The light where the Genesee River empties into Lake Ontario was first built in 1822; a forty foot high octagonal stone lighthouse built with local Medina sandstone and painted white so it could be seen against the greenery. There were an additional twelve feet of height for the lantern room and ten Argand lamps fueled with whale oil to provide the beam.
Today, almost 190 years later, the tower is back to its natural color, is fitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens, and stands between a quarter-mile to a half-mile from the lake shore.
It is still lit nightly. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse on Lake Ontario and the second oldest on the Great Lakes.
The tower was built in the community of Charlotte, a part of Rochester, NY, on the “highest and most stable point” along the swampy and shifting river bank, according to Fred Amato, a Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society trustee and former Society president, on land that had been bought from the William Hincher estate for $400. A two-room keeper’s house was built at the same time.
The first lighthouse keeper was David Denman who took the position on November 1, 1822. Unfortunately, he died within two months of becoming keeper. Giles H. Holden, who was appointed on January 4, 1823 and served until December 31, 1835 became the second keeper. However, because of Denman’s short time on the job, many consider Holden to be the first ‘working’ keeper of the light station.
In the early years, prevailing westerly winds shifted sand deposits in the river and created sand bars across the river’s mouth, frequently causing ships to ground. To prevent this, a wooden pier was built from the lake shore out from the river’s west bank in 1829. The pier caused sand and other debris to build up beside it and in effect extended the lake shore out into the lake. This had the effect over many years of gradually “moving” the lighthouse back from the lake shore.
However, the lighthouse continued to function.
In 1853, a fourth order Fresnel lens replaced the Argand lamps and the tower’s wooden stairs were replaced with cast iron steps anchored in four feet of brick that were added to the inside of the tower.
The inadequate keeper’s house, where one keeper had somehow managed to live with his wife and ten children, was replaced in 1863 with a larger house. Meanwhile, a second light was installed at the end of the lake pier, and from 1838 until 1881 both lights sent beams out into the lake.
During its prime, Amato said, “the beam [from the tower] could be seen twelve miles out.”
In 1881, the original tower light was decommissioned, but the keeper continued to live in the house and service the pier lights until 1940. In 1884, the light room and Fresnel lens were removed from the tower, with the light being placed at the end of the pier. (The location of that original Fresnel light is currently unknown.)
The most notable keeper of the lights was George W. Codding who had an illustrious and long career. When the United States Coast Guard took over the U.S. Lighthouse Service, an article in a newspaper in July, 1939 reported on Codding in the following manner: “Wars have raged, nations have crumbled and millions have died in the last 32 years, but through all the turmoil the harbor lights at Charlotte have sent out their reassuring beam every night without fail from sunset to sunrise, except one. The responsibility for 26 years has been that of George W. Codding, light-keeper-in-charge. Jurisdiction of the Lighthouse Service today passed from the U.S. Commerce Department to the U.S. Treasury Department putting it under military regulations as part of the Coast Guard. Codding says he’ll go along just as he always had.”
At the time the Coast Guard took over in 1939, the lighthouses in Rochester, other than the one at Braddock Point, were the only beacons on the American shore of Lake Ontario that remained lit during the winter months. This was done, in addition to accommodating the wintertime operation of the radio compass, to help guide the car-ferry through the rough winter waters.
Before Codding became the Head Keeper of the Rochester Harbor Lighthouse, he had previously served at other lighthouses at Buffalo, NY and Ashtabula, Ohio and had an amazing 44 years of service tending lighthouses when he finally retired.
Codding used to tell about the strict code of the Lighthouse Service regarding cleanliness. He had four boys who grew up in the keeper’s house. When one was still in a high chair, the inspector was extremely critical because crumbs were on the floor and a dustpan was not highly polished.
When Codding retired, he was replaced by Wilbur L. Folwell, Sr., who had joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in Rochester in 1933. When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in July of 1939, keepers were given the option of staying on as civilian keepers or joining the Coast Guard; Folwell chose the Coast Guard. During his spare time Folwell enjoyed whittling and he made many scale models of lighthouses.
When lighthouse keeping in Rochester came to an end in 1947, Folwell was transferred to Oswego, NY, and later he served at Michigan City, Indiana, Big Bay, Michigan and then back to Oswego where he retired, After retirement, he moved back to Rochester. When Folwell left Rochester in 1947, the Coast Guard abandoned both the tower and the keeper’s house of the old Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse.
The structures then remained derelict, with vines gradually covering the outside of the tower and house until 1974, Rochester’s city bicentennial, when local high school students began a petition campaign that led to the facility being cleaned up and opened for occasional tours. In 1981, the facility was declared surplus property by the United States and the county gained possession. In 1984, students from Edison Technical High School in Rochester volunteered to construct a new lantern room for the tower which was installed at the top of the old headless tower. Later that year, lighthouse society volunteers traveled to the Coast Guard Museum in Cleveland where a Fresnel lens similar to the one originally used in the tower was obtained.
The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse tower was relit that June for the first time in a hundred years and today sends its beam out nightly past the river entrance into the lake, the hours of operation varying with the seasons.
The tower and keeper’s house are operated and maintained by the Lighthouse Society under terms of a lease with the county, which was renewed in 2009. The Society operates the facility on a yearly budget of about $30,000 raised mainly from memberships, gifts, special events, and the proceeds of a small gift shop, which is housed in the former keeper’s house. Also there are a small museum featuring exhibits on the lighthouse and the Charlotte community, the Society’s offices, and an apartment that is rented out for additional income. Grants are occasionally obtained, Amato said, for special projects.
The museum is open to visitors Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 1-5 pm from the beginning of May until the end of November and tours of the tower and the light room are given during the same periods. Last year the Society also tried out Monday hours, being opened then from 10 am until noon that day.
The light room is accessible by a climb up forty-two cast iron steps and then a twisting ladder of eleven rungs. Those who make it are given a sticker that shows a sketch of the lighthouse and brags: “I climbed to the Top.”
A Keeper’s Festival, with an admission fee of $4, is held every May with music, 1812 militia re-enactors, games and food, including chowder cooked over an open fire by the “lighthouse keeper’s wife.” Both the museum and the tower tours are free. Special group tours can also be arranged but may include a charge.
In all, the Society has about twenty-five volunteers who care for the buildings and the three and one-third acres on which they set. They have preserved the legacy of those who served at the lighthouses of Rochester for all future generations. “We’re pretty proud of what they’ve done,” Amato said.
The Charlotte Genesee Lighthouse Society can be reached at (585) 621-6179 or online at www.geneseelighthouse.org. Or write to them at 70 Lighthouse Street, Rochester, NY 14612.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2011 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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