BARKER – The beacon from Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse has long warned mariners away from treacherous shoals and a once-deadly sandbar, but it also beckons visitors interested in learning more of its fascinating history.
At one time in its 138 years, it was considered Lake Ontario’s most powerful light, with a beam that traveled more than 15 miles out into inky skies stretching over dangerous waters.
In 1995, a group of volunteers calling itself the Friends of the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse formed to help restore and preserve the lighthouse and its surrounding buildings. It will hold its largest fundraiser of the year, “Christmas at the Lighthouse,” from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Sunday at the lighthouse, located in Golden Hill State Park, 9691 Lower Lake Road.
The event will feature a chicken barbecue, basket auction, a visit from Santa and samplings from local wineries. All proceeds go to lighthouse restoration and preservation projects, according to Friends President Barbara Larson.
Park admission that day is free, and visitors are invited to tour the lighthouse, which includes a square limestone tower rising more than 70 feet in the air to an observation deck just below the “lantern room,” and main living quarters on the first floor of the attached keeper’s residence, which now serves as a museum.
“The tower will be open, so people can go up there, and the fall leaves will be starting to show,” said Larson. She also works as an interpreter for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the lighthouse.
This is the final week for lighthouse tours, which are conducted from May to mid-October, Larson said. She gives daily tours of the lighthouse from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday throughout the season.
“People love lighthouses,” she said. “They get all enthused when they visit. There’s something about lighthouses, and this really is a nice place. It’s very relaxed here, and it’s remote – there’s still farmland around it.”
Larson said the volunteers are eager to show off a new acquisition to the first-floor museum – a Woodruff gun, or small cannon, dating back to the Civil War. The hefty cannon was found just offshore of the lighthouse in the 1990s and was restored and returned to the site a few months ago for display, she said.
In the past 17 years, the Friends have restored the entire first floor of the lighthouse residence, where the main keeper stayed, Larson said.
“They did a fabulous job,” said Larson, who joined the group about a decade ago. “I can’t tell you how much work they put into it. They redid the fireplace and refinished the oak floors. There’s a living room, dining room, kitchen, a bedroom (which is now a meeting room) and children’s bedroom. So you get the feeling of a house. It’s pretty neat.”
Larson said the state parks staff restored the second-floor apartment, which has its own entrance and can be rented for overnight stays year-round. She described the relationship between the Friends and the state parks staff as a partnership working to preserve the site.
“If they don’t have the money in their budget to do something here, we try and hold fundraisers to help them,” she said. “We work in partnership, and we try and send people to help to work on projects. We work well together.”
“We’re a nonprofit group, so all of the money we bring in goes right to the organization to restore and preserve the site, and it’s not just the lighthouse, but the carriage barn, coal shed, foghorn building, outhouse and storage tanks, too,” she noted.
Larson said the group has a mailing list of about 100 but only a few active members.
“People support us, but it’s hard to get people out to help work,” she said. “Every group I talk to has the same problem trying to get new members. “
She said members of the Friends group hired someone to straighten the carriage barn, “which was really leaning,” but will do the scraping, priming and painting themselves.
The lighthouse earned its name simply because it is 30 miles from the Niagara River. It was built following four particularly tragic shipwrecks dating back to the 1600s. Most prominently, in 1780, the H.M.S. Ontario sank in a Halloween storm, killing 88 crew members and passengers. It also reportedly sunk with an army payroll of more than $15,000 in gold and silver. That news still attracts treasure hunters and provides a spooky background for many a ghost story.
When the lighthouse was built in 1875, it had a Third Order Fresnel lens, Larson said, which was 6 feet tall and weighed about 2,000 pounds.
“It was really special,” she said. “We have a few pictures of it.”
The six-sided lens was turned by precision clockwork movement of counterweights and magnified a kerosene lamp wick to produce a light visible more than 15 miles away. The kerosene was later replaced by a 500-watt bulb. From 1875 to 1935, the lighthouse was operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, but it was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1935. The Coast Guard removed the lens and decommissioned the site in 1958, building a steel tower nearby with an automatic beacon. In 1984, the U.S. government turned the property over to the state parks.
It was soon entered onto the National and State registries of historic places.
“In 1998, the Friends brought the light back into the lighthouse building, although you can still see the steel tower nearby,” said Larson. “We maintain the light now, which is fully automated, and it has power all of the time. The beacon goes out for two miles for boaters now, and we make sure it’s working.”
The Friends meet at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, April to November, except October, in the lighthouse. New members are always welcome.
For more information on the Friends or to donate to the basket auction, call Golden Hill State Park at (716) 795-3885.