200 Years of the Marblehead Lighthouse
As the 200th birthday of the Marblehead Lighthouse approaches in 2022, a brief review of the history of the oldest Great Lakes lighthouse in continuous service is in order.
Shipping on the Great Lakes had been steadily increasing in volume since the discovery of the lakes by French trappers between 1615 and 1669. After the Revolutionary War, the fledgling United States needed revenue. One of the few taxes available to the government was tariffs on trade goods. In order to foster trade, Congress, in its ninth official law passed the Lighthouse Act to construct lighthouses. Ohio became the 17th state in 1803, and Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry defeated a British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, gaining possession of large portions of the Great Lakes for the United States.
In 1819, the fifteenth U.S. Congress recognized the need for lighthouses on the Great Lakes and authorized $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse to mark the entrance to Sandusky Bay. The structure was built during the fall of 1821 by Sandusky stonemason William Kelly and three assistants using locally-quarried limestone. In June of 1822, local resident Benajah Wolcott was named the first keeper and the light was finally lit. The Marblehead area was then known as Rocky Point and the lighthouse was named the Sandusky Light. The name Marble Head (two words) didn't come into being until around 1840.
The original tower was 15 feet shorter than it is today, and the light consisted of a fixed array of 13 whale oil burning lanterns with 16” polished brass reflectors to direct the light out onto the lake. The lights did not flash or rotate, and the lamps had to be refueled every four hours, consuming about 80 pounds (11 gallons) of lamp oil per night. That oil had to be carried up a series of wooden ladders to the top each day from oil storage buildings on the ground. A Keeper's House was constructed in 1822 adjacent to the lighthouse, but keeper Wolcott also had his own private residence about 3 miles across the peninsula, where he also farmed his 114 acres.
As whale oil became scarcer and more expensive, a series of other fuels were employed by the Lighthouse Service, including lard oil and eventually kerosene. By 1858 the light at Marblehead had been changed to a single pressurized kerosene lamp with a 4th order glass Fresnel lens to intensify the lamp's brightness out on the lake. This lantern consumed much less fuel each night and further increased the visibility of the lighthouse.
By 1890's the ships on the Great Lakes were getting larger and required deeper water. This forced shipping further from the shoreline and the visible range of the lighthouse needed to be increased. A plan was drawn to raise the lighthouse by fifteen feet. As the architects studied the existing stone structure, they feared it would not support the addition, and it was decided to construct a brick tower inside the original stone structure. The modification was done during the summer of 1898, and the present wrought iron spiral stairs were added. A few years later in 1903, a larger 3-1/2 order Fresnel lens was installed along with a clockwork mechanism to rotate the lens to make the light appear to flash every 10 seconds. This lens is on display in the Keeper's House Museum adjacent to the lighthouse. In 1926, the kerosene lamp was replaced with an electric light, and in 1958, the entire mechanism was automated so that it turned on and off automatically at dusk and dawn. Today the light is supplied by high-intensity green LED's which were installed in 2013.
Over the years, 16 lighthouse keepers have served at Marblehead, along with many assistants keepers. Marblehead boasts the first female keeper on the Great Lakes and has had two women maintain the light over the years. The current Keeper's House was built in 1880 to replace the crumbling original dwelling. In 1939, with war in Europe looking likely, President Roosevelt's Reorganization Order #11 disbanded the U.S. Lighthouse Service and gave operation of all aids to navigation, to include lighthouses, to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is the “keeper of record” of all U.S. lighthouses to this day.
Marblehead Lighthouse and Original Keeper's House -1859 Photo from National Archives
1885-Keeper's House before the upper back porch was added and the Lighthouse before the addition to the tower. Photo from USCG
Keeper's House and Tower - October 1897. Notice the oil storage buildings. Photo from USCG
Looking N 100 ft. June 1911 Photo from USCG
Marblehead Lighthouse - 1955. Photo from USCG.
In the 1980's the U.S. General Services Administration declared many lighthouses “surplus property” and plans were made to tear down the Marblehead Lighthouse and replace it with a steel pole topped by a light. Several Marblehead residents formed the Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society in 1998 in an attempt to avoid the destruction. MLHS eventually helped broker the agreement with the State of Ohio to accept ownership of the lighthouse and its grounds and designate it Ohio's 73rd State Park. MLHS agreed to supply volunteers to help operate the park for visitors. Since then, MLHS has paid for and constructed several new buildings in the park, including the U.S. Lifesaving Service Museum and a new restroom facility.
The Marblehead Lighthouse is the second smallest, but one of the most popular, State Parks in Ohio. It is said that the lighthouse is the most frequently photographed building in the state. About 25,000 visitors climb the tower each summer, but it's estimated that over 1 million visit the park each year.