OSWEGO – A grassroots effort continues to work to ensure Oswego’s iconic lighthouse shines on for years to come. And, that it is accessible to the public.
At Monday night’s meeting, the Oswego Common Council heard an update about the endeavor to restore the lighthouse.
“It’s really an honor to work on the lighthouse. It’s a very important symbol of our community,” Mercedes Niess, chair of the restoration committee, told the councilors. “I’m sure you’ve seen the symbol of it everywhere. People in Oswego really identify with that lighthouse.”
As part of the lease agreement they have with the city, they are required to give the council an update presentation once a year.
Niess was joined by the group’s board members as well as several volunteers and others.
She recognized Pathfinder Bank for its donation in support of a lighthouse exhibit (at the Maritime Museum).
In the year 2000, thanks to the efforts of the Heritage Foundation of Oswego County, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It elevated the historic aspect of the lighthouse in our community, in our state and across the country,” Niess pointed out. “It also opened up the opportunity for potential grants.”
In 2006, the lighthouse was made available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.
The group partnered with the city to come up with a plan to obtain the lighthouse.
“We had to submit a comprehensive plan of what we wanted to do with the lighthouse; not just us but the city as well,” she said. “So, this is an incredible example of the city and a not-for-profit partnering in a big way.”
The lighthouse was finally awarded to the city of Oswego in 2009 and the deed was transferred. In 2010 the city created the Oswego Lighthouse Development Committee.
In 2011, the city secured a grant from the Canal Corporation to remove the hazardous materials from the lighthouse site.
“That made it possible for us to actually put our volunteers in there, otherwise, they could not go in there,” Niess said. “So with that cleaned up, we began the restoration project in 2012 – 2013. We put a volunteer force together. A lot of people wanted to help out.”
In 2014, they took on the lease from the city.
“We were able to open the lighthouse for the first-ever boat tours and it really was spectacular. People came from all over, Oswegonians coming back for a visit said, ‘This is on my bucket list. I am so excited.’ And so that started our first half season. Then we followed with a full season last year. And then again this year as well,” Niess said.
The interior restoration is almost complete, but there is more work to be done, she said, adding that they hope to have the exterior restoration work done soon.
The volunteer hours since 2013 are almost 4,500 hours. The value of that is about $125,000, Niess said.
“Those numbers are excellent because they help the city and the museum apply for grants,” she said.
The committee viewed “before” and “after” photos of various sections of the lighthouse highlighting the restoration work that’s been completed. The site was put back to the original condition as possible.
Highlighting The History
Built in 1934, the West Pierhead light is the last of four Oswego Harbor lighthouses dating back to 1822.
The first light stood near Fort Ontario on the east side of the Oswego River.
That lighthouse was sold and scrapped after a new lighthouse was built on the river’s west side in 1836.
In the 1880s, a new harbor break wall was constructed and a lighthouse was built on it. That one was removed in the 1930s to make room for the current lighthouse.
Tragedy struck the lighthouse on Dec. 4, 1942, when six Coast Guardsmen died during a crew change operation.
A severe storm stranded one lighthouse keeper for three days.
A relief crew managed to make it to the lighthouse. Shortly before their boat was to head back to Oswego’s Coast Guard station, it broke loose and eight guardsmen, including the man they were rescuing, were swept into the harbor’s cold water.
Only two men managed to make their way back to the break wall.
Six others, including the lighthouse keeper, died.
Today, the tragedy is remembered with a plaque in Oswego’s Veterans’ Park.
The first-ever public tours of the lighthouse were offered in 2016. More than 400 total visitors (285 paid) stepped inside the lighthouse.
For more information visit, www.hlwmm.org, facebook.com/hlwmm or call (315) 342-0480. For information on the lighthouse restoration project, view facebook.com/oswegolh