Delaware River, it’s all about the light, and with that in mind, Pennsylvania continues to send out the light in the grand tradition of the U.S. Lighthouse Service era.
This story appeared in the
June 2003 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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