ERIE, Pa. — Two Lake Erie lighthouses have reopened for tours, and the reward for climbing their circular staircases is a clear view of ships gliding through shimmering blue water.
Since the 1800s, the Presque Isle Light Station in Presque Isle State Park and the Erie Land Lighthouse on this city's east side have beamed light up to 15 miles across the water, allowing ship and boat captains to navigate, find a channel and get safely to shore.
For centuries, a long beam of constant light was a captain's only hope for finding safe harbor in fog-shrouded waters at night.
Lighthouses are essential on Lake Erie because storms arise quickly, with waves as high as 10 feet, said Eugene H. Ware, author of "Pennsylvania Light Houses on Lake Erie." More ships have sunk or wrecked here than on any of the five Great Lakes, said Ware, a lifelong Erie resident and boating enthusiast.
Constructed in 1873, the Presque Isle Light Station is a 57-foot-tall white tower whose walls are five handmade bricks thick. Located in Presque Isle State Park, the lighthouse opened for tours in May.
A half-hour drive away, at the foot of Lighthouse Street, stands the older Erie Land Lighthouse, which opened to visitors in late May.
To locals, the Presque Isle Light Station is "the flashlight" because it once flashed as it revolved and remains an active aid to navigation. Inside the shorter, 49-foot-tall land lighthouse, an LED light glows every evening. While sailors do not rely on it to navigate, it's a great place to watch sunsets and wildlife such as soaring hawks. Its Fresnel lens was moved to a lighthouse in Marblehead, Ohio, where it still operates.
From early spring to late November, 19th century lighthouse keepers worked through many sleepless nights, maintaining the beacon while watching the waves for ships in distress.
Starting at dusk, the keeper climbed the circular staircase three or four times a night, often carrying oil lamps. Once inside the circular tower's door, the keeper's first task was pulling up 5- to 6-pound weights, much like setting an old grandfather clock. Ware said the weights allowed the keeper to time the flashing light.
"The chains that the weights were on are connected to the Fresnel lens and turns it. As the chains went down, one click at a time, they could time it. It could be every six seconds, every eight seconds," he said.
The keeper installed the oil-burning lamp inside a beehive-shaped lens covered in multi-faceted glass prisms to reflect the lamp's light. A French physicist, Augustin Fresnel, invented the life-saving lens in 1822, and its basic design is still used in lighthouses, stage spotlights and solar panels on spacecraft.
In Presque Isle State Park, the Presque Isle Light Station stands on the north shore of a 3,200-acre peninsula, a long sandy spit of land that separates Presque Isle Bay from Lake Erie.
Emily Butler, the new executive director of the nonprofit Presque Isle Light Station, grew up in Crafton, graduated from Temple University with a historic preservation degree and earned a master's degree in that discipline at Tulane University in New Orleans. Most recently, she worked at Taliesin West in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Her organization's mission is to preserve both lighthouses, and restore the two-story 1873 home attached to the Presque Isle Light Station to how it looked in the early 1900s. Butler and her staff want to attract visitors who are interested in architecture, conservation, engineering, history and navigation.
The chance to work at a unique historic site and participate in the growth of a small organization attracted Butler.
"The lighthouses are such important pieces of Erie's history and they deserve to be shared," she said.
In the 1800s, lighthouse keepers maintained a daily log and used rags soaked in a mineral-based solvent to clean the heavy Fresnel lens, blackened each night by the residue of burning kerosene or whale oil.
"They had to keep the lens impeccably clean," Butler said, adding that the lighthouse keeper "was a key player in maritime safety. If it was really stormy and foggy, the lighthouse keeper walked a half mile to the fog station to turn on the fog horn."
Besides those tasks, lighthouse keepers and their families maintained the house and grounds, greeted visitors, grew a garden and housed shipwrecked sailors overnight.
Charles Waldo, the first keeper at the Presque Isle Light Station, started in 1873 with an annual salary of $520. Buying supplies, visiting a doctor, sending his children to school or attending church meant walking over a mile to Misery Bay, then rowing two miles across Presque Isle Bay to reach Erie. There was no road from the lighthouse to town until 1923. In the winter, instead of rowing, Waldo and his family walked across two miles of ice.
In an 1880 interview with the Erie Gazette newspaper, Waldo spoke of the job's isolation:
"The very nearness to the city rather makes the place more lonesome than otherwise. It is no slight aggravation to be within an hour's ride of the church and post office and the opera, of the ward caucuses and the latest issue of the Erie Trombone, and all the attractions and distractions of town, and yet be shut away from them for days and weeks at a time."
Later that same year, he resigned as lighthouse keeper and took a job as a bookkeeper in Erie.
The isolated life appealed to Andrew W. Shaw Jr., who had the longest tenure as keeper of the Presque Isle Light Station from 1900 to 1927. He quit in March 1927, saying that a new road from Erie "brought to [sic] many blasted people to the lighthouse."
The Presque Isle Lighthouse is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours of the tower and house are $7, and a self-guided tour of the house is $3. It is free to walk the grounds and visit the gift shop.
Also worth a visit is the Erie Land Lighthouse, a restored architectural gem built of buff-colored Berea sandstone. The perforated steps of its circular staircase are made of decoratively patterned cast iron. Built in 1818, it was replaced in 1851 and 1867.
Tower tours, $5, are offered at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free tours are given at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.
Only six people are admitted at a time on tours. The door to the circular outdoor deck at the top is narrow so visitors should walk through a cutout to see if they will fit through it before making the climb. Tickets may be purchased at the lighthouse. For information, call 814-833-3604 or visit www.presqueislelighthouse.org.
Back at the Presque Isle Lighthouse, Butler works with a volunteer coordinator and a gift shop manager. Her organization will conduct an archaeological dig on the two-acre property to find the foundations of a barn that housed tools. The plan is to rebuild the barn and use it to interpret the site's history.
"We have a small staff and a lot of work to do," she said.
(Presque Isle Park is at 301 Peninsula Drive in Erie, Pennsylvania.)