The History of the “Jewel of the Port®”

The symbol many people have come to identify with Lorain is the Lorain Lighthouse. Its image has been reproduced thousands of times in photographs, scale models, paintings, postcards, sweatshirts, logos, pins, needlework projects, posters, the covers of the Lorain County phone book, the 1990 state map of Ohio, etc. Standing at the north end of the West Harbor Breakwater in Lorain Harbor, its light is no longer lit, its fog horn no longer sounds, but it remains a silent reminder of Lorain’s historic relationship with Lake Erie shipping.

Lorain’s first “light” was a simple lantern hanging on a pole at the water’s edge. The first “light station”, a wooden structure, was established in 1837 at the end of the West River Pier. Its beam was powered by lard oil, then later by kerosene. In the next 80 years, Lorain’s light was rebuilt at least twice, with continuing repairs to the walkway to the light, until the outer harbor West Breakwater was completed in 1908.

The “beacon building” that was installed in 1898 saw Lorain’s first lighthouse keeper, James Connolly, on duty starting in 1899. Connolly served until 1903 with one assistant. As time went by the kerosene light was replaced by an “oil vapor light”.

Many dates are given for when the Lighthouse we see today was built ­ an article from the Lorain Journal, September 23, 1953 indicates 1898, with the title, “Lorain’s Lighthouse in 55th Year of Duty”, but that date isn’t close. Most sources give 1909 as the date, but the blueprint for the current structure is dated 1916. Information from the Lighthouse Board in the National Archives states: “On June 30, 1917, the concrete structure had been erected, roof completed except shingling, metal work of lantern erected, and concrete forms removed. Temporary light in commission shone from new lantern. It is expected to install permanent light this season and place fog signal commission early next season.” Also, an act of October 22, 1913 appropriated $35,000 for a light and fog station at Lorain Harbor. Thus the date 1917 is the most accurate available for the construction of the current Lorain Lighthouse structure.

The Lorain Lighthouse was built with poured concrete and steel walls that were over ten inches thick. The concrete structure included door jams, baseboards and window frames made of steel. In 1932 an electric light was installed. The lighthouse’s rotating beam projected fifteen miles out over the lake waters by means of a “fresnel” lens. This type of lens was invented by Frenchman, Jean Augustin Fresnel. The lens consisted of a large glass cylinder with mirrors that refracted parallel beams of light. The 50,000 candle power beacon was located 58 feet above Lake Erie. The beam flashed in the direction of the observer every ten seconds and its range was about 15 miles.

In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of the Lighthouse. As illustrated in a Lorain Journal article of July 5, 1954, three men from the local Coast Guard unit were stationed at the Lighthouse. According to William Deverick, Lighthouse Keeper from 1957 to 1960, the inside of the Lighthouse consisted of a basement inside the crib of the structure with three floors above and a light tower. Four fuel tanks were stored in the basement along with a paint locker and a fresh water pump. On the first floor were located the engine room, the control panel, bath room, air compressors for a fog horn, auxiliary power generators, a tool room and the furnace. The second floor housed the office, fog horn air storage tank, sleeping quarters for the staff and a large galley. The third floor contained the fog horn house, the spare parts locker and a fresh water tank. The main light motor and weight controls were located in the light tower. The Coast Guard workers did their own cooking and housekeeping while living in the Lighthouse. They worked six days and were off three days, with two men at the Lighthouse at all times. Mr. Deverick estimated that the Lighthouse received over 60 distress calls a month during the late 1950’s. The Coast Guard crew served as lookouts for the lifeboat station and also served as ground observers’ lookout for the Air Force. In 1959 the Lighthouse was painted for the first time in 20 years by the Coast Guard staff. They were given 50 gallons of paint and told to complete the work in their spare time. It took them one year to complete the project using four-inch brushes.

In 1965, the Coast Guard decommissioned the Lighthouse. The building was slated for demolition in 1965 to make way for a planned $22 million harbor improvement program. The Lighthouse was to be replaced by a fully automatic light that would be erected at the west tip of the new outer harbor break wall. (The automated light was to be visible for 18 to 20 miles away compared to the Lighthouse’s 15-mile range.) When the light beacon was installed in the new breakwater the Lighthouse’s lens was removed and a small, red Coast Guard warning marker light was inserted in its place. The presence of the automated light released the three Lighthouse Coast Guardsmen for other duty. Unfortunately, the lack of staff being stationed at the Lighthouse ushered in a years-long period of intermittent vandalism at the structure. The building, without any furnishings in it, did not suffer any structural damage. The Coast Guard had to resort to welding the shutters and doors closed in an attempt to deny access to trespassers.

A group of concerned citizens led by Wayne Conn, William Parker, John and Clara Corogin and the Lorain County Historical Society mobilized to prevent the demolition of the Lighthouse. During the summer Mayor Woodrow Mathna and Wayne Conn met with Congressman Charles Mosher (R-Oberlin) and representatives of the United States Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. The Coast Guard later that year turned down the group’s request that the demolition be canceled. In early 1966 Conn negotiated directly with the company hired to construct the new break wall and demolish the Lighthouse. Due to severe winter weather the company decided to go along with Mr. Conn’s request to delay demolition until spring of 1967. Destruction had been scheduled for October 1965, but bad weather kept the demolition from proceeding. Since the weather stopped work on laying cable for the new beacon the old Lighthouse’s beam was still needed. By the time spring arrived good news came from Congressman Mosher’s office: the Coast Guard had decided to retain the Lighthouse after all due to the community’s interest in keeping the structure because of its historic value.

In 1974 international attention was brought to the Lorain Lighthouse. The General Services Administration abruptly announced that the Coast Guard had turned the structure over to them and that the General Services Administration was accepting bids for its purchase. The Associated Press newspaper wire service spread the story around the world accompanied by a photograph of the Lighthouse. The picture, by the local photographer, Jim Fiedler, showed the Lighthouse silhouetted against the setting sun. The headline read, “a place to get away from it all … with a magnificent view of the setting sun”. A Lorain couple, vacationing in France, was surprised to find Fiedler’s picture of the Lorain Lighthouse with the “for sale” story, printed in a Parisian newspaper. Luckily for local conservation efforts, the General Services Administration was fussy about the qualifications of potential buyers. The General Services Administration reserved sale to not-for-profit organizations with historical purposes. Any purchasing organization would have to be able to demonstrate the financial resources needed to take over ownership and maintenance of the Lighthouse.

The Save-the-Lighthouse Committee continued to look for a buyer to save the structure from being destroyed. They approached the Great Lakes Historical Society since it met the General Service Administration’s criteria and was a logical local owner. The Great Lakes Historical Society attorney, Howard Baxter, and Leonard Sandelli of the Chicago Office of the General Services Administration, communicated often in efforts to work out a purchase.

Robert Jaycox, the Lorain Harbormaster, invited the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee to tour the Lighthouse in March 1975. They toured the Lighthouse with members of the Great Lakes Historical Society and found that the structure was basically sound.

In 1976 the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee applied for a grant to help fund preservation of the Lighthouse. The Committee assembled a scrapbook about the Lighthouse that demonstrated the local concerns about its future. Among those who provided valuable assistance in applying for the grant were John Corogin (Lake Erie Electric), Gene Sofranko (Lorain Glass), Loren Burgett (Lorain Builders Supply), Leo Weingarten (Lorain House Lumber) and Al Doane (Doane Electric). A $1,000 Ohio American Revolution Bicentennial grant was awarded to the Committee.

Although the Great Lakes Historical Society did consider the purchase of the Lighthouse for a time it finally decided not to purchase the Lighthouse. This decision was influenced by financial obligations facing the Great Lakes Historical Society. During the summer of 1976 there were real estate problems with the Vermilion Museum and some Great Lakes Historical Society board members did not favor taking on new projects which would require extra financial commitments. In October of 1976 Howard Baxter informed the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee that his organization was no longer interested in the purchase.

Al Doane, Al Fauver and Wayne Conn had sensed this change of interest on the part of the Great Lakes Historical Society for some months and had been re-establishing contacts with the Lorain County Historical Society. Actually there had been on-going contacts with the Lorain County Historical Society since the first saving of the Lighthouse in 1965-1966.

Lorain County Historical Society board members George Strom and Dale Kellogg stressed that their organization could not afford any financial drain on its own stressed budget. Therefore the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee pledged to hand over to the Lorain County Historical Society the $1,000 received from the Ohio American Revolution Bicentennial grant. The grant money was to be reserved for payment of liability insurance premiums on the Lighthouse structure. This was the primary financial outlay that the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee had mutually identified with the Lorain County Historical Society as being needed at that time for the Lighthouse.

Once they had been convinced of the project’s financial feasibility, the Lorain County Historical Society Board and the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee agreed to enter into negotiations with the General Services Administration.

In 1977 the Lorain County Historical Society was awarded the deed to the Lorain Lighthouse by the General Services Administration for $1.00. The Lorain County Historical Society received the deed with the stipulation that the Lighthouse be maintained as an historic landmark. For the second time the Lighthouse had been “saved”! In December of the 1978 the Lorain Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An underwater examination of the Lighthouse base was conducted in February of 1980 by divers hired with funds provided by a $9,000 grant from Ohio Coastal Zone Management. That inspection discovered that the base was in good condition.

The painting job done in 1959 was looking very weather-beaten in 1981. Robert Kowalczyk (formerly known as Reid Kollins), director of the Greater Lorain Chamber of Commerce, led the drive to recruit materials, supplies and labor for a repainting and refurbishing job. Due to the efforts of Gerry Amato, former Lorain Councilman and a Glidden Company executive, the Glidden Company (of Cleveland) donated more than 160 gallons of paint and other coatings for a repainting project of the Lighthouse exterior. (The Glidden Company later used “before and after” photos of the Lighthouse in an advertisement for its products.)

The 1981 painting work was done by professional painters whose time was donated by the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel. More than seventeen other local companies and individuals donated other work during the clean-up process. In addition to repainting the structure with white latex masonry paint, the work crews sandblasted the rust-corroded shutters and railings and then painted them ship gray. The shingles on the roof were treated with a sealer after being re-painted the distinctive tile-red. Comprehensive Employment Training Act workers transported the work crews to the Lighthouse by boat. Heavy equipment had to be transported by barge. John Sulpizio of the Lorain Port Authority, Al Doane of Doane Electric and Chief Mike Amato of the local Coast Guard were of great help during the process. Although the project took 17 days to complete it was more than a month in the doing because work was canceled six times due to threatening lake weather conditions. Total value of the donated materials and labor for “Operation Lighthouse” was estimated at over $30,000.

In 1987, another underwater examination of the Lighthouse’s base was done. That examination along with inspection of the structure itself, led to a determination that over $700,000 was needed to accomplish all the repairs that were needed to restore the Lighthouse to a safe and sound condition.

Through the years much help in the restoration was provided to the Save-the-Lighthouse Committee by Congressman Charles A. Mosher and then by his successor, Congressman Donald Pease. Support and encouragement of efforts to save the Lighthouse were publicized often by the Lorain Journal whose spokespersons (Jim Mahony, Mel Hartley, Irving Leibowitz, James Lonergan and John Cole) and numerous photographers were instrumental in keeping the Lighthouse’s needs and image before the public.

The first Lorain Lighthouse Celebration was held August 5, 1989 to honor the Lighthouse and its place in Lorain’s history. The timing was chosen to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Lighthouse Act which established the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The Celebration was another example of cooperation among many local groups ­ Black River Historical Society, Marina International, Lorain County Historical Society, the Lorain Port Authority, the city of Lorain, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Lorain County Visitors Bureau, Lorain National Bank and numerous other area businesses and private individuals.

On December 21, 1989 Steven G. Luca, CPA, Robert Milovich, and Frank Lucas, desiring to form a corporation not for profit under Section 1702.01 of the Revised Code of Ohio, applied for the incorporation of the Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc.

The Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc., an IRC section 501(c)(3) tax exempt non-profit, charitable foundation, was created in 1989 and incorporated on December 26, 1989 under the laws of the State of Ohio and commenced operations on January 1, 1990, to spearhead the preservation of the Lorain Lighthouse. It was also established to maintain the history and integrity of Lorain’s Waterfront. On February 12, 1990, the Port of Lorain Foundation bought the Lorain Lighthouse building for $1.00 from the Lorain County Historical Society. The Port of Lorain Foundation received grants from the Ohio Historical Society and the Community Foundation of Greater Lorain County. The grant money was awarded to perform an engineering study to determine the repairs necessary to restore the structure and strengthen its base. Grants were also received from the Stocker Foundation and the TRW Foundation.

As this record of the Lighthouse’s history is written at the end of May, 1991, the Port of Lorain Foundation continues its fund-raising efforts. Preservation of the Lighthouse will involve restoration of the base with installation of sheet piling around the structure to protect it from further deterioration (estimated to cost $750,000), and repair and restoration of the exterior and restoration of the interior. Upon completion of repairs to the base of the structure the Foundation’s efforts will then be directed toward restoration of the Lighthouse structure itself.

By spring of 1991, approximately $250,000 had been collected or pledged toward the project’s cost including funds allocated by the state and through the fund-raising campaign. Cooperative projects were led by the Lorain City Schools during 1990-91. Irving Middle School 7th and 8th graders constructed wooden model Lighthouse banks that were displayed in area businesses soliciting donations for the renovation. Twenty-four Lorain city public and private schools also worked together to collect pennies in large glass bottles in their buildings. The “Pounds of Pennies” effort collected 2,861 pounds of pennies. The winning school was St. John School with 548 pounds of pennies donated. Whittier Middle School was second place winner and Irving Middle School placed third. The total amount raised by the Pounds of Pennies campaign was $5,000.05.

Michael VanWagnen, a local photographer, donated 2,000 posters of the Lighthouse as gifts to accompany donations to the renovation campaign of $20 or more. Other area artists also offered percentages of sales of Lighthouse artworks for the campaign coffers.

On May 30, 1991, it was announced in the Morning Journal that the House of Representatives in Washington, DC had voted in favor of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. That bill included a line-item appropriation of $500,000 for the repair of the foundation of the Lighthouse. The repair appropriation had been requested by Rep. Donald J. Pease who said he was confident that the bill would pass including the appropriation for the Lighthouse money.

On June 8-9, 1991, the third annual Port Awareness Weekend and Lighthouse Celebration will be held in Lorain. The annual celebrations mark the continuing efforts of the Port of Lorain Foundation and other local groups to publicize the Lighthouse and encourage involvement in fund-raising to completely restore it for enjoyment by present and future generations of Lorain’s residents.

On June 24, 1991 the Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc. received IRS Determination letter and recognition of exemption from federal income tax under Section 501(a) as described in Section 501(c)(3) of the IRC.

In 2016 the Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc. changed its name to the Lorain Lighthouse Foundation, Inc., still a non-profit 501(c)(3).

Lorain Lighthouse Chronology

1837 Light station erected at outer end of the West River Pier

1857 Lighthouse rebuilt 1875

1875 New light established at head of West Pier, old brick tower on shore torn down

1903 Construction of West Breakwater begun

1908 West Breakwater completed

Light erected at head of outer West Breakwater Pier, cost $19,800

1913 $35,000 appropriated for a light and fog signal station

1016 Date on original blueprint for current Lorain Lighthouse

1917 Concrete structure erected, roof complete except shingling

1919 Building rebuilt

1932 Electric beacon installed

1939 U.S. Coast Guard takes over operation; Lighthouse is painted

1957 William J. Deverick appointed Lighthouse Keeper by Coast Guard

1959 Exterior repainted for 50th Anniversary; Floodlights installed to beam at Lighthouse

11/60 Deverick tour-of-duty ended; Lighthouse cleaned up and brought up to “Coast Guard Standards” (Outstanding Rating) during his term

1965 Lighthouse light automated; Coast Guard staffing discontinued; Lighthouse decommissioned by Coast Guard.

7/12/65 Governor announces contract for Oct. 1 destruction as part of $22 million harbor renovation project

7/30/65 Wayne Conn appointed by Mayor Mathna to head Save-the-Lighthouse Committee

7/65 Citizens’ Committee, Lorain Journal, Congressman Mosher and City Officials organize to preserve structure

8/65 City Council passes resolution expressing hope that Lighthouse is preserved; resolution forwarded to Rep. Mosher

8/18/65 Congressman Mosher, Mayor Mathna and Wayne Conn meet with United States Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.) officials in Washington, D.C.

9/65 U.S.C.G. position adamant; committee fights on

10/65 Destruction contract is postponed but not cancelled

11/65 Lorain County Historical Society is approached and expresses interest in helping save Lighthouse

12/65 Weather precludes procedure on destruction contract

1965-66 Campaign to save the Lighthouse

1/66 Electrical wiring at Lighthouse disconnected; Last light shines from Lighthouse beacon

1/66 Lorain Civic Memorial Association contacted; it indicates interest and money available

2/66-4/66 Bad weather; no destruction of Lighthouse

5/5/66 U.S.C.G. cancels demolition contract; continues restricted operation of Lighthouse

5/19/73 General Services Administration declares the building surplus and up for disposal (sale)

1973 Journal begins campaign to keep interest in rescuing the Lighthouse alive in the community

7/73 Contacts initiated with the Great Lakes Historical Society (to continue for a period of over two years)

9/73 Ohio State University becomes interested in the Lighthouse as a research site; Lorain Civic Memorial Association and Great Lakes Historical Society still interested

1973-74 Continued negotiations with Great Lakes Historical Association

7/74 Problems regarding Vermilion Museum hold up action with Great Lakes Historical Society

7/12/74 Contract negotiations with Great Lakes Historical Society continue

3/75 Local group visits Lighthouse with Great Lakes Historical Society officials. They determine that the structure is basically sound with regard to restoring cosmetic appearance of the exterior. No use of the interior is contemplated due to personal liability exposure in getting on and off the site.

4/10/75 Negotiations with Great Lakes Historical Society and General Services Administration continue

11/75 Great Lakes Historical Society indicates lack of interest in completing contract

12/75 Re-establishment of negotiations with Lorain County Historical Society

1/3/76 Lorain County Historical Society and General Services Administration continue contract negotiations

3/76 Local committee, through Lorain County Historical Society, files an application for O.A.R.B. Horizon’s ’76 Federal Matching Funds Grant.

1/77 Purchased by the Lorain Historical Society for $1.00 and receives deed

12/78 Placed on the National Register of Historic Places

1980 Lighthouse renovation study carried out by Lorain County. Regional Planning Commission for Lorain Historical Society.

1981 Lighthouse T-shirts available for sale from Lake Screen Printing

10/81 “Operation Lighthouse” results in complete repainting of exterior with sandblasting of shutters and railings and treatment of the roof shingles

1987 Cracks in Lighthouse base worry volunteers; underwater examination of base conducted and building is examined

8/5/89 Celebration of the Lighthouse

12/26/89 Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc. was incorporated under the laws of the State of Ohio and commenced operations on January 1, 1990.

1/90 Lorain Lighthouse featured on cover of the newest Ohio roadmap

2/12/90 The Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc., buys the Lighthouse for $1.00.

6/90 Second annual Port Awareness Weekend and Lighthouse Celebration

12/3/90 Port of Lorain Foundation receives $19,168 grant from Ohio Historical Society

1991 Port of Lorain Foundation sponsors fund-raising drive for Lighthouse restoration.

1991 Ohio 1991/1992 budget has $150,000 allocation reserved in the Capital Appropriation Budget for Lighthouse restoration.

5/91 Schools conclude their “Pounds of Pennies” fund-raiser for Lighthouse. They raise $5,000.05.

5/30/91 House of Representatives votes in favor of appropriation including funds for Lighthouse base repairs.

1991 June 8 and 9 ­ Port Awareness Weekend and Lighthouse Celebration.

6/24/1991 Received IRS determination of 501(c)(3) status.

1992 to present Restoration of the Lorain Lighthouse continues through the efforts of the Port of Lorain Foundation, Inc. and its dedicated supporters.

2007 Additional content coming soon!
Information provided by the Lorain Public Library and others.