By Nick Wojton, contributing writer
OSWEGO, NY – For nearly 80 years, the West Pierhead Lighthouse has been guiding sailors to safety.
Over the weekend, the H. Lee White Museum and Maritime Center celebrated Oswego’s first-ever “Lighthouse Weekend” in recognition of the local landmark.
The event was also held to commemorate the birthday of the United States Coast Guard on Aug. 4 as well as the celebration of Lighthouse Day on Aug. 7 and the creation of a United States Postal stamp, which features an image of the Oswego Lighthouse.
The “Lighthouse Service Act” was signed into law on Aug. 7, 1789, and established that all United States lighthouses would be under control of the federal government, according to Lighthouse/Coast Guard historian and chair of the city of Oswego Lighthouse Committee, Ted Panayotoff.
The following year, Aug. 4, 1790, is when the Coast Guard was created by the United States Congress.
“It brings all of those who service lighthouses and serve in the Coast Guard into the public eye,” Panayotoff explained.
Dating back to 1995, the United States Postal Service has issued stamps commemorating lighthouses.
This past July, the stamp with the image of the Oswego Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse was released in the sixth series of stamps featuring lighthouses released by the Postal Service.
The Oswego Post Office set up a small “branch” at the museum to sell the newly released item from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. They also cancelled stamps throughout the day.
The lighthouse has been owned by the city of Oswego since 2009.
With the assistance from a group of volunteers including Panayotoff, the city is using a grant of $225,000 from state and federal money to begin a restoration of the museum in an attempt to open it to the public.
“It’s clean and safe for volunteers to work out there,” Panayotoff said. “Gradually it will be good enough for the public to get out there.”
According to Panayotoff, a similar restoration of a lighthouse in Maine took around 10 years to complete.
The Oswego Lighthouse does not have a timetable for its completion at this time; Panayotoff called it a “work in progress.”
Lighthouse weekend continued Sunday with celebrations for the Coast Guard taking place during the museum’s regular hours.
The Coast Guard still has a relationship with the lighthouse through its work on Lake Ontario each night.
The red flash emitted every ten seconds from the lighthouse is still used by the Coast Guard and others while sailing at night.
All Coast Guard members received free admission into the museum all weekend long.
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 breakwall 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 breakwall.
Six others, including the lighthouse keeper, died.
Today the tragedy is remembered with a plaque in Oswego’s Veterans’ Park.