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Architecture Around Buffalo: Buffalo Lighthouse

By Lucas R. Watson, Features Contributor

The Buffalo Lighthouse has served as the principal lighthouse for the Buffalo harbor for the past 81 years and has been an icon of the city itself for the last 189 years. Even appearing on the Seal of the city. It has welcomed trade and prosperity to Buffalo since its construction in 1833.

The lighthouse we now know as the Buffalo Lighthouse is actually the second lighthouse for the Buffalo harbor. The original lighthouse was built in 1818 further inland on what was the shoreline. It was a 30-foot stone tower. Soon after the opening of the Erie Canal, the government started fielding complaints that the lighthouse was useless. It was often obscured “by the smoke of the village.” Given these complaints, a new lighthouse was in order. The government agreed to erect a new tower at the end of a long stone pier. In 1826, the Treasury Department appropriated $2,500 (Roughly $75,000 dollars today) to erect and build a pier and lighthouse. The contract stipulated that the work was to be completed by late 1829. Unfortunately, it was only in 1833 when the new lighthouse was finished. A year after the incorporation of the city of Buffalo. The new octagonal Buffalo Lighthouse was built of cut ashlar limestone and bluestone resting on a hand-laid stone foundation. The diameter of the tower measures 18 feet six inches at the base and tapered up to 11 feet three inches at the parapet. At the top, a ten-sided iron, brass and copper lantern resided bringing the tower’s height to 44 feet. Inside the lantern was a patented Argand lamp and reflector system with a unique green lens meant to intensify the light. The harbor superintendent and the collector of the port tested the lens from out on the lake and determined that the reflectors alone produced a better light, and the lens was removed.

In the 1850s most lighthouses in the United States were upgraded to the more efficient

Fresnel lens, and that year, the Buffalo Lighthouse was recommended as one of the principal

lake lights that should get a Fresnel lens. In 1856, the Buffalo Lighthouse received its third-order Fresnel lens (third-order indicating size and focal length, the focal length on a third order lens is 500 mm), however, the tower would have to be reworked prior to its installation.

As the old lantern was too small to house a third-order lens, it was removed. An additional story of stone casement windows was added, topped off with a new two-story lantern which featured a service room. This work brought the tower’s height to 68 feet. Currently, the Fresnel lens that was in the Buffalo Lighthouse is now at the Buffalo History Museum where it is on display. Dan Spinella of Artworks Florida was contracted to fabricate an acrylic third-order Fresnel lens for Buffalo Main Lighthouse, and on Sept. 28, 2015, this fixed lens was installed in the lantern room. The new lens is similar to the one that was used in the lighthouse from 1856 to 1905. In early 2016, the Buffalo Lighthouse was relit with its new acrylic lens, but it is not an official navigation aid.

As an icon of Buffalo, it still graces the waterfront today. It is open to tourists during the summer months. The Buffalo Lighthouse Association works closely with the Coast Guard Base next door to improve walkways from Fuhrmann Boulevard to the lighthouse. It is a popular attraction in the summer to visit, with placards about the history of the Buffalo Harbor around the area where the lighthouse stands. Standing on the same stones as it did back in 1833, it remains an unforgettable icon of our waterfront and a beacon to those who call Buffalo home.

It has been a pleasure writing these articles for The Griffin and Canisius College over the last few months. It’s something I never thought I’d do, but I plan to do this for as long as I can. As there’s always more out there, there’s always something. Happy Holidays, and thank you.

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