The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2006

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Lighthouse Still Beckons

at Sodus Point


Richard Palmer

Sodus Point Lighthouse today is a maritime museum. Many social events, including weddings,
are held on its spacious grounds during the summer.

Before the the advent of modern navigational systems, lighthouses universally played a key role in guiding vessels safely into port as well as around dangerous reefs, shoals and ragged shorelines. They were prominent landmarks in the days when captains and sailors relied heavily on dead reckoning.

Very few of the old lighthouses on Lake Ontario are still active, having long since been replaced by unmanned beacons with fixed lights powered by batteries. One of the oldest American ports on the lake was Troupsville, today known as Sodus Point. From the time of the first settlers in 1792, Sodus Bay was considered an ideal harbor for exporting farm products and other commodities. As early as 1807, salt was being shipped from here west to Ohio. It was strategic enough to have been attacked at least twice by the British during the War of 1812.

After the war, there was an unprecedented growth in commercial maritime trade on Lake Ontario, and again this small port came into its own, as evidence of this item in the Geneva Gazette of May 23, 1817:

Marine List.

ARRIVED - May 14 - Schr. President, Larabee, from Genesee river, bound to Ogdensburg, with flour. The President last night in a gale threw over her deck load consisting of 105 barrels of flour. - Schr. Ontario, Hugunin, from Sacket's Harbor, in ballast, bound to Pulteney-Ville. - Schr. Laura, Fish, from Pulteney-Ville, for Ogdensburg, with flour - put in on account of the gale. - Schr. Mary, Trowbridge, from Oswego, has lumber and salt, bound to York. The Mary has 60 passengers from New-York bound to York in Upper Canada.
16 - Schr. Farmer's Daughter, Ingalls, 3 days from Kingston, with passengers.
17 - Schr. Oswegatchie, Holmes, from Sacket's Harbor, in ballast. - Schr. Nancy, Fairbanks, 5 days from Kingston, via Sacket's Harbor.
18 - Steam Boat Ontario, Malaby, from Sacket's Harbor, has about 25 passengers landed 6 or 8 at Oswego.
20 - Schr. Julia, Whitney, from Ogdensburg, in ballast.

CLEARED - May 11 - Schr. Laura, Fish, for Pulteney-Ville, ballast. - Schr. Minerva, Snow, for Ogdensburg, flour. - Schr. Julia, Whitney, for Ogdensburg, flour.
12 - Schr. Sarah-Ann, Rogers, for Genesee river, ballast.
13 - Schr. Bull-Dog, Hollister, for Ogdensburg, flour. - Schr. Northern Trader, Bunill, for Sacket's Harbor, flour and meal.
14 - Schr. Ontario, Hugunin, for Pultney-Ville, ballast.
18 - Schr. Farmer's Daughter, Ingalls, for Prescott, with flour.
19 - Steam Boat Ontario, left the wharf this morning for Genesee river. - Schr. Woolsey, Rounds, for Genesee river, ballast.

For more than 175 years, shipping was a primary factor in the prosperity of Sodus Point. Considered one of the best natural harbors on the lake, Sodus Bay and its surrounding region prospered and became known for its lumber, grain, and coal trade, commercial fishing, ice industry, and shipbuilding . During this period and well into the 20th century, schooners and freighters sailed in and out of the harbor regularly transporting cargoes to distant points to other Lake Ontario ports, Canada and the upper lakes.

Increased traffic also brought its hazards and numerous shipwrecks, grounding and other mishaps occurred, making it apparent that some navigational aid was needed to guide vessels in and out of Sodus. But it wasn't until May 24, 1824, that Congress appropriated $4,500 to construct a lighthouse tower and keeper's residence at Sodus Bay. That November, a site was purchased on the west side of the village of Sodus Point overlooking the lake.

The stone tower and adjacent lightkeeper's home were constructed of stone and were completed and went into operation in 1825. A year later Ishmael D. Hill, a veteran of the War of 1812, was appointed as its first keeper. The original tower stood 40 feet above the ground and the house was 34 by 20 feet. The house had a central chimney with a fireplace in each room.

A separate contract covered the fitting up of the lighthouse with 11 patent lamps and 11 14-inch reflectors, two spare lamps, double tin oil butts (storage containers) sufficient to hold 500 gallons of oil, and other accessories needed to operate the light.

The first government piers were built in 1834. On June 30 of that year, Congress appropriated $4,000 for beacon lights on the piers. A stone beacon (range) light was built on the west pier in 1835.

By 1870 both structures had deteriorated to the extent that Congress appropriated $14,000 to build a second lighthouse to replace the original tower. This second stone lighthouse building, with its attached tower and Fresnel lens, was completed in 1871 and became the residence of Sodus lighthouse keepers for the next 80 years. The original buildings were then demolished. Until it was discontinued in 1901, it was considered a "Fourth Order" fixed white light, visible for 15 miles. It was similar in design as lighthouses at Stony Point, Thirty Mile Point and Fort Niagara, which also still stand. This structure preserved today in excellent condition, and has been operated as a maritime museum by the Sodus Bay Historical Society in accordance with an agreement and lease from the Town of Sodus since 1984.

The Port of Sodus

A burst of economic activity occurred in 1884, when the Northern Central Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad) bought the Sodus Point and Southern Railroad, creating a land-water shipping route from Pennsylvania to Canada. In 1886 a coal trestle, at the west end of the bay, was erected and a commercial coal shipping business started which served all ports on Lake Ontario. In 1927 the trestle was greatly expanded in size so that increased tonnage of coal could be loaded. This business thrived for the next 50 years until 1967 when power generation plants switched to oil and the need for coal vanished. In 1971, the trestle was being dismantled when it accidentally caught fire and was destroyed. Today, it is the site of a large marina.

Thus from the mid-19th century to the present, Sodus Bay has been an ideal place for yachtsmen, campers, fishermen, and visitors to enjoy their summer activities. Sodus Point has also been a summer vacation resort town since the early 1880's when the first passenger trains brought visitors to the many cottages and guest hotels which dotted the shores of the bay. Today the summer cottages and homes of several thousand summer residents line the waterfront overlooking this picturesque harbor.

Sodus Point is also home port of the schooner "Lotus." This 48-foot sailing vessel is a class C tall ship. Originally privately owned, it has sailed in and out of Sodus Bay for more than 75 years and is currently serving as a sail training ship for the Sea Explorers.

Caption and Photo by Dick Palmer
© 2006, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer


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