Thursday, January 29, 2015


Coast Guard tower shell aboard the Wotan

Coast Guard's west breakwater tower completed

    TIMES HAVE BEEN A-CHANGING near the shores of Fairport Harbor. 
    For one thing, the old Coast Guard lighthouse itself, located at the west breakwater, has in recent years been undergoing major renovations. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was purchased in 2011 by Sheila Consaul of Virginia, through a General Services Administration auction. The owner has been renovating structure as a vacation retreat and summer get-away. At times, she has even allowed some public tours and visitors.
    The nearby Coast Guard property underwent some changes too. The old buildings on the property were demolished to make way for a new 16,000-square-foot building, with dock facilities, attached boat house and crane. 
    That area of lakefront property itself shares history with a premier family of lighthouse keepers (the Babcocks of Fairport Harbor), and the modern Coast Guard base itself morphed from an old Life Saving Station.
    The story began with an older tower and lighthouse keeper's cottage that now stands nearby as the Fairport Harbor Historical Society's Great Lakes Marine Museum. That tower with its "keeper's cottage" was itself a replacement for an earlier Jonathan Goldsmith structure, one of the first eight lighthouses built on the American side of the Lakes.
     In 1868, when the Goldsmith tower was on the verge of collapse due to faulty foundation on sandy soil, Congress appropriated $30,000 for its replacement and construction of the tower and cottage that now serves as the museum. The new light-tower went into operation in August 1871, and the keeper's dwelling was completed in October of that year.
    Joseph Babcock, a Civil War veteran who had been appointed lighthouse keeper in the last years of the older tower, continued as keeper of the light at the newer tower. More than half a century of his life would be spent in that position, which made him an important man in the little harbor town.       
    After all, was it not he who manned the beacon that guided the ships that carried the people safely into and out of Fairport's bustling harbor? And was that harbor not an important early water highway for import and export and the buying, selling and trading of a pioneer region's commercial, industrial, agricultural and domestic goods?
    Of the long string of lighthouse keepers in the little village, Babcock was the 11th and 13th of the 14 keepers. His son Daniel, born in 1868, was his father's assistant lighthouse keeper from 1901 until he took his father's place in 1919. Serving until 1925, he was Fairport's last keeper of the light at the old tower.
    THE LIFE SAVING STATION at the waterfront came into being in 1873, after Congress appropriated funds to establish such stations along the Great Lakes. Fairport was designated as part of the Ninth District of the four new federally-operated stations. The original life saving station was built at the foot of the old lighthouse hill near the present location of Fairport's water plant. 
    In 1876, who should the U.S. government appoint as keeper there but another member of the Babcock family--Joseph Babcock's brother George Francis (" Frank") Babcock? 
    A congenial man by nature, Babcock's life as a lighthouse keeper and rescuer was marked by heroism and at least one personal tragedy. 
    Early on, he saved the life of Fairport School Supt.T. W. Burns, who almost drowned in the Grand River as he rowed his boat across from his home in Mentor Headlands. High water, ice and slush carried Byrn's small craft out into a stormy lake, and Babcock fought the elements to save him.
    In 1888, after the Captain's own five-year-old son Seth fell from a boat and drowned near the Life Saving Station, the grief-stricken father forged on with his duties. He remained on the job for 22 years and participated in more than 300 rescues until his death in 1899, when he would be replaced by Captain Neils Rasmussen of Erie, Pennsylvania, who would serve until the U.S. Coast Guard began manning the station in 1915.
    Captain Frank Babcock's annual salary at the station was $400, and each of his crew members earned $40 a month. Their year began each spring with the opening of the navigation system and ended with the shipping season's official close, December 15th.
    The men were constantly on watch, night and day, and this was especially crucial in rough weather. For the crewmen, this might as well have been volunteer work, for they used their meager earnings to build and maintain four modest cottages on the shore near the station, to provide housing for their families there. The Captain and his wife and children occupied the very small rooms in the wing of the station itself.
    FOR STRATEGIC REASONS, the Life Saving Station was moved in February 1878 to the west side of the river, and Babcock's family and many Fairport residents watched as the station was pulled by horses across the ice-frozen river. In its new location, it drew as much interest as it had at the foot of the lighthouse hill. 
    When the crew held its twice-weekly practices, Babcock was always pleased to see so many people witnessing the work of his crew. It was a real attraction for residents living near both sides of the river, who often came to watch activities at the station. Their interest continued for some time even after the station was manned by U.S. Coast Guardsmen.
    In her diary, Margaret Morton Smith of Mentor Headlands wrote of hiking to the station and "being well rewarded with a first-hand lesson in life saving with an exhibition drill both on land and boats." She also wrote about the produce sold to the station and of the families who went there to socialize and learn the latest harbor news.
     SOME YEARS AGO, Ben Waddington Jr. (then 80 years old) shared with me some memories of the station in the 1930s. They were a highlight of his boyhood summers at a family camp on the east end of what is now Headlands State Park, where the Waddingtons came to know a Captain Morton at the Life Saving Station.
     "Sometimes we boys played pinochle with the lighthouse keeper at the station," Waddington recalled. "We went to play at the lighthouse often, and sometimes we boys even slept there if we were crowded out of our tents by visitors at our camp. We had a fine view of the station from our summer retreat at the point where the beach ended at the stone pier. There were Coast Guard life-saving drills, and we could watch by just walking out of our tents...
     "The Coast Guard had erected a ship's mast on the beach between the stone pier and the river concrete pier. The rescue drills took place there within 25 yards of our camp. On top of the 20-foot mast was a square platform. The crews would go down the beach about 30 yards and fire a line from a small cannon toward a man on the platform. They were replicating the actual shooting of a rescue line out to the mast of a foundered ship, where a stranded sailor could grab the line, drawing in a pulley and heavier rope. The 'victim' in the drill would be reeled in by rescuers. It was great fun for us to watch, and I can still picture it in my mind today," said Waddington.
    "We caught wonderful strings of fish off our camp," he added, "and we always made a point of giving some to the Coast Guard crew. A mutual-admiration-society developed between them and our camp families."
     THE PRESENT COMBINATION light-and-foghorn station (lighthouse) was built on the west breakwater pier head in 1917, when the government approved money for improvement of navigation at Fairport. It was spectacular for villagers to watch as the shell of the light station arrived from Buffalo at 1:45 p.m., June 21, 1921, perched atop the steamboat Wotan.
    The light station was officially commissioned in 1925. From that day on, the old tower on the hill at Second Street and High Street in Fairport was no longer needed, though the Coast Guard did continue to use the keeper's cottage at the tower's base as living quarters for 20 years.
    In 1938, with the widening of the channel, the Coast Guard Station was moved to the location now marked for demolition, and additions and a new boat launch ramp were added. The station became a Training Center for the Coast Guard during World War II.
    When all governmental use of the old tower on the hill in Fairport was discontinued by the Coast Guard, villagers provided a caretaker and the government granted the village a revocable lease. A Historical Society was formed to preserve the tower and establish a museum there, and in 1953, ownership of the landmark was officially transferred to the village. (A story in itself).
   A BIT OF FUNCTIONAL history remains with the most recent changes in the area of the Coast Guard station. The lighthouse itself continues as a working lighthouse, as part of the contract in the transfer of the building to private ownership. The beacon continues to serve as an active aid-to-navigation, maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. And in addition, a National Weather Service weather detection system (Station FAIO1) continues to function there, showing current marine weather observations.
    The recent improvements on the Coast Guard property itself were coordinated with improvements at the Coast Guard District station in Cleveland. The new buildings in Fairport will be flexible in use and less expensive to maintain. Dock improvements will enable the station to take its 47-foot and 27-foot boats out of the water for maintenance and will enable it to provide that service for other 9th District Stations as well.

AFTER-NOTE: In the late 1950s, the commercial traffic at the harbor was still fairly busy, though it was fading. The Coast Guard station was part of my beat as a waterfront reporter, and I dined a number of times by invitation at the station. A fine addition, I would say, to my invitations to visit and dine aboard the freighters that passed the Coast Guard lighthouse as they travelled in and out of harbor.