Even today, Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse is quite isolated, being some distance from any major port or city. This is because the lighthouse wasn’t built to guide mariners to a safe harbor, but rather as a coastal light, warning mariners of shoals and guiding them along this portion of Lake Ontario.
Prior to the establishment of the lighthouse, at least four ships had sunk near Thirty Mile Point, including one belonging to the French explorer LaSalle in 1678. The most tragic loss appears to be the schooner H.M.S. Ontario. She was built in 1780, and in October of that year departed Fort Niagara for Montreal, carrying eighty-eight passengers, including Lt. Colonel Bolton former commander of the fort, and an army payroll of $15,000 in gold and silver. The Ontario foundered off Thirty Mile Point in a Halloween blizzard. There were no survivors.
The area around Thirty Mile Point is also known as Golden Hill. In 1834, a local farmer named Daniel Cartwright was herding cattle along the creek that empties into the lake near the point, when he saw men row ashore from an anchored ship and unearth a chest from the creek bank. The secreted bounty, believed by Cartwright to be gold buried by the survivors of a shipwreck, was carried back to the ship, where the men raised anchor and sailed off. Based on this tale, treasure hunters have dug along the creek in search of more hidden gold. Despite this incident, the more probable origin of the name Golden Hill, found on early French maps, is a one-acre island, covered with goldenrod blossoms during the summer, that once existed at the mouth of the creek.
In 1872 the Lighthouse Board recommended “that a lake-coast light be established near the point where the boundary line between Niagara and Orleans Counties intersects the south shore of Lake Ontario.” This point, the northernmost point on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, was designated on some maps as Thirty Mile Point, being thirty miles from the mouth of the Niagara River. At that time, the first light east of the Niagara River was a fourth-order pier light at Oak Orchard, forty-five miles from the Niagara River. As this beacon was of little service to ships making for the Welland Canal, the Lighthouse Board requested $30,000 for a third-order light at Thirty Mile Point.
On March 3, 1873 Congress appropriated the requested amount for the lighthouse and later that year two acres of land and a right of way to the nearby highway were purchased from Austin Hathaway, a local farmer, and his wife Mariah. During 1874, plans for the lighthouse were prepared, cession of jurisdiction was obtained, an access road and bridge were constructed, and an additional $5,000 was requested. The supplemental amount was obtained on March 3rd, 1875, and ground was broken for the lighthouse shortly thereafter on April 28. Bad weather that spring caused much delay in the progress of the work, postponing the completion of the tower and dwelling to the following January.
The light from the tower’s six-panel, third-order Fresnel lens, which cost just over $3,000 and was manufactured in France by L. Sautter and Company, was first exhibited on April 27, 1876. The lens initially rested on eight, five-inch chariot wheels and produced a white flash every ninety seconds. After the lens was rebuilt in 1909, it was supported by ball bearings and revolved once per minute, creating a flash every ten seconds.
The two-story dwelling and attached 70-foot square tower were built in a High Victorian Gothic style using natural faced limestone blocks quarried near Chaumont Bay at the eastern end of Lake Ontario by Dewey and Phelps. Decorative smooth limestone quoining is found at the corners of the lighthouse. Originally, the gables sported decorative panels, trim, and finials, but these were later removed along with the ornate chimney caps.
Soon after completion of the lighthouse, shoreline erosion became a serious concern. In 1877 the Lighthouse Board reported that the lighthouse lot was rapidly being worn away by wave action and recommended that a series of jetties be constructed perpendicular to the shore to retard the erosion which otherwise might reach the tower and dwelling in a few years. $5,000 was appropriated for this purpose in 1878 and again in 1880. Bids to build a protective stone wall were finally invited in 1889, but being deemed excessive, they were rejected. A landing pier was built in front of the station in 1903 or 1904, but whether this was part of the erosion control is not known. In 1954, large boulders were placed along the shoreline to protect the lighthouse property.
The light, originally fueled by lard oil, was converted to mineral oil (kerosene) in 1881. To store this more volatile liquid, a circular, metal oil house, capable of storing 225 gallons, was erected at the station in 1891. A second oil house, transferred from another station, arrived in 1910. The barn at the station dates from 1904.
In 1934, the Delavan Construction Corporation of Buffalo was contracted to build the yellow-brick foghorn building and the addition to east end of the dwelling. Municipal electricity was extended to the station in the early 1930s, allowing the use of a 500-watt light bulb in the lantern room. A 32-horsepower electric motor powered an air compressor that energized the diaphone horns protruding from the north side of the fog signal building.
Glenn Seeley spent a good portion of his life at Thirty Mile Point, arriving as an assistant keeper in 1903 and serving as head keeper from 1907 until his retirement in 1945. Four children were born to Seeley and his wife Cora at the lighthouse, where they also had the misfortune of holding funerals for two of their children. Following the death of one of their daughters, the Seeleys raised an infant granddaughter at the lighthouse for fifteen years before leaving the station.
The Coast Guard assumed control of the lighthouse in the 1930s. In 1958, an automated 300mm beacon was mounted atop a metal skeletal tower near the fog signal building, and Coast Guard personnel were removed from the station.
New York State began acquiring acreage around the lighthouse in the 1950s, and in 1962, 378-acre Golden Hill State Park was created. The lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation in 1984.
The U.S. Postal Service selected Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse to represent Lake Ontario in a set of five stamps covering the lighthouses of the Great Lakes that was issued in 1995. That same year, a non-profit group, the Friends of Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse, was formed and held a celebration day at the lighthouse attended by over 5,000 visitors. With help from Tom Harris, manager of Golden Hill State Park, and a grant or two, the lighthouse’s slate roof, windows, and interior wiring were replaced, the exterior trim was painted, and the beautiful oak floors were refinished. On July 11, 1998, forty years after the historic Fresnel lens was removed, a new beacon was activated in the lantern room.
Starting in 2001, the second story of the dwelling has been rented for week-long stays in the summer or shorter visits during the rest of the year. Today’s lighthouse residents are not asked to mind the light or perform other tasks required of the lighthouse keepers, but they do get a small glimpse into what life was like for a keeper along this isolated stretch of Lake Ontario.
Location: Located thirty miles east of the Niagara River on the shore of Lake Ontario in Golden Hill State Park.
Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse can be rented for overnight stays by clicking here or by calling (800) 456-2267. The lighthouse is open daily for tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer. Call the park at (716) 795-3885 to confirm hours or for more information.