Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2019

Pennsylvania Light Keepers Honored


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Charles Torrey Waldo was the first lighthouse ...

In observance of National Lighthouse Day on August 7, 2019, the Presque Isle Light Station Corporation of Erie Pennsylvania held a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial grave marker ceremony to honor lighthouse keepers Charles Torrey Waldo, who was the keeper at the Presque Isle Lighthouse from 1873 to 1880 and Benjamin Franklin Henry who was the keeper at the North Pier Light from 1869 to 1884. Both structures are located at Presque Isle State Park along the shores of Lake Erie near Erie Pennsylvania.

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U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Keeper plaque at ...

The U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial keeper markers were placed at each grave site by members from the US Coast Guard, 9th District Buffalo Station. Following the ceremony visitors were invited to tour the Presque Isle Lighthouse and the North Pier Light to learn more about the lives of the keepers.

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Vintage image of Presque Isle Lighthouse in Erie, ...

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Top: Visitors this past summer at the Presque ...


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Above: At the grave site of lighthouse keeper ...

Charles Waldo, along with his wife Mary and their young child Bertha, arrived from the small rural community of Fairview, Pennsylvania in 1873 to become the first keeper family to live in the newly completed nine-room, two-story brick keeper’s house with attached tower of the Presque Isle Light Station. Two years later, on September 15, 1875, another child, Nellie, was born to the couple.

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Left: Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Henry, keeper of ...

On July 12, 1873 the day that the Presque Isle Lighthouse was lighted for the first time, Charles Waldo wrote in the log book: “There was one visitor.”

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A vintage image of the Presque Isle North ...

In those early days, travel to and from the Presque Isle Lighthouse was only possible by boat across Presque Isle Bay, and then by walking on a one and a half mile trail to the lighthouse. There were not many visitors to the lighthouse during Waldo’s tenure. Likewise, Charles Waldo’s family had to walk the same trail and then take a boat to go the city of Erie to buy supplies, visit the doctor, or to attend church. He was paid $520 dollars per year for his services.

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On National Lighthouse Day, August 7, 2019, ...

The tower held a 4th order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light, varied with red flashes at intervals of one minute.

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Descendants of keeper Frank Henry and others ...

Summer was the best time to be on the peninsula but when winter came it brought terrible loneliness to the young family. Noted in the Erie Gazette of February 22, 1880, Charles Waldo is quoted saying, “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.”

On September 13, 1880 Charles Waldo wrote in the logbook: “I have resigned my position as keeper of this Light Station to take effect October 1, 1880 having secured employment in Erie. C.T. Waldo.”

According to the 1900-1910 censuses, Waldo and his family moved to 323 W. 7th Street in Erie, Pennsylvania where he worked as a bookkeeper at the Erie City Iron Works and the National Foundry. He and his family would have been very close to his church and to all of the cultural activities of the city that he missed when he was living at the lighthouse. A road was not extended to the lighthouse until 1927 when Andrew Shaw, the eighth keeper, left his job at the lighthouse.

On October 29, 1928, in his 81st year, Charles T. Waldo died suddenly at his home and was interred in the Erie Cemetery. His wife, Mary, died at the age of 96 and was laid to rest next to Waldo.


Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Henry was appointed in May of 1869 to the position of light keeper of the Presque Isle North Pierhead Light (more commonly known as the North Pier Lighthouse) which is located at the channel entrance to the Erie Harbor in Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania. He served until November of 1884. Frank’s uncle, John G. Hess, a possible early influence on Frank, had been the keeper there from 1850 to 1853.

The families of Frank Henry and his assistant keeper shared the same small keeper’s dwelling during the navigation season. During the off season, Frank Henry and his family lived in Wesleyville, just a short distance across the harbor from the North Pier Lighthouse.

It was not uncommon for keepers in the 19th century to have large families but Frank Henry took that to an extreme with his eight children including three sets of twins with his wife Elvira. Many keepers felt the loneliness and isolation of their position but for Frank Henry, the keeper’s dwelling must have been a bustling place during the navigation season.

Frank Henry experienced lake navigation at its height, around 1872, when as many as 4000 vessels a year were entering the Erie Harbor and were dependent on the pier light for safe passage through the channel and into the harbor.

Frank Henry’s “Journal of Daily Events,” preserved by the National Archives, recorded the events which occurred during his watch. Here is a summary of events taken from Frank’s journal:

The North and South Piers were undergoing expansion projects and constant deliveries of stone by barges and schooners were noted. Frank Henry was on hand, along with the Collector of Customs, to witness Captain Ottinger’s [Life Saving Service] newly invented sand-wheels. His son, John Brown Henry, fell off the North Pier and fortunately was rescued by the crew of the nearby Life Saving Service station. President McKinley’s assassination, in September of 1901, was noted, an event which cast a gloom over the nation, resulting in fewer numbers of visitors to the lighthouse. Several schooners and barges were noted to run ashore in bad weather and had to be rescued by the surfmen of U.S. Life Saving Service station. During foggy weather both Frank Henry and his assistant keeper were required to be on duty and to insure the fog bell was operational. Frank Henry often complained about the fog bell’s inadequacy, saying, “It was of no practical use to the merchant service.”

During Frank Henry’s term, in 1882, the iron skeleton tower of the lighthouse, originally built in 1858, was disassembled and relocated to the end of the newly lengthened pier. At the same time, the pier light apparatus was changed from a sixth order to a fourth order Fresnel lens which was removed in 1995 and is currently on display at the Erie Maritime Museum.

Frank Henry suffered with rheumatoid arthritis for most of his adult life and walked with a crutch in the 1940s. His condition must have made navigating the long spiral staircase of the lighthouse very challenging. It was likely one reason he left the job as keeper at an early age. Despite his affliction, it was documented that he saved several people from a watery grave in the surrounding waters of Presque Isle.

Frank Henry was highly intelligent and made several contributions to local history with his daily journals and records of passing vessels through the Erie Harbor. Additionally, he contributed articles that were published on the early history of each of the three lighthouses in the area of Erie, Pennsylvania

During his teen years, his experience helping slaves escape across Lake Erie to Canada via sailboat may have given him the knowledge and interest in lake navigation at an early age. His “Sketches of the Underground Railroad” were published in the Erie Gazette in the 1880s. Frank worked as an editor and assistant editor for local newspapers after his lighthouse years and until his death in 1889.

Benjamin Franklin Henry and many of his family were laid to rest at the historic Wesleyville cemetery.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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