West Breakwater Lighthouse abandoned, then restored
By Jane Beathard
For 100 years it has been a Lake Erie icon.
The historic West Breakwater Lighthouse in Lorain is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, beckoning visitors for summertime tours and sunset dinners.
Affectionately nicknamed “Jewel of the Port,” Lorain’s harbor light is one of only 10 Lake Erie lighthouses that remain open to the public, according to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.
For nearly a half-century, it stood sentinel at the tip of a rocky breakwater, sounding its signature fog horn and flashing its Fresnel lens at regular intervals to help passing mariners determine their locations, according to a history of the port.
Built in 1917 and put into service two years later, the lighthouse was staffed around the clock, seven days a week by members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Shifts ran six days, with two guardsmen on duty at all times — eating and sleeping in the second-floor ward room and berthing compartment.
Coal, fuel oil and propane powered operations in early days. An electric beacon was installed in 1932. A system of pulleys, similar to those of a grandfather clock, raised and lowered the light to a third-floor “lantern room.”
Advancing technology made manned lighthouses obsolete by the mid 1900s. Lorain’s stately harbor light was decommissioned and abandoned in 1965.
Twenty-six years of disrepair followed. Only birds, bats and bugs visited the site, which is accessible only by water.
A Canadian freighter struck the lighthouse in 1969, damaging the concrete base. That incident, combined with prop wash from passing ships, caused the lighthouse to lean.
Repairs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually stabilized the structure, but it continues to slope about 9 degrees northward to this day, according to Frank Sipkovsky, chairman of a lighthouse restoration committee.
At one point, it was slated for demolition, but Mother Nature intervened in the form of a severe storm that stopped the federal contractor’s work, Sipkovsky said.
Concerned local citizens lobbied against destruction, and the Lorain County Historical Society acquired the lighthouse from the federal government in 1977 for $1.
“No one thought it could be restored,” Sipkovsky said.
But enterprising locals wanted to preserve this important part of Ohio’s North Coast history. They formed the nonprofit Port of Lorain Foundation in 1989, determined to return the lighthouse to its former glory.
During the last 20 years, the foundation solicited donations, grants and other sources of private funding.
Volunteers painted and re-roofed the lighthouse, replaced its windows and shutters, and refinished its African mahogany woodwork and maple flooring.
Former lighthouse keepers still living in the area kept the work authentic.
“They could recount what (the lighthouse) looked like in the 1950s,” Sipkovsky said.
The Fresnel lens that once beamed a signal to ships 15 miles away is now polished and on display at the Lorain Port Authority office. The Riverside Museum Building houses the original electric generator.
“The lighthouse has regained its natural beauty,” a foundation brochure boasts.
Fundraising for restoration and maintenance continues through paid tours and other events.
Tour boats ferry visitors to the lighthouse 10 times a day between May and August. Sunset dinners for a limited number of attendees are offered weekly on the lighthouse dock between June and September.
WEST BREAKWATER LIGHTHOUSE
301 Lakeside Ave., Lorain OH 44052
The 2017 Lorain Lighthouse Sunset Wine Dinners started June 20 and run every Tuesday through Sept. 12, weather permitting.