Iconic lighthouse gaining popularity

EVAN GOODENOW The (Elyria) Chronicle-Telegram Published:

LORAIN (AP) -- When he was 5 years old, Matt Dempsey first saw the Lorain Lighthouse from afar and wondered about what it looked like inside.

Dempsey, now 33, said during a recent tour for the Chronicle-Telegram that the inside is one of the main reasons lighthouse tours are popular with tourists.

"They always see the building, but it's just more of a mystery what the inside looks like," said Dempsey, marketing committee chairman for the Port of Lorain Foundation, which owns the lighthouse.

The inside is spartan and has been restored to look like it did when it was in use.

The lighthouse was built to withstand the elements. The walls of the basement, where coal was stored for the coal-burning furnace, are 32 inches thick, Dempsey said. The first and second floor walls are 20 inches thick and the third floor walls are 15 inches thick.

The attic walls are 10 inches thick.

The window shutters each weigh 200 pounds. Doors weigh about 400 pounds.

"It was built like a fortress," Dempsey said. "It had to be able to withstand everything nature could throw at it."

The lighthouse, which opened in 1919, is a Lorain icon. It was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1965 and was scheduled to be torn down, but bad weather delayed demolition long enough for community members to save it.

In 1977, the Lorain County Historical Society took possession of the deed. It was turned over to the foundation in 1990.

The first floor includes the engine room and a battery-operated generator if the engine failed. There is also an air compressor for the fog horns and chains that the crew had to pull to rotate the lighthouse lens.

The 50,000-watt, 220-pound lens has a 15-mile radius, and was so powerful that Coast Guard members had to pull curtains around it in the daytime so magnified sunlight wouldn't set objects on the shore on fire. The foundation spent $20,000 cleaning and renovating the lens.

The lens, which was removed by the Coast Guard after the decommissioning, was returned to Lorain in March. It is kept at Port Authority ferry terminal at Black River Landing.

The horns, located on the third floor, were nearly deafening.

Dempsey said the three-man crew that manned the lighthouse had to time its conversations so as not to be drowned out by the horns, and sleeping crew members were warned before the horns sounded. The second floor includes the kitchen, sleeping quarters and bathroom.

The current light in the tower has a range of 5-9 miles. The new, computer-run lighthouse located near the original has a range of 18 miles.

The tower, which is infested with midges, is about 60 feet above water and offers a spectacular view of Lake Erie during good weather.

Tours have been done annually by the Lorain Port Authority since 2007. Dempsey said an average of 15 people take each tour, with some coming from as far away as Canada or Washington state.

Dempsey said the lighthouse was in sorry shape when the all-volunteer foundation took it over. He credited hardworking volunteers for improving and maintaining it.

Dempsey, who has been volunteering to help maintain the lighthouse since he was a teenager, said upkeep is always challenging due to the elements.

"I've seen it evolve from what it looked like before to what it looks like now," he said.

"It's a labor of love, blood, sweat and tears."

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