Ohio’s historic beacons have kept mariners safe for more than 180 years
Sunday, June 11, 2006
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
FAIRPORT, Ohio — The fog was as thick as soup — and since this was Ohio, probably Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.
Not far away, I heard the low croak of the lighthouse foghorn. I was making dead for it, a perilous course.
But I was on land, not the brineless deep of Lake Erie. And my biggest fear wasn’t a watery grave but twisting my ankle and flopping around on the uneven, slippery breakwater like a beached walleye.
I had come to the lake to see the historic lighthouses that dot the Ohio shore. That I would need the services of a navigational beacon never crossed my mind.
This particular morning, I was in search of the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light, built in 1925 to replace the Grand River Lighthouse that still stands at the mouth of the Grand River north of Painesville. The older lighthouse, a 69-foot-high beauty built in 1871, no longer operates.
I had made my way through the fog to Headlands Beach State Park to search for the "new" light.
Headlands is a popular day-use park with the longest beach in the state. The park also hosts the northern terminus of the Buckeye Trail, the cross-state hiking trail, and borders Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, one of the few places in Ohio where Atlantic Coastal Plain species such as sea rocket, beach pea, seaside spurge and purple sand grass can be seen (when the fog lifts).
But I wasn’t there for the flora.
I knew that the lighthouse was at the mouth of the Grand River at the eastern end of the park, which was hosting a kite-flying festival. A few actually had their kites in the air. Or maybe they were just holding up stiff strings. In the fog, it was impossible to tell.
Soon I found myself on the old breakwater, with only faith and the sound of the foghorn assuring me that I was on the right path. Slowly I made my way onto Lake Erie. Looming out of the murk came the old steel lighthouse, looking not a little like the summer home of a mad scientist.
Erie felt eerie, indeed, until a couple of slicker-clad fishermen came trotting in from the direction of the lake. Obviously a trip onto Fairport Breakwater wasn’t the dangerous but romantic journey my imagination had conjured.
Still, I had accomplished my objective. Like many of the old lighthouses, the Fairport Breakwater Light is operational and closed to the public.
Standing at the base of the fog-enshrouded lighthouse, even a landlubber such as me became aware of the utility of these beautiful old structures.
Back in Fairport, the old Grand River Lighthouse was much easier to find — and had much better parking than your average lighthouse. In fact, visitors can drive right up to the old structure, located on a hill in the middle of the village.
The well-preserved 135-year-old lighthouse and the attached lightkeeper’s house serve as the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum.
The people of Fairport showed remarkable foresight in preserving the lighthouse and setting up the museum in 1945. The institution claims to be the oldest Great Lakes lighthouse museum in the United States.
The lighthouse is a showpiece, with a classic unpainted tapering sandstone tower, the kind depicted in souvenir snow globes. The rolling fog added the perfect touch of atmosphere. But I had a lot of lighthouses to see.