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A History of the Charlotte Lighthouse

December 8th, 2015

The Charlotte lighthouse in summer, 2014. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
By Joanne Brokaw

If there’s a cemetery tour happening in Rochester, you can be sure I’m there. For anyone interested in local history, there’s no better place to find unusual stories and bits of trivia, and I’m fascinated by the history buried all around us.

A few weeks ago, the City of Rochester hosted the annual Genesee River Romance weekend external link celebrating the Genesee River and its surrounding trail and gorge system. In 2014, I took full advantage of the weekend of events that include tours of the old subway and aqueducts, the Rundel Library, the Falls, and cemeteries. Somehow, I missed the adverts for this year’s event, so I only had time to catch one thing: the tour of Charlotte Cemetery…

Charlotte Cemetery [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
Charlotte Cemetery external link is just off Lake Avenue on River Street external link. It dates back to the early 1800s, and its residents include prominent people like the Latta external linkfamily; James Stoddard Stone external link, the first child born in Rochester (although there’s an ongoing debate about that claim); and daredevil Sam Patch external link, whose body is somewhere in the cemetery, but not where the marker is.

But while those stories on the tour were interesting, what really fascinated me were those focused the Charlotte lighthouse external link. As a city located on two natural bodies of water, the Genesee River and Lake Ontario, water plays an important role in Rochester history. And we like our lighthouse stories. In fact, it’s noted on the historical marker that this is the final resting place of the lighthouse’s first keeper.

The Charlotte Cemetery is located on River Street, off Lake Avenue. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
Here are a few stories inspired by the tour, which was hosted by guide Jack Kemp. One thing to note: some of the details from the oral history he shared on the tour vary from the written accounts I found when checking facts and researching the lighthouse history. I did my best to reconcile them where I could, but you may still find a discrepancy here or there. Specific dates or names sometimes don’t quite match up in the telling of the story hundreds of years later. History is like that. Just roll with it.

The final resting place of William and Mehetabel Hincher, the first settlers in Charlotte. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
The first settlers on the site of what would become the lighthouse were William Hincher and his wife Mehitabel. Hincher’s surname was originally Henshaw. He had been part of Shay’s Rebellion and, after fleeing Federal troops, changed his name to Hincher. In 1792, he settled his family on the shores of Lake Ontario, comforted by the knowledge that, if necessary, he could quickly escape across the lake to Canada.

In November 1794, Hincher purchased 627 acres of land in what is now Charlotte, using Continental currency. When the scrip was deemed to be of no value, he was forced to pay for the land a second time. It turned out to be an important purchase.

In 1789, Congress had passed the Lighthouse Act and the government assumed responsibility for the establishment and upkeep of all lighthouses, buoys and public piers in the U.S. Then, according to the Lighthouse Friends website, “In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson decreed that the seventy-mile stretch extending along the southern shore of Lake Ontario from Oak Orchard to Sodus Bay, would become an official port district, centered at the juncture of the Genesee River and the lake.”

That put Rochester at the heart of a growing trade industry.

In the early 1800s, in fact, Rochester was a thriving port city, and the waters were important not only to our economic development, but the nation’s as well. In fact, Rochester was the nation’s first inland boom town, a bustling port located on the Genesee River, Lake Ontario, and the new Erie Canal. It made Rochester important to agriculture, the Civil War, and even the birth of the evangelical revival movements.

But those are stories for another day.

William Hincher died in 1817, and in 1822 his wife Mehitabel sold a parcel of their land to the U.S. government for use as a lighthouse. It was constructed on the west side of the Genesee River, on a marshy area on the shore of Lake Ontario and at the mouth of the river.

The historical marker in front of the lighthouse. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
And here’s where a little geography history comes in handy. The site of the lighthouse, located on River Street, is set back from the actual lake shore. Why would we have a lighthouse that’s not on the water?

This is a drawing on display inside the lighthouse, showing what the area around the mouth of the Genesee River probably looked like in 1792. [IMAGE: Charlotte Lighthouse Museum]
When it was built, the site between the lake and the lighthouse was actually a marshy bay with sandbars.  The image above is from a drawing on display at the Charlotte Lighthouse, and helps illustrate that what we now know as Ontario Beach and the Port of Rochester were once water and sand bars. The diagram below, on display in front of the lighthouse, also helps us get a visual idea of what the land used to look like.

The display in front of the house shows that the light house originally stood at the juncture of the river and the lake, in a marshy area marked by sandbars. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
In 1829, wooden piers were built over the marshy area, one on the west side of the entrance to the river and one on the east side, and sand began to build up behind them. Ontario Beach was eventually created behind the west pier.

Now back to our tour. The first candidate for lighthouse keeper, David Denman, was appointed to the job in November 1822, but died two months into his term. Giles Holden was appointed in January 1823 and is considered to be the first “working” lighthouse keeper.

The grave of Giles Holden, the first working lighthouse keeper. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
Our tour guide Jack Kemp told us that after Denman’s death, but before Holden’s appointment, there was another candidate who vowed that if he were hired, he would give half of his annual salary to Denman’s widow. It was a generous gesture that almost won him the job, until it was soon discovered that he was actually romantically involved with the widow. I like those tawdry little tidbits of info you pick up in tours but don’t necessarily find in the official histories.

During his twelve year stint as the lighthouse keeper, Holden and his wife had 10 children (or 11, according to some accounts). His job came with a cabin that included two rooms separated by a fireplace as well as a full basement. Comfortable living quarters but ones that the family outgrew. Over time he added two additions to meet his large family’s needs. Kemp explained that at the time, the President appointed the lighthouse keeper, and for reasons I still am not quite clear about, in 1835 Holden was out and someone else was in. When Holden left he took with him the additions that he’d built on the house, moving them across the street and settling his family there. That’s how Holden Street, off Lake Avenue, got its name.

The grave of then retired lighthouse keeper Cuyler Cook, who died during a storm in 1853. Inscribed in his grave: 'To God above his spirit yield -- He took him in his strength and bloom -- When struggling with the seas and waves -- He wove his garland for the tomb' [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]

The grave of then retired lighthouse keeper Cuyler Cook, who died during a storm in 1853. Inscribed in his grave: 'To God above his spirit yield -- He took him in his strength and bloom -- When struggling with the seas and waves -- He wove his garland for the tomb' [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
In addition to the lighthouse, a pair of piers was built in 1829, one on the east side of the entrance to the river and one on the west. In 1838 a light was built at the end of the west pier, and it was the lighthouse keeper’s responsibility to keep lit. By the mid-1850s, the pier was in bad repair. And that leads to our next story from the tour.

Sam Phillips was a lighthouse keeper on August 8, 1853, when a storm was brewing over Lake Ontario. His job was to mind the light on the pier while the head keeper, Luther Jeffords, tended to the main light. As the storm rolled in, Phillips tried to get to the end of the pier, but was twice hindered by the waves, wind and rain. Retired lighthouse keeper Cuyler Cook, who was also Phillips’ cousin (or brother-in-law, depending on who’s telling the story), volunteered to help him row out to the pier. The two fought their way, but as Phillips disembarked onto the pier, a wave sent him into the water and also capsized Cook’s boat. Phillips managed to pull himself onto the wooden pier but Cook’s boat was gone. Knowing there was no hope, Phillips weathered out the storm clinging to the light tower. Cook’s body was found three days later.

I’m not sure if this is the storm that demolished the tower on the pier, but in 1853 a storm did just that, and in 1854 a new tower was built, along with a catwalk over the pier to help the lighthouse keeper reach the light more safely.

Charlotte lighthouse, 1858. [PHOTO: U.S. National Archives (we think?)]

A stereoscope image of the wooden pier, 1880. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library Local History Division]
In 1881, the lighthouse on River Street was decommissioned and a new cast iron lighthouse, with a bell and fog horn, was built on the west pier.  More changes were made over the years. The fog horns and beacons were updated. For a time, a range light on the west shore allowed ship captains to line up the two lights to navigate into the river. In 1902, a light was added to the east pier—essentially creating twin lighthouses—and the rear light on the west pier was eliminated.

Postcard of the twin lighthouses. [IMAGE: Rochester Public Library Local History Division]

Postcard of the twin lighthouses. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library Local History Division]

The lighthouse on the west pier. Notice the elevated cat walk to make it safer for the keeper to reach the light. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library Local History Division]

The lighthouse on the west pier, 1916. [PHOTO: From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY.]

The tower on the east pier, 1902. [PHOTO: Source unknown.]
The pier was extended; the tower was moved. Electrical generators with battery storage were installed in both lights in 1917. In 1931, the wooden lighthouse was removed and replaced with a red skeletal frame, with a switch located at the shore. This eliminated the need for a keeper to traverse the half mile down the pier to turn on the light.

Brick control building, and automated, steel lighthouse. [IMAGE: Charlotte Lighthouse Museum]
In 1995, that red structure was replaced with the cylindrical tower currently at the end of the west pier.

The pier at Charlotte today. It's a favorite place to stroll and view the lake and shoreline. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
The keeper’s house also has also been updated. In 1863, a new brick house was built, an upgrade from the former wooden structure. Indoor plumbing was installed in 1905. In 1939, the Coast Guard took over operations of the lighthouse, and the former keeper’s house became the dwelling of the Charlotte Coast Guard commanding officer until the early 1980s.

In 1965, the lighthouse on River Street was slated for demolition when the students at Charlotte High School stepped in to save it. They petitioned legislators, the mayor and the Coast Guard, and in 1966 the Coast Guard agreed to maintain the site until an historical group could be established to take over.

Another view of the lighthouse. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
Oversight of the property changed hands a few times, first to a local community group and then the County of Monroe, and in 1983 the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society was formed to maintain the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters.

They also provide us with a wealth of historical information. Take a tour and you’ll see displays of not only the lighthouse but of the amusement park that was once at Ontario Beach (and for thirty five years was referred to as the Coney Island of the West), the pig iron factory, the hotels that used to grace the area, and the railroad that brought thousands of holiday goers every summer.

You can also climb the lighthouse and can get a beautiful view of the river and lake. These are photos from a tour I took last summer…

A view from atop the lighthouse, looking down on the area that was once marsh and sandbars. In the distance and slightly to the left, you can see Ontario Beach Park; the large white building in front of the line of trees is the Port of Rochester terminal. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
This is a view from atop the lighthouse, looking down on the area that was once marsh and sandbars. In the distance and slightly to the left, you can see Ontario Beach Park; the large white building in front of the line of trees is the Port of Rochester terminal.

The requisite photo of the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]

Inside the lighthouse. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]

This notice from the Coast Guard is hanging inside the lighthouse. [PHOTO: Joanne Brokaw]
Tours of the Charlotte-Genesee lighthouse continue through November. You can learn more on their website external link.

The importance of Rochester’s economic (and spiritual development) and the role it played in American history is really interesting. If you want to learn more, a really interesting book to check out is A Shopkeeper’s Millennium external link by Paul E. Johnson.

• • •

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 at 7:27 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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