Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A stormy past

The story of the Point Abino lighthouse is one of Lake Erie's more curious tales.

The lighthouse's story actually begins six years before its construction, in 1912, when the newly built United States Lightship No. 82 took up station off Point Abino, a small peninsula surrounded by dangerous rocky shoals in Canadian waters just a few kilometres to the west of Buffalo Harbor.

It was a relatively humdrum assignment for the lightship's six-man crew, under the command of Captain Hugh H. Williams of Michigan. Life on a lightship, which was essentially a floating lighthouse anchored to the bottom, was a lonely affair. With only their crewmates for company, the men were expected to hold their place, marking dangerous waters for passing ships, for the entire navigation season, from April to late November.

That all changed in 1913. The storm that savaged the Great Lakes from November 7–10 of that year is widely regarded as the worst in the history of lake navigation. When it was over, more than a dozen freighters and 250 men had been sent to a watery grave. Lake Erie, however, remained relatively unscathed -- except for the disappearance of a tiny lightship and her crew off Point Abino. When the battered remains of No. 82 were later raised from the bottom, the battered old vessel contained no bodies. Only one crewman would ever be found, when his body drifted into Buffalo Harbor.

After the sinking, the point lacked any kind of a marker, leaving ships heading in and out of Buffalo Harbor vulnerable to the tricky shoals, until 1915 when another lightship marked the spot. Finally, after much foot-dragging, the Canadian government built the ornate Point Abino lighthouse as both a navigational aid and a memorial to the lost men.

The old light was decommissioned over ten years ago, and now stands in considerable disrepair at the tip of the point. Unfortunately the only road in is private, so access is limited;if you want to see it, you'll have to get there by boat (but please respect the private property of the surrounding residents), or show up for a tour, which runs eight Saturdays a summer.

Meantime, the old light continues to hold her place, though she no longer guides ships into Buffalo. An architectural gem as far as Great Lakes lighthouses go, she also stands as a reminder of why historical preservation is so important.

Of course, you can read more about this old light (and many others) in Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean, available next May from Dundurn Press.

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