OSWEGO, NY – While what’s underneath Lake Ontario’s waves (http://oswegocountytoday.com/?s=sanctuary&submit=Search) has garnered the headlines recently, a small but dedicated group of volunteers is quietly hard at work to restore and preserve what’s on top.
On various days this summer, and into this month, Ted Panayotoff, of the Oswego Lighthouse Committee, leads a group on the approximately 1.5-mile jaunt by boat from the Maritime Museum out to Oswego’s iconic West Pierhead Lighthouse.
Ultimately, the plan is to not only save the landmark, but open it up to visitors.
They began interior restorations, using volunteers, in 2013.
“We’re stripping off this old tile to get to the hardwood floor,” Panayotoff said indicating a section where the word floor was visible. “Look at how nice that looks. Eventually, we’re going to get to that this year, I hope.”
They plan to have displays in the signal room, explaining what types of equipment were they and how they were used.
They will add some period furniture to the various rooms that represent the time when the lighthouse was manned. One thing they’d like to add, Panayotoff said, is an old-fashion radio like the Coast Guard crews might have listened to in the 1940s. It would be filled with some recorded period music, he added.
A wooden door, salvaged from the former Oswego County Jail, which was demolished recently, is now the door to a storage room at the lighthouse.
“Only about five people at a time can fit up here, comfortably,” he said. “The interior wasn’t designed to accommodate a lot of people.”
Using two grants, the group is planning the restoration of the exterior.
“One of our last big projects is trying to get the roof done,” Panayotoff explained. “We are taking about a substantial amount of money. And, it really has to be done professionally. We’re not where we want to be yet. But, we’re getting there. Thursday is our usual (work) day but we’re at the mercy of the weather. I started coming out here in 2010. We weren’t really doing any work. It was more just coming out here, taking pictures and planning.”
The city received a grant from the New York State Canal Corporation and they got some contractors. One of the first things they had to do was clean the place out.
“It was full of bird crap and hazardous materials. That was done. Then they had another contractor do a lot of work. The last project wasn’t finished until 2013,” Panayotoff said. “A few of us started coming out in 2013. Ron (Wilson) had a boat and generator, which was useful because he could supply power and we didn’t have to rely on hand tools. Last year, we put in, I don’t know, probably close to 500 man-hours.”
Raby’s has helped the restoration as well as the SUNY Oswego track team. They were here last September and they put in a considerable amount of work. We’re planning on having them out here again this year.
“A major effort was the work accomplished by members of the SUNY Oswego track team. They sort of adopted the lighthouse,” Panayotoff said.
In addition, about another 50 man-hours of work was done on shore last year directly on lighthouse components such as windows.
Volunteers have replaced two ceiling panels in the signal room, restored various windows and prepared the bathroom for painting and more.
Outside work was also completed to improve the security of the basement window shutters and secure the deck hatches. Volunteers were also able to install video surveillance and warning signs on the deck.
All ten window lanterns have been replaced and the interior and exterior of the lanterns and lantern gallery deck and railings have been repainted.
Thanks to those efforts, in 2014, there were no break-ins at the lighthouse; the first year this has happened.
“This year, work will continue into early October. By then it starts to get too cold. Then we have to get everything stored and ready for winter,” Panayotoff said. “My hope is that we can get everything done, like all the painting and window repairs, all done by the end of the year. We’ve got some furniture we want to bring out here. But we won’t do that until we’ve got the floors done. We might bring some stuff out and cover it up and store it in the basement.”
There always was at least one person stationed overnight at the lighthouse. They had a stove in the kitchen. Initially, it was a kerosene stove. Later it was a propane stove. And, they had a refrigerator.
Work has been done on the outside deck and walls. The elements caused a few cracks to form over the years.
“We have sealed a lot and we have another coat of sealer to put on and then we’re going to paint these walls gray. Now that it’s sealed, it’s not going to get any worse,” Panayotoff said.
They used coal for the furnace. They switched to oil in the mid-1950s.
“This is what powers both the lighthouse and the fog signal, these two solar panels,” Panayotoff pointed out. “One is the Coast Guard’s and the other is ours.”
The (light) structure is a cast iron structure. It was cast at a foundry somewhere and then it was brought to Oswego.
“It could well be about 40 years older than the lighthouse. A number of these were made at one time from a contract with a foundry and a kit was provided to lighthouses,” Panayotoff said. “This was designed probably in the 1880s. At that time all the lighthouses used oil lamps.”
Registers along the four walls could be opened and closed to adjust the air flow to the oil lamp, he added. If the wind direction changed or if the direction changed, people would have to come up and adjust the registers.
To protect the lens from direct sunlight, there was a curtain that could be drawn around all the windows.
Highlighting The History
Built in 1934, the West Pierhead lighthouse 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.