Marblehead Lighthouse in Marblehead, Ohio, United States, is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes. It has guided sailors safely along the rocky shores of Marblehead Peninsula since 1822.
In 1819, the fifteenth U. S. Congress recognized the need for navigational aides along the Great Lakes, and set aside $5,000 for construction of a light tower at the entrance to Sandusky Bay. Contractor William Kelly built the 50 foot (15 m) tower of native limestone on the tip of the Marblehead Peninsula. The base of the tower is 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter, with walls five feet (1.5 m) thick. It narrows to 12 feet (4 m) at the top with two-foot (0.6 m) thick walls.
Through history, 15 lighthouse keepers, two of whom were women, have tended the beacon. The first keeper was Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the first settlers on the peninsula. He and his family lived in a small stone home on the Sandusky Bay side of the peninsula. Each night, he lit the wicks of the 13 whale oil lamps that were the original light fixture. Sixteen inch (406 mm) diameter metal reflectors helped project the light across the lake. Other duties of the lighthouse keeper included keeping a log of passing ships, noting the weather conditions, and organizing rescue efforts. Upon Wolcott's death in 1832, his wife, Rachel, took over these duties.
The whale oil lamps were replaced in 1858 by the light from a single kerosene lantern magnified by a Fresnel lens. This specialized, curved glass lens created a highly visible, fixed white light.
The lighthouse in January, overlooking Sandusky Bay
A lifesaving station was built one-half mile (800 m) west of the lighthouse in 1876. Lucien Clemons, who with his two brothers saved two sailors from a shipwreck off the peninsula on May 1, 1875, was named the first commander. In 1880, the lighthouse keeper's household moved to a wooden frame home in a more convenient location, next to the lighthouse.
The turn of the century ushered in new technology as well as structural changes including the addition of another 15 feet (4.6 m) to the tower’s height. A clock-like mechanism was installed to rotate the lantern, creating the appearance of a brilliant flash of light every 10 seconds. This system required that the lighthouse keeper crank the weights every three hours through the night to keep the lantern turning. An improved Fresnel lens with prism surfaces created an even more brilliant beacon.
Modern conveniences came slowly to the timeless light tower. An electric light finally replaced the kerosene lantern in 1923, dramatically increasing the intensity of the signal. During World War II, the lighthouse became strategically important for national defense. The last civilian lighthouse keeper resigned, and the United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the beacon in 1946.
The beacon was automated in 1958, making the Coast Guard’s job easier. With its original finish tattered by time and harsh weather, the exterior of the lighthouse tower was given a fresh coat of new stucco the same year.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has maintained the property surrounding the lighthouse since 1972 and proudly accepted ownership of the Marblehead Lighthouse tower in May 1998. The U.S. Coast Guard continues to operate and maintain the lighthouse beacon. Today’s 300 mm lens projects a green signal that flashes every six seconds and is visible for 11 nautical miles (20 km). The distinctive green distinguishes the lighthouse signal from white lights coming from air beacons.
Marblehead’s beloved beacon continues to shine and protect boaters from peril in Lake Erie's unpredictable waters along her rocky shores.