Digest>Archives> February 2001

New York State Canals and Lighthouses

By David E. Cook

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Today, as one drives through the mostly tranquil hills, fields and forests of upstate New York, it is difficult to imagine the great burst of activity that sprang across the land almost as soon as the first spadeful of dirt was excavated for the construction of the Erie Canal on July 4, 1817. Rochester, with only six households at the head of the Genesee River Gorge, would become the fifth largest city in the state before the canal was ever completed.

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That original canal was mostly a trench dug clear across the state, utilizing existing waterways only at the far eastern end of the Mohawk River. In addition, in its early years, traffic was forbidden at night. If dikes broke in the dark or canal boats got stuck and blocked the canal, it was too difficult to deal with at night. It didn’t take long for commercial pressures to change that policy, but, without rivers or lakes to navigate, only stake lights were required.

The success of the main canal rapidly led to construction of multiple feeder canals into central New York’s Finger Lakes. That changed the picture somewhat, and a number of private lights, mostly harbor entrance and dock lights, were built to facilitate the growing volumes of commercial traffic. The largest and most “traditional” of these were built in Geneva at the head of Seneca Lake.

In 1827, the Geneva Harbor Committee built a breakwater to create an artificial harbor at the end of the newly extended Seneca-Cayuga Canal. At the end of what was called the Long Pier, a wooden octagonal lighthouse was built, with an oil burning lamp under a domed roof. Gradually, an entire community of squatters’ shacks and houseboats grew on and attached to the Long Pier. Most of the “residents” were families of canal boatmen. Poor sanitation and the occasional fire were constant irritations to the authorities, but they apparently had no luck removing this waterborne shantytown.

Finally, in 1869, a new unattached breakwater was built to the southeast of the Long Pier. On its end, a new wooden tower, almost identical to the original, was constructed. The new breakwater was immediately dubbed “Lighthouse Pier”. Apparently the twin towers both remained lit for several years. Records show that a large fire destroyed much of Long Pier’s shantytown in 1873. Whether that pier’s light had already been extinguished, or whether the tower was destroyed in that fire or taken down earlier is unclear, but the original light does not appear in records or illustrations of the harbor after 1873.

Rather than housing a keeper on Lighthouse Pier, local residents were hired to row out to the tower each night and tend its oil lamp. In 1907, the state’s Department of Canals and Waterways removed the 1869 tower and replaced it with a concrete cylinder tower mounted by a kerosene burning lamp. NY Gas & Electric installed an electrical light fixture in 1925.

In the 1940’s, when construction of the lakeshore bypass highway severed electrical lines to the lighthouse, a steel skeleton cone replaced the concrete tower. It was configured to battery operation and Seneca Lake’s days as part of the romantic lighthouse era had ended.

By the late 1800’s, in spite of several major reconstruction projects on the old Erie Canal, traffic had dwindled to a minimum. The canal simply was not large enough nor deep enough to carry barges of sufficient tonnage to keep the canal competitive with the railways. In 1903, the state, believing there was still a significant economic advantage to the concept, began construction of an entirely new canal. The new canal was officially called the New York State Barge Canal, but over time the public lapsed into referring to both old and new as the Erie Canal. The Barge Canal, however, bears almost no resemblance to the Old Erie.

The new canal utilizes existing waterways as much as possible. New engineering and construction technologies permitted dredging the Mohawk and Tonawanda Rivers, as well as the shallow ends of Lakes Oneida, Onondaga and Cross Lake in the center of the state. Several of the old feeder canals, most notable the Oswego and Seneca-Cayuga, were widened, deepened and lined with concrete walls. For most of the distance across the state, it was easier to dig an entire new canal than to deal with controlling the water in the old, while trying to widen, deepen and upgrade it.

While the old canal never crossed lakes, the new barge canal was designed to carry ships large enough to sail on the open seas under their own mechanical power, thus permitting goods to be transported from distant Great Lakes ports through the canal, down the Hudson and out into the open ocean, without transfers. That meant that lighthouses had to be built. Starting in 1907, a system of aids to navigation was designed and implemented, under the control of the State Department of Canals and Waterways. The system would grow eventually to include over 2000 lit aids to navigation and almost 8000 total aids (signboards, bells, whistles, buoys, etc).

The records for this, the only state aids to navigation department in the country, are mostly stored in the archives of the State Department of Transportation offices at Utica. Detailed construction records are sometimes only available for public perusal at local field offices. Major light tower construction took place between 1913 and 1918. In most cases, when high towers were required, steel skeleton cones were erected. Smaller pier, lock and harbor lights were frequently enclosed octagonal, square or cylindrical cast iron structures with exposed lenses on top. Several such structures were built on Lake Onondaga (along with skeleton cones) just to the northwest of Syracuse, at Ithaca at the foot of Cayuga Lake, on Cross Lake west of Lake Onondaga, and especially on Lake Oneida, northeast of Syracuse. Large skeleton cones remain at Hammondsport and Penn Yan on Keuka Lake and similar towers stood at Watkins Glen and Geneva until the 1980’s.

Lighthouse “purists” may dismiss the remaining enclosed structures on Cayuga and Oneida Lakes because there are no living quarters within the structures or because they have never been part of the federal lighthouse program, but their purpose and their history make them as legitimate a part of our national lighthouse heritage as any Atlantic, Pacific or Great Lake seaboard tower.

From the beginning, the NY canal system towers have been maintained by state employees assigned to maintain all aids to navigation within a given sector of the system. The employees usually lived at home and either operated out of nearby canal maintenance depots or were given launches to use from docks near their own homes. Prior to 1920, such assignments, sometimes to existing state employees, often to friends or relatives. In 1920 the State Superintendent of Public Works, a man named Walsh, overhauled the entire system and placed keeper assignments under a competitive civil service program, requiring examinations, scheduled reviews, and regular inspections. The state provided each keeper with a motor boat, reduced patrolling areas to an average 10 mile sector and required daily inspection of each aid.

Today, the system is maintained in much the same way with the “keepers” assigned to the engineering staff of the Department of Transportation-Waterways Division.

The first state built tower in Ithaca (Cayuga Lake) was erected in 1917 on the west bank of the mouth of Cayuga Creek, near the current state marina site. In 1927, under DOT (Department of Transportation) Con tract h, the area underwent major reconstruction. The west bank light was moved to the east bank and slightly lowered, the marina was constructed and a western detached breakwater was built with its own, matching light tower. Neither are significant architecturally, nor historically, except that they are the only light of their kind anywhere in New York.

Both are of wooden frames with sheet metal walls, approximately 25’ height with exposed rotating plastic lens aero beacons. Both are solar battery powered with back-up voltaic cells. The east bank is solid white and the west breakwater, solid red, except for the mass of graffiti which frequently adorns both. One would think that with the last decade’s phenomenal growth of interest in lighthouses, that city or state officials would make a concerted effort to spruce up their two light towers and make them part of the major waterfront restorations.

The major lighthouse activity on the canal system took place from 1915 to 1918 on Lakes Onondaga and Oneida, Onondaga had several large skeleton cones and several smaller, enclosed cast iron cylinders built on pier heads and canal walls. But Oneida, with three major concrete towers stretching almost 100’ into the sky, is the true unknown “gem” of NY’s interior lake lighthouse collection.

All were built under State contract 132, initiated in 1916. The entire contract, under the auspices of Engineer W.J. Durkan, was awarded to the firm of Lupfer & Remick of Buffalo. L & R was just one of several Buffalo firms which “earned their wings” erecting the massive smoke stacks required for Lake Erie’s might steel mill complexes. The technology has been handed down from generation to generation and Buffalo smoke stack firms are, to this day, the most frequently hired firms to repair or move endangered lighthouses.

The contract called for three concrete towers on Oneida, two “light steel” towers at Cleveland and Constantia (Oneida’s north store” and a similar tower at the southerly end of Onondaga (Syracuse). It also included other gas-filled lit buoys, or lamps on top of steel cabinets housing a gas supply. The engineer’s reports of 1916 and 1917 do not mention the Brewerton front range tower, but it too was built as part of this contract. The original estimate was for approximately $64,000 to complete the entire project, excluding land acquisition. The low bid came in at $70,300. The final account was approved on April 10, 1918, amounting to $69,669.20.

Land was purchased in 1916 and field construction was begun on the banks of the Oneida River in Brewerton and near the mouth of the Wood Creek Canal entrance in Sylvan Beach during October of that year. Excavation began on Frenchman’s Island in November. All three of the concrete towers were to be built to identical plans. Apparently the towers at opposite ends of the lake were started first, using 18’ pre-fabricated exterior concrete sections, barged from Buffalo. The interior forms were pre-fabricated 4 ½’ sections. As each outer section was set, inner sections were dropped inside form the top. Steel cross beams were fitted and straight steel ladders were raised, with platform switchbacks at every third interior section.

The Brewerton shell was completed in late fall of 1916 and Sylvan Beach* finished approximately half way. Frenchman’s Island, a formerly very busy resort island, by then mostly deserted, did not see tower construction until the summer of 1917. (* The Sylvan Beach tower is actually on the south side of Wood Creek, inside the boundaries of the current town of Verona Beach. As Sylvan Beach was already a thriving resort community and there was no significant settlement in Verona Beach, the tower was given the more recognizable name.) The two small steel plate harbor towers at Cleveland and Constantia were also completed in 1916, as were seven of the ten buoys on Oneida Lake. All had gas powered lanterns. Only the small steel tower near Syracuse, erected in 1917, was to use electricity when first built.

By design, each tower was to be 85 feet tall, serving as a range series clear across the lake, east to west. Sylvan Beach ended up at 84½ feet and 3½ feet above water level. Though completed in the fall of 1917, minor work and the appointment of a keeper kept it unlit until the early spring of 1918. Brewerton, about one half mile inland from Big Bay Point, stands 85 feet at approximately 6½ feet above water level, while Frenchman’s Island also measured 85’ but is atop the knoll at the western end of the isle, 18 feet from lake level. All of the lights under the contract were completed and lit (except Syracuse and Sylvan Beach) by August 31, 1917—or so the State Engineer’s report of 1917 claims. The detailed engineering sign-off sheets say that it was Sylvan Beach which was lit in 1917 and Frenchman’s Island in 1918. Considering the late start of the island construction and the inherent problems of getting materials there, that would seem a more logical story.

Frenchman’s Island and Sylvan Beach were each adorned with occulting white lights of 1500 candlepower, radiating form exposed glass lenses. Brewerton had (has) a fixed red light of 1000 candlepower in an exposed glass lens. The Island light remained gas powered for quite some time, but the “book-end” lights were converted to commercial electricity within a few short years after construction. Eventually, all of the other gas lights, buoys and towers, were converted to battery power. In 1949, a steel skeleton section was erected on top of the Island tower, raising it another 20 feet, making the total height to lake level 123 feet, with a visibility of almost 20 miles. Solar panels have since been added.

Today, the Brewerton Front Range tower on Big bay Point has been removed and although the Read Range is still active, it is not used by navigators, the lights on the Route 15 and Route 181 bridges over the Oneida River making it all but invisible. The harbor tower at Constantia and an old privately built tower near that small port have been removed. All but a few of the offshore cabinet lights have been removed. All but a few of the offshore cabinet lights have been replaced by battery powered lit buoys. Frenchman’s Island and Sylvan Beach still shine forth their occulting white beacons, while the short cylindrical tower at Cleveland is dark. Engineers from Utica inspect the tall towers twice per year, climbing hand over hand up the steel ladder staircases, through the cobwebs, while the other aids to navigation, lit and unlit, are maintained under basically the same system of sector inspections set up back in 1920.

Excluding the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, also in upstate New York, only the old tower on Grand Lake St. Mary’s in western Ohio matches these three NY lake towers. Ironically, the St. Mary’s light was also built in response to canal traffic, but New York, the state which built an empire on the strength of its barge canals, is the only state to ever maintain its own Aids To Navigation department. It is hoped that the Commissions established in the 1990’s to resurrect the canal system as an integral part of New York’s historical tourism industry, recognize the significance of these light towers and includes them in their preservation and public access plans.

This story appeared in the February 2001 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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