The Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Still Shining Bright

Toledo Local Features  |  04/27/2010 7:00 am

Rising from the smooth onyx of a silent Lake Erie night, the Lady of Old Maumee Bay stands like a ghost, a memory of its once illustrious past. And yet, she still guides ships to port when she pierces the night with her wash of bright white light.

Despite being a romantic and antiquated idea, the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse is still very much functional after spending more than a hundred years in solitude in the middle of Maumee Bay. Completed in 1904, the lighthouse stood to welcome ships as they passed through the Maumee River's newly dredged and widened shipping channel. It stands a total of four stories of Romanesque buff brick and pristine wrought iron roofing cornice.

"Most [lighthouses] are white cylinders, but the roof is a large part of what makes it unique," said Sandy Bihn, president of the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society. She explained architects recently discovered the roof was comprised of iron rather than steel, attributing its excellent construction and endurance to U.S. Steel's refining process.

"In all these years, 100 years of existence, it hasn't rusted. Architects will come from all over world to study it and how it's sustained itself through the waves, the ice, the rain, the snow. Survived all of that over time," she said.

The building's roof is crowned by the light tower which shines for miles around, and whose original lens now makes its home in the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park. Accompanying the main lighthouse building is a fog horn annex, which is also functional.

The lighthouse was first manned by the Department of the Interior from its opening in 1904 to 1925. After that, families were tasked with maintaining the lighthouse until 1965 when the U.S. Coast Guard automated the station. Since the lighthouse sat unguarded, the Coast Guard enlisted the help of mannequins to scare off vandals, dressing them as officers and placing them at windows. The effort did little good to deter mischievous partiers, but gave frustrated parents ammunition against fussy children at bedtime.

"People in Point Place used to tell their children that if they didn't go to bed on time, the Phantom of the Lighthouse would come and get them at night." Whether the ghost stories have any basis in actual accounts of paranormal activity remain to be seen, the structure has its own grim skeletons to work through. The lighthouse was nearly demolished by the government, but outcry from national lighthouse organizations and enthusiasts saved it from the wrecking ball. Now, with the help of the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society, the lighthouse is getting some long-overdue TLC. The group formed in 2003 just before the 100th anniversary of the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse. What started out as just 10 members meeting in the lobby of the Maumee Bay State Park Lodge has since grown to over 500 members dedicated to their mission to "preserve, restore and promote" the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse . The group officially took ownership of the structure in October 2006 and has since been slowly restoring it to its former grandeur under the guidance of an architectural firm.

"A lot of us are very anxious to get this done, but realistically there's a lot of challenges before us," said Sandy. "There's a lot of excitement and a lot of energy to move forward." The group's ultimate goal is to make the lighthouse accessible to the public, while allowing its members the opportunity to act as lighthouse keepers for a few days at a time to look after overall maintenance and to welcome visitors. In order for this to occur, the group must first make restorations to the interior rooms and infrastructure, in addition to more modern technological upgrades like solar panels and a waste water treatment system to allow the lighthouse to function off the grid. The estimated million to $1.5 million restoration will be made possible through various historical and energy grants.

The Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society organizes member daytrips to the lighthouse to perform light maintenance tasks and to check the overall status of the structure. Such trips are a special to members, since the lighthouse is accessible only by boat and the visits give them a chance to see the lighthouse's potential up close.

"Walking into it was like walking into history, but the funny thing is every time I go through it I see something different," said Sandy, remembering the time she discovered an ordinary door covered in thick coats of paint actually contained beautifully preserved oak underneath, or when the architectural firm revealed the spiral staircase leading up to the light was actually inlaid with glass.

"It's an adventure. You're always learning about a historical building. It's very different from a typical building today." And with the structure being a 100-year-old lighthouse in the middle of Lake Erie, the views from the top of the tower rival that of any modern Toledo building.

"You go up there and you really don't want to come down."

The organization holds an annual festival aimed at getting outsiders interested in the future of the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse, while providing a fun weekend of music, crafts and children's activities. Visitors are also encouraged to try their hand at creating replicas of the festival's namesake in sand. This year's festival is July 10 and 11, 2010 at Maumee Bay State Park. Admission is free and more information on becoming a craft exhibitor or taking part in the sand sculpting competition can be found on the organization's website.

"The thing about the Toledo light is it's different than many lighthouses you'll ever see, and when we're able to restore it, we think the interest will be very, very high."

For more information on the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse, the Lighthouse Society or the festival, visit