Lighthouses have long been structures which Americans have found fascinating. They're found on the East and West coasts and Great Lakes, and are the focus of many books. Photographers -- both amateur and professional -- love them.
Some classic lighthouses still function, while others have outlasted their usefulness and have either been demolished or preserved as tourist attractions. Some house museums, like the old inland lighthouse at Fairport Harbor.
I've seen a handful of them, including at Fairport Harbor, Conneaut, Huron, Marblehead and Lorain. After two or three years contemplating a visit to the latter, I finally made the trip to the structure which stands at the mouth of the Black River, but is no longer functional.
Called the "Jewel of the Port," the Lorain Lighthouse Foundation owns the three-story structure and conducts tours a handful of weekends in June, July and August. The lighthouse is only accessible by boat, which departs from a landing along the Black River.
Although a lighthouse existed in the Lorain Harbor as early as 1836, the present one at the end of the west breakwall pierhead was built in 1916-17 at a cost of $35,000. Its light and fog signal began operating in 1919.
The U.S. Coast Guard assumed control of the tower in 1939, and it was manned until 1965, when a $22 million harbor improvement commenced. It included a new outer breakwall with an automated light at its western tip. That light continues to guide boats into the harbor.
The iconic old lighthouse was destined for demolition, but a "save the lighthouse committee" pushed for its preservation. The Coast Guard turned over the structure to the General Services Administration, which in turn sold it to the Lorain County Historical Society.
Since the early 1980s, more than $1 million has been spent to refurbish and upgrade the lighthouse.
The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed after the lighthouse closed, and ended up on display at a lighthouse near Rochester, N.Y. It was returned to Cleveland in 2011, where it is being stored. Plans are to eventually move it to the Ferry Terminal building at Black River Landing.
BOATING TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
I showed up on a Saturday for the 5:30 p.m. trip to the lighthouse. Because construction of a new dock at Black River Landing was in progress, the lighthouse tour boat departed from Black River Wharf, a few hundred yards down river from the landing.
The wharf is on the west side of the river across from mountainous piles of iron ore, sand, stone and other aggregate materials arriving on large ships. A Taste of Lorain was in progress at the landing grounds, which also is the site of the Lorain International Festival on the last weekend in June.
On the way to the mouth of the river, we passed under a vertical lift bridge carrying a rail line -- which remains in the "up" position until a train approaches -- and the Charles Berry bascule bridge built in 1938 (the second largest in the world), and passed a U.S. Coast Guard station, where a new state-of-the-art cutter was docked, plus the Spitzer marinas.
On the east side of the river is the area where many ships were built by the American Shipbuilding Co. from 1897 to 1983. That company once was owned by the Steinbrenner family, of which the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a part.
The firm built hundreds of ships there, including three 1,000-foot ore carriers still on the Great Lakes today. The Paul R. Tregurtha, the last of the super carriers built in Lorain, is the longest at 1,013 feet. The other two are the James R. Barker launched in 1977 and Mesabi Miner launched in 1977.
Our boat, carrying about a dozen passengers, dropped us off at the lighthouse and returned to the wharf to pick up a second group of visitors while we explored the building, which a Lorain Lighthouse Foundation volunteer told us leans at an 8-degree angle.
The basement once housed four fuel tanks, a paint locker and a fresh water pump. The engine room, control panel, restrooms, air compressors for the foghorn, auxiliary generators, tool room and furnace were on the main floor.
The second floor housed an office, foghorn air storage tank, sleeping quarters for the staff and a galley (kitchen). On the third floor were the foghorn house, spare parts locker and a fresh water tank. Items were hoisted or lowered to the upper floors or basement through hatch openings in the floors.
In the light tower, which rises above a gabled roof on the east side of the building, was the main light motor and weight controls. A 15-foot high winding metal stairway leads up to the cupola where the light was mounted. The lens produced light visible from 15 miles away.
Five members of our group stepped outside onto a narrow walkway surrounding the cupola and stayed up there for about 20 minutes until we could see the boat approaching with the second group of tourists. A strong wind was blowing across the lake from the west.
The walkway is about 60 feet above the water's surface, and it provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the Lorain shoreline, harbor, mouth of the Black River, two breakwalls and the open lake. Only three or four small boats passed the lighthouse while we were up there.
The boat trip to and from the lighthouse took about 25 minutes, and that meant we were at the structure for about 50 minutes before the captain returned with the second load of visitors. After a mostly cloudy and rainy day, the sun broke through the clouds for our return trip to the wharf.
The captain told us a handful of lighthouse tours earlier in the summer had to be canceled because of rainy weather on the scheduled weekends.
In addition to the International Festival and lighthouse tours, the Lorain Port Authority sponsors a number of other activities along the Black River. There are river tours, sunset cruises, Jet Express cruises to Kelley's Island and Put-in-Bay, the LaBatte Blue Black River Concert Series and Port Fest.
ELSEWHERE AROUND LORAIN
I didn't get the opportunity to visit it, but the Black River Historical Society operates the Moore House Museum on West 5th Street near downtown Lorain.
It is a Neoclassical Revival-style home built in 1906, where former Mayor Leonard M. Moore lived. On display are items belonging to Lorain's first mayor -- Conrad Reid -- lighthouses of Lorain exhibit, photos relating to the devastating tornado of 1924, past and present industry and business displays, a large calendar plate collection and period fashions.
Along a 3-mile stretch on the south side of Lorain is the sprawling United States Steel mill, portions of which have been acquired by Republic Engineered Products. The mills have operated since 1895.
Though the blast furnaces were idled in late 2008, Republic is building electric arc furnaces to once again make steel in Lorain. The company's new investments at the mills are said to be around $85 million.
Although the number of people employed at the mills is far fewer than in their heyday, about 1,000 people work at the USS and Republic mills, according to the Lorain County auditor's website.
Along with tremendous reductions in the city's workforce because of the shipbuilding operations shutting down and the steel plants downsizing, Lorain lost many jobs when Ford Motor Co. closed its large assembly plant in 2005. At various times over the years, it made the Econoline van, Ford Torino, Mercury Montego, Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar.
The plant reportedly closed because the United Auto Workers and Ford management were unable to come to terms on a new contract.
Lakeside Park, operated by the Lorain County Metroparks, is a beautiful lakeshore spot on the west side of the city. The lighthouse can be seen from the 20-acre park, which also features a historical rose garden, picnicking, sunsets, swimming and sunbathing, lawn bowling and beach volleyball.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189