Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2012

Remembering the Lost Lights of Seneca Lake

By Timothy Harrison

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The first Seneca Lake Lighthouse sat at the end ...

The Finger Lakes of New York are one of nature’s most spectacular creations. Formed by glaciers, there are eleven lakes, with smaller lakes situated within the geographic region. The official Finger Lake Region extends north to south from the shores of Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania State Line and east to west from Syracuse to Rochester, NY.

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George N. Crittenden & Son’s used images of the ...

Unlike many tourist destinations, the Finger Lakes Region does not boast of one singular attraction or seasonal event. It is a vast area comprised of many small picturesque towns and scenic views, with something worth seeing on each road traveled in the region. A three-ay weekend would be sufficient for first time visitors to get a “feel” for the area. It is possible to see all eleven lakes in one day, but with no horizontal road or bridges through and across the middle of the lakes, one is forced to drive the lengths of the lakes to get to the other side.

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George N. Crittenden & Son’s used images of the ...

The deepest of the Finger Lakes, at 632 feet, is the thirty-six mile long Seneca Lake, where three lighthouses were once built in the community Geneva, New York.

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The second Seneca Lake Lighthouse was built of ...

The construction of the Erie Canal and the subsequent building of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal caused the citizens of Geneva to plan and carry out the development of the harbor at Geneva and the building of a breakwater to protect it. The first funds were approved in 1827. Over the years, several piers were built and rebuilt.

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Left, vintage post card image of the 1870 Seneca ...

From early records, we know for a fact that the first lighthouse structure was lit in 1870. According to an article in the Geneva Gazette newspaper dated June 3, 1870, it was reported, “The revolving light was placed in position in the new lighthouse in the harbor on Tuesday and lighted for the first time that evening. It proves a perfect success. The powerful reflectors shed a brilliant light, almost as dazzling as the sun, and whose rays are mirrored on the glossy surface of our lake with beautiful effulgence.”

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This vintage post card of the no longer standing ...

A different article in the same newspaper reported that the new lighthouse had “a revolving beacon that showed various colors of white, red and green. The newspaper went on to report that a powerful locomotive reflector from a firm in Rochester, New York was secured for use in the lighthouse.” The paper went on further to say, “Our ingenious mechanic, Chas. Bunge, has invented and constructed suitable clock-work gearing to give a revolving motion to the light, which will run for 14 hours.” The paper went on to report that the light “can not possibly be confused with any street lights as were often the case with the previous diminutive fixed light in the old lighthouse.” A later article reported that the light from the beacon could be seen as far away as 17 miles.

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This nondescript erector set skeleton type ...

For many years the beacon was lighted with a kerosene lamp by a lamp tender named William F. Lain, a veteran of the Civil War. Mr. Lain had fought at the Battle of Little Round Top and was taken prisoner by Confederate troops. While in a prison camp, he contracted small pox and subsequently lost an eye and some of his toes from the illness.

In later years his granddaughter recalled accompanying him to the lighthouse. While she stayed in the boat, he would light the beacon. She recalled that he was the last lighthouse tender (lamp lighter) to light the light; the job was eliminated upon his death and the lighthouse was converted to electricity.

By 1907 the old wooden tower had suffered from years of wear from the elements and was demolished. It was replaced by a tower made of concrete, which served until the 1940s when it was also discontinued because of deterioration. The State of New York replaced it with an erector style skeleton lighthouse.

In later years, when the power cable to the skeleton lighthouse was discontinued, it was decided to install batteries to power the lighthouse. However, this tower’s greatest threat was not from the elements as was its predecessors, but from vandals who would remove the batteries and throw them into the lake. Eventually the pier deteriorated and the tower began to tilt. Finally, in 1984, the State of New York decided it was too expensive to keep replacing the batteries. They further stated that they no longer felt the lighthouse was serving any beneficial purpose and they claimed it was also a safety hazard and might fall and injure someone, such as the vandals. It was subsequently removed and the lighthouse history of Seneca Lake disappeared into the pages of time. Today, almost no one in the area is even aware of the lighthouses that once stood there.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 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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