One can almost imagine Joshua Lane's first day of work on June 1, 1829. As light keeper in the new Barcelona Lighthouse, overlooking Portland Harbor, Lane, a former clergyman, would make his first of some 6,150 trips up and down the fifty wooden steps leading to the lantern room some forty feet above the town of Barcelona, New York. Lane would be the first of four lighthouse keepers to hold the job between 1829 and 1859.
The booming harbor of Portland, now called Barcelona Harbor, was feeling its economic success. Wharfs, warehouses and the official title of "Port of Entry" gave the community a sense of pride and future. President Andrew Jackson must have felt it as well, and the Secretary of the Treasury appropriated $5000 for land and a lighthouse structure in 1828. Showing a bit of Western New York frugality, the project was brought in at just over $3500. This money provided for a natural fieldstone lighthouse and light keeper's house and, of course, the outhouse. The stairway to the light is supported by a single forty foot timber with treads embedded in the masonry of the exterior walls. The original buildings had a double coat of whitewash on them.
The lighthouse sat above Lake Erie some thirty-three miles east of Erie Harbor, Erie, PA. There was enough business in the harbor to merit its existence for some thirty years. The advent of the railroad link to nearby Westfield, New York, in 1852, would spell its eventual demise. But for then, small sailing vessels selling fish, flour, salt and lumber seemed to assure its future success. Two and a quarter million pounds of butter and cheese were shipped in 1848. Small steamers could land, and Barcelona provided a safe stop for passengers travelling between Buffalo and Erie. Portage to nearby Chautauqua Lake, and then on to Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh, was another service provided by the harbor.
It was keeper Joshua Lane's job to light thirteen oil lamps each night. The lamps were constructed in two tiers, seven on the bottom and six on the top. The top six were spaced between the gaps of the bottom seven, thereby creating the effect on one continuous flame visible all the way to Canada. Clever men in town found a way to cap a natural gas well that flowed out of a stream some three-quarters of a mile away. Wooden log pipes were created, and the gas was directed to the lighthouse. As of 1830, the lighthouse was fueled by natural hydrogen gas, the first lighthouse ever to do so. By 1838, the source of gas became sporadic, and the lighthouse had to revert back to oil on occasion.
With Lane's death in 1846, Joshua La Due became keeper for three years, and he was followed by Richard Kenyon and William Britten. Unbelievably, La Due worked for the same salary as Lane, $350 a year - no raise in seventeen years! By 1857, the financial reports to the Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC, suggested that the light be darkened once and for all. Dunkirk and Erie were recommended to be used as "coast lights," not Barcelona. The Great Gale of October 22, 1844, destroyed many of the warehouses that sat lakeside. Local officials tried to rebuild and restore the harbor to its former importance, but with the railroads providing cheaper transportation a decade later, Barcelona's lighthouse was doomed.
The lighthouse sat vacant until 1872. The original deed wisely reverted the property back to its original owners if the lighthouse were ever decommissioned, and the property has remained in private hands for one hundred twenty six years.
Faith Patterson Scott, fifth generation of George Patterson, who bought the lighthouse in 1872, recently passed away. Her family had retained possession of the light for all those years. In April of 1998, new owners, Bruce and Ann Mulkin of Fredonia, New York, took possession.
The Mulkins recently gave this author a guided tour of the property as it exists today. The original lantern room is gone. All existing photographs date from the 1880's, so no one is quite sure what the lantern room looked like. It probably was a "bird cage" type lantern, using 9 x 12 panes of glass. The top would have been a tall, hammered copper dome. This type of lantern room was in effect prior to 1852. The thirteen lanterns had fourteen inch reflectors behind each. Whether it was updated with a Fresnel lens prior to its being decommissioned, no one knows. When the original light was removed, an octagonal wooden roof cap was placed over the cement floor entry to the lantern room. This configuration was remodeled as well over the years.
The light remained dark until 1962, when a new gas beacon, a sentimental reminder of the past, was installed. The Iroquois Gas Corporation re-piped the tower, and National Fuel maintains and repairs the mantles, even to this day. The light is not used for navigational purposes.
The 1880's remodeling to the house added dormers and a building addition. The tower itself is forty feet high. Its walls are three feet-six inches thick at the base, and two feet thick at the top. It still retains its original center pole and wooden stairs. Both have received minor repairs over the years.
The Mulkins plan to be faithful in any restoration they undertake. It is their hope to make the lighthouse more accessible to the general public than it has been in the past. Barcelona Harbor today is also different. Two break-walls of concrete and steel have been added, along with a public pier. The lighthouse itself remains a local landmark, and generations of families still have their picture taken it front of its massive conical shape. It was declared a National Landmark in 1972. It lays claim to being the only lighthouse standing in its original form on Lake Erie.
This story appeared in the
January 1999 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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