"When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin', 'Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."' At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said, 'Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!'
"The captain wired in he had water comin' in and the ship was in peril. And later that night when its lights went outta sight, came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
These lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot from the 1976 song "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" exemplify the dangers cargo ships have faced through the years on the Great Lakes. A new reality television show on the history channel called Great Lake Warriors gives viewers a glimpse of what some of the challenges are when sailing on the interconnected waters that make up 20 percent of the world's fresh water. Although there have been many disasters during the last two centuries, many were also averted due to the lighthouses that were erected in the 1800s to aid navigators on the treacherous waters. Today, many are in decay or only a memory. Other lucky ones have been restored and are taken care of in order to preserve history, with some still in working order and shining their light for mariners. One such treasure along the famous Seaway Trail is our own Dunkirk Lighthouse. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this landmark still lights up each night with an automatic light sensor and uses its original Fresnel lens purchased from France in 1857.
OBSERVER Photo by April?Diodato
The Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.
The intrigue of mariner history, architecture and lifestyles from bygone days, panoramic vistas, invaluable military artifacts, and paranormal activity are found at the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. Parts of its rich history has been periodically chronicled in several venues, including this column five years ago when the museum had World War II beach battle reenactments and was introduced with Lightfoot's well known song. More than ever, the lighthouse is not just a beacon of light, but together with the museum, is a beacon or shining example of American history that through great efforts of local and dedicated people has been preserved for current and future generations to appreciate and enjoy. Run by volunteers and not-for-profit, it counts on grants, donations, and visitors to help keep it open. The visitor log shows that people come from many states and through first-hand experience I (columnist) have met some of them by helping as a volunteer part-time tour guide this summer. From the perspective of a new guide, it is both overwhelming and exciting with the abundance of diverse information to learn and share. A one-time visitor can get a great glimpse of what the museum has to offer, but would have to return many times to fully appreciate the depth of all there is to offer. On that note, over the course of the next few months this column will attempt to provide readers some of that detail through what could be called a virtual tour.
A logical place to begin such a tour might be the entrance itself with a cursory look around the grounds to get one's bearings. It would also be helpful to have a general idea of its location and history. The bottle structure buoy, built in 1903 and from Buffalo, replaces the original lighthouse mailbox used by residents many years ago. Heavy mariner chains grace the main pathways, including up to the entrance of the 1920s barn that is both a museum with artifacts as well as a small shop where visitors may sign in and make arrangements for formal tours. Many flag poles are present on the grounds as part of honoring veterans; so many that it is hard to keep track; with a recent count of 64. In this area there is a large tank and two memorials for Civil War men including Thomas Horan, a Medal of Honor recipient from the 72nd NY and Cyrus Jones of the 9th NY Cavalry who was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. The tall pier light tower used at the harbor from 1939 through 1992 is near with several large anchors embedded in the ground around the perimeter of the property. One is from the Anabelle Wilson that sank in 1913. There are signs about the area's involvement in the War of 1812 and kiosks that show shipwrecks on the lakes. One plaque outside the house shows the timeline of the property and the duties of the lighthouse keeper, which in turn is near several retired Coast Guard rescue boats, a large fog bell, huge 1850s rudder, a memorial to all the lighthouse keepers from the 1820s through 1960, as well as a monument dedicated to Harold "Dick" Lawson for his vision and founding of the museum more than 25 years ago.
Last, but not least are the buildings of course, including the lighthouse tower itself. In future columns, each will be highlighted in detail, but when walking the grounds one will find out that the first light on the property was in 1827 with the foundation of the original home still somewhat visible today. The beautiful Victorian Gothic home, built in 1875 to replace the first, was an architectural style that grew more popular after the Civil War. The tower which is 82 feet about lake level was constructed from blocks of local siltstone. As informative as a virtual tour may be, nothing can replace going up and taking in the view from all directions, including the gargoyles on the downspouts and the close up examination of the Fresnel lens. Resembling a large beehive, its glass prisms capture and project the light in powerful beams. The home has antiques of bygone days showing the lifestyle of its original inhabitants and the upstairs bedrooms have artifacts for each branch of the military. What can't be seen by virtual tour are the paranormal activities, but they can certainly be described in a later column and felt if one chooses to visit in person or go on the monthly "ghost tours."
Come visit and support the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum and enjoy the upcoming columns. Full of history, it remains a local treasure. As stated in an architecture book by J. A. Chewning, it stands as a visible reminder of what first made the town important: the harbor on Lake Erie. With its dedication to veterans, it also stands as a reminder of the invaluable sacrifices made by those among us, past and present, who have faithfully served in our military. The website www.dunkirklightouse.com also gives information.
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