Kaleidoscope: Fairport Harbor: A quaint, historic lakeshore village

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Like many of the smalltown harbors along Lake Erie, Fairport Harbor today is a shadow of its former self. It was laid out at the mouth of the Grand River in 1812 and once employed thousands of people at its docks and plants, but today it's mostly a commuter community.

In late August, I took advantage of a beautiful, sunny day and ventured north to the village of 3,100, all of whom are contained in 1 square mile. It was only the second time I've visited the village.

Fairport Harbor was named Grandon when first laid out by Capt. Abraham Skinner, Samuel Huntington and a handful of others on land owned by the Connecticut Land Co. The town was incorporated in 1836 and renamed Fairport. "Harbor" was added a few years later.

In 1831, the harbor became the first federally sponsored port facility on Lake Erie, with shipbuilding, fishing and transportation of goods creating a prosperous port. Many of the early residents were of Finnish, Hungarian, Slovak, English and Irish descent.

After ore docks were established, ship traffic increased, with large freighters bringing in loads of iron ore from Michigan and Minnesota. The ore was taken to Youngstown, Pittsburgh and other steel producing cities. The docks were the major employer at that time.

Two lighthouses are located at Fairport Harbor. The one at the end of the west breakwater in Lake Erie, built in 1925, is still active. The one on a bluff overlooking the lakeshore in the downtown area, built in 1871 to replace an earlier structure, has been a museum operated by the Fairport Harbor Historical Society since 1945.

Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park is a great place to spend summer days swimming, kayaking and picnicking. It also hosts the annual Fairport Mardi Gras on July 4 weekend, which features rides, games, food and fireworks.

Group walking tours sponsored by the Fairport Harbor Tourism Council are available. They focus on village history, Indians and early settlers, the Underground Railroad, landmarks, buildings and legends. Tours can be arranged by emailing visit@fairportharbor.org or calling 440-352-3620 ext. 9.

MUSEUM , LIGHTHOUSE

The older lighthouse was the first Great Lakes lighthouse marine museum in Ohio. It includes a 60-foot high stone tower, with a 69-step spiral iron stairway inside, adjacent to the keeper's house, where marine artifacts and history of the town can be viewed.

Visitors can climb the stairway to a walkway around the cupola where the light once was situated. The perch affords a fantastic view of the harbor, riverfront park, marinas, pier, breakwaters, giant piles of aggregate minerals on the west side of the river and the newer lighthouse.

The keeper's house is home to several interesting items, including third-order and fourth-order Fresnel lenses once used in the light tower, large models of Lake Erie ore carriers (one is about 10-feet long), navigational instruments, lake ships' half hulls and paintings and photos of ships.

Other items include lanterns, Native American relics, a display about the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald ore carrier, samples of iron ore once unloaded at the local docks, salt in crude form, marine charts, ship carpenter's tools, old maps and documents and history of the Lifesaving and Coast Guard Service at Fairport Harbor.

A large layout of the former Diamond Alkali plant on the Fairport Harbor-Painesville border along the lake -- once the area's largest employer -- is featured in one room, and there are plenty of oldtime photos of the complex. More about Diamond Alkali a little later.

A creepy item on display is the mummified remains of a cat owned by a lighthouse keeper's wife in the early 1900s, which was found 12 years ago when air conditioning was being installed in the building. Some people claim the "ghost cat" called Sentinel is still active in the museum.

The museum grounds contain some interesting objects. There is a wooden pilothouse from the SS Frontinac, an ore freighter which struck the Buffalo, N.Y. Breakwater Lighthouse in 1958, moving it 20 feet and causing it to tilt at a 15-degree angle. The lighthouse eventually was razed.

Inside the pilothouse are several radio compasses, a captain's steering wheel and other devices used to pilot a large Great Lakes freighter.

Near the pilothouse is the main mast of the USS Michigan, the Navy's first iron-hulled ship commissioned in 1843 and renamed the Wolverine in 1905.

Also there is one of the few remaining covered lifecars formerly used by the village's U.S. Coast Guard Station, a ship's two-wheel-ed emergency steering apparatus which was mounted on the afterdeck, freighter anchors and a capstan.

LIGHTHOUSE ON THE LAKE

The active lighthouse on the lake has an interesting history. Ten years after a 1,000-foot extension of the west breakwater was completed in 1910, a concrete foundation was built at the end of the breakwater. But the lighthouse was not immediately erected on top of it.

Instead, the building's shell was built at the Buffalo, N.Y. Lighthouse Depot. The two-story, 65-ton building was 28 feet square, with its tower rising 38 1/2 feet. It was moved by a steam barge 147 miles to Fairport Harbor, where it was anchored in place on top of the concrete pierhead. Its fourth-order Fresnel lens and diaphone fog signal commenced operation in 1925.

The breakwater light is now automated and sports a modern optic light. The government sought to unload the building in 2005, and in 2011 -- after a series of defaults by bidders -- it was bought by a female marketing executive from Virginia, who is renovating it into a private vacation home.

THE FINNISH MUSEUM

A couple blocks down High Street from the marine museum is the Finnish Heritage Museum, located in a restored red brick building built in 1923, which formerly housed the village's police and fire departments, Village Hall and a senior citizens center.

The Finnish museum was founded in 2002 as a way to preserve items reflecting Finnish history and heritage. The museum opened in the summer of 2007.

A group of 25 Finns arrived in Fairport Harbor in 1885 and founded the first permanent Finnish settlement. By 1900, the number of foreign-born Finns in town reached 700, and to this day the town's population has a strong Finnish influence.

The museum features displays of objects related to that Finnish heritage -- an old wooden loom which still operates, large Finnish flag, sauna (Finns are credited with developing this technology), photos of local Finns and a coffee/gift shop, which sells homemade nisu (Finnish coffee bread flavored with cardamon).

An interesting aspect of the museum is the story of Dr. Amy Kaukonen. She was elected Ohio's first female mayor in the early 1920s in Fairport Harbor. She was tough-nosed, railed against the evils of drinking and shut down many illegal booze-producing operations during Prohibition.

Kaukonen was a promoter of "the modern woman," favoring bobbed hair, short skirts, dancing and singing. She railed against narrow-minded people and puritanical standards, condemning corsets as puritanical nonsense and prudery. Sounds like she was quite a woman!

A campaign is under way to raise funds for a sculpture called "The Spirit of Finland" in front of the museum. Sculptor Ken Valimaki, a 1955 graduate of Fairport Harding High School, offered to design a sculpture soon after the dedication of the museum.

It will be placed in front of the museum's massive window so it can be seen inside and out, and will be highlighted by spotlights at night. Its purpose is to honor the achievements of Finnish immigrants.

FAMOUS FAIRPORT FIRMS

The area once occupied by the Diamond Alkali complex is being redeveloped. Most manufacturing buildings are gone, and nearly $5 million has been spent to clean up toxic waste on the 1,100-acre property. The firm opened its plant in 1912 to produce soda ash.

Business boomed during World War I when demand for glass increased. In 1948, its headquarters was moved from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. It merged with Shamrock Oil and Gas in 1967 to become Diamond Shamrock Corp. Since 2001, the company has been owned by Valero Energy Corp., headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.

Over the years, the firm also produced bicarbonate of soda, calcium carbonates, cement, coke, chlorine, agricultural chemicals and plastics, plus magnesium oxide during World War II. At the end of 1976, the complex closed. In 1979, Diamond Shamrock began focusing on energy.

Between 1951 and 1969, Diamond Alkali produced about 700,000 gallons of the herbicide Agent Orange at its Newark, N.J. plant, where contamination led to the creation of a Superfund site in 1984. Remediation efforts began in 2000 and are still continuing.

A large existing industry in Fairport Harbor is the Morton Salt mine on the west side of the Grand River. First dug in 1959, the mine goes down 2,000 feet and encompasses 350 acres under Lake Erie. Salt mined there is used for ice control on roads and sidewalks.

Motorists along the river can see 50-foot high piles of salt and the firm's 100-foot high silos and a tipple. About 1 million tons of salt are mined annually, with about 500,000 tons moved from the site by lake ships.

The west side of the river also is home to three other aggregate companies -- R.W. Sidley, Carmeuse Lime and Osborn Concrete and Stone. The latter handles about 2 million tons of limestone per year. It is shipped in via the lake from Ohio, Michigan and Canada, and shipped out by truck.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-94100 ext. 4189

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  • Thank you for this very interesting article.  I am especially interested because I spent a wonderful weekend in Fairport Harbor on September 15 attending the dedication of the "Spirit of Finland" sculpture.  My grandfather, Charles (Charlie) Hilston was one of the first Finnish immigrants.  He and my grandmother built a large rooming house that was one of the 10 houses in Finn Hollow.  It burned down, however, so it was not moved as others were.  My father, Ralph, was one of the 12 children produced by my grandparents.  About half of them were born in Fairport and the others in Girard, OH where the family moved following the house fire.

    i am almost 83 ears old now and, although I heard about Fairport when my dad was alive, I didn't.t really discover it until a few years ago.  I  learned to love it, and especially the Finnish museum and society (and several Hilstons I didn't know existed).  If I were 10 years younger, I would love to live there.