Footsteps on the metal stairs winding up the tower echo up and down the narrow walls, and although in the present time seem to resonate or speak of the past. How many times have former inhabitants tread the very same steps carrying out their lighthouse duties over a century ago? Every four hours the lens clock mechanism of weights and pulleys had to be wound to rotate the lamp, oil and supplies had to go up and down the dumbwaiter, and certainly the lens and glass housing had to be cleaned, especially when powered by whale and kerosene fuel. Lake Erie mariners counted on its light to help guide them through dark nights and treacherous waters, making it a critical job to be taken very seriously. If the walls and echoes could tell a story, it would be one of intrigue of by-gone days. The Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, part of the Seaway Trail and National Register of Historic Places, may be toured May through October. From the perspective of a volunteer tour guide, this week's column continues with its "virtual tour" with emphasis on the tower itself.
Some of the footsteps of the past come from a more recent time of the 1960s and '70s when this columnist walked up and down the lighthouse stairs and explored the lens area encased in a glass room at the top of the tower. It was a time when the lighthouse had become fully automated and did not need a lighthouse keeper, but had my grandfather as a part time groundskeeper to perform basic upkeep and check the property for any damages. It was of course, also at a time when children generally played unsupervised with few worries from the adults. Now, as a tour guide looking at the past, it is a good thing that my brothers and I were not mischievous or overly playful when near the original Fresnel lens that is still in use today. Purchased in France in 1857 for $10,000, by today's standards it would now cost over $1.5 million to replace.
On a tour, visitors learn that the first light was located on the corner of the property in 1826/27, but due to erosion and the tower's condition, was moved to its current location in 1875. Bricks made from clay in the nearby lagoon from the original structure were used for part of the new dwelling, with the tower made of local siltstone. The original tower was round, but the second one was enclosed and made square to match the Victorian Gothic architectural style of the new keeper's home which became popular after the Civil War. While the pier light marks the entrance to the harbor, it is the tower's light that can be seen from a greater distance on the lake. The tower measures 61 feet from its base to the cast iron ventilator ball on top of the lantern, but it is 82 feet above the mean lake level. On a clear day when viewing the lake from the top of the tower, structures in Port Colborne, Canada, which is approximately 25 miles across the lake, can be seen. However, a fun question to ask on a tour is to have people estimate the distance the light can be seen when on the lake. It becomes a science and math topic to ponder, especially if people assume it's the same as looking out.
Many open metal stairs lead up to the lighthouse tower and when viewed from below looking up or when looking down make a beautiful spiral pattern.
Various resources and sites help explain why the distance is approximately 16 miles for the Dunkirk Lighthouse. It comes down to the elevation of the observer in relation to the curvature of the earth. At water level, we can only see about 1.2 miles before the horizon appears to us. The higher we are, the greater distance we can see. A formula using the square root of the height of the observer multiplied by the 1.2 can be added to the product using the same formula of the elevation of the ship's viewing point (about 15 feet) to find the total distance. A source from the United States Coast Guard's Navigation Center "Local Notice to Mariners" lists Dunkirk Harbor with specific distances and also includes the pierhead light as being visible nine miles from out on the lake. As summed up by one site for which this new tour guide used to help understand it all better (Seeing the Light at terrypepper.com and How far can you see a lighthouse at pajack.com), "no matter how bright an object, it cannot be seen a distance greater than where the curvature of the earth takes it from view."
While at the top of the tower it is also interesting to see the Fresnel lens up close and personal. Developed by a French physicist in the early 1820s, a lens consists of many glass prisms fitted into a metal frame resembling a large beehive. Made in six sizes or "orders," the first is the most powerful at an average height of nearly eight feet and six feet in diameter to the sixth at about one and a half feet in height and one foot in diameter. The Dunkirk lighthouse is a third order lens making it quite powerful in its ability to capture light and project it into powerful beams. In fact, a Fresnel lens which reflects and refracts (bends) light increases the factor in the distance formula from 1.2 to 1.3, which can also lead to a detailed discussion of a condition called "looming" where it is possible to see the effect over the physical horizon. The same sites briefly describe this, as well as the US Lighthouse Society that claims that there are only 70 Fresnel lenses in the United States with 16 on the Great Lakes and two in New York.
Climb the tower and enjoy the view. Hear the stories of the first shots fired in the War of 1812 from a vantage point where it all happened as well as the geological and economic importance of the Great Lakes. Come and share your expertise. Certainly this new tour guide has much to learn and the finer points or inaccuracies of my research, particularly related to the aforementioned distance formulas could be improved. Come see the gargoyles on the downspouts of the tower, which according to folklore ward of evil spirits. That may very well be the explanation for the echoing footsteps heard in the tower when one is alone but not moving. They are just friends from the past. That however is a whole other story in the series of columns about our local lighthouse treasure.
Make it a good week and go to www.dunkirklightouse.com for more information. Thank you to the reader who pointed out the spelling/typing error made last week related to the memorial located on the lighthouse grounds for one of our local heroes killed in the Battle of Gettysburg from the 9th NY Cavalry. His name was Cyrus W. James, not "Jones" as written last week. The story of this soldier would also make a great column.