established in 1838
The site which eventually became home to the Selkirk Lighthouse was first visited by Samuel Champlain and Native American Hurons in October, 1615. The Jesuit Father Simon Le Moyne visited the site on his mission to the Onondaga Nation in August 1655. And nearby was the location of a major gathering of Cayuga, Oneida and Onondaga Native American tribes in September, 1684, during the French & Indian War, resulting in a treaty with the French Governor-General de la Barre of Quebec. The land north of the Salmon River was purchased from the Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga tribes by New York’s Governor George Clinton in 1788. The first permanent white settlement was established at the mouth of the Salmon River in 1801, shortly after the area was first surveyed in 1797. Initially, the fantastic Atlantic Salmon fishing of the day was the main economic attraction while some settlers undertook farming nearby. Before long, the area became a haven for smugglers, particularly during the War of 1812. A government engineer inspecting break wall construction in the early 1830’s made a determination that the harbor had sufficient depth and breadth to anchor 30 ships safely. His recommendations prompted the development of plans for a lighthouse complete with a Customs Office, and the dredging of a channel along the south side of the estuary known then as Selkirk Lake nearly a mile upriver to today’s bridges at NY State Route 3. Schooners, barges, commercial fishing boats, and even pleasure boats were soon being constructed in a ship works thought to have been situated in close proximity to the lighthouse, with the largest documented vessel being 265 tons in displacement, with 3 masts. Shipping and shipbuilding continued as major local industries through the 1860’s, with more than 20 commercial vessels constructed in all.
While there are two stories about how the hamlet of Selkirk was named, the most colorful one attributes it to a seafarer named Alexander Selkirk, who was born in 1676 and died in 1723. This fellow was put ashore on a South Sea island for four years as punishment by a captain he had disobeyed. He became the prototype for Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” and was somewhat of a hero among mariners. Legend has it that his followers here thought that naming the community after him would be fitting tribute. The less colorful, but more probable story, attributes the name to Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, who purchased almost 4,400 acres on the north side of the river in the late 1790’s and made himself a sizeable fortune in subsequent real estate deals.
The Federal government purchased approximately 5,760 square feet of land for the Port Ontario Lighthouse Reservation from Sylvester and Daniel Brown and their families on September 1, 1837 and then published, less than two weeks later, in the local Pulaski Advocate and Oswego Palladium, its request for quotations to build the lighthouse. One requirement was that construction had to be complete by August 1, 1838. A copy of that publication detailing all specifications for construction type, standards, and materials still survives. Originally called the Salmon River Light Station, our lighthouse was constructed in 1838 for the princely sum of $3,000. The local contractors who successfully bid the job were Joseph Gibbs and Abner French, although a local stonemason, Jabez Meacham, actually did most of the work. John Box, a blacksmith from Port Ontario, constructed the wrought iron railings that both support the lantern structure and secure the platform around its outside. From the 1849 Light List, it is learned that the original light was to be identical to the one in service at Horse Island Lighthouse (Sackets Harbor), a 14” diameter parabolic reflector/lamp system utilizing a total of eight lamps and reflectors, showing a fixed white light for 14 miles. Four reflectors faced the lake and two were positioned on each side. The apparatus initially burned whale oil from a 24-hour reservoir and utilized a secondary frost lamp in particularly cold weather to warm the main lamp, assisting combustion in temperatures that would thicken fuel standing in the reservoir. The 1858 Light List reports that the lamp system was upgraded in 1855 by replacement of the reflectors with a Hains mineral oil fountain lamp, a single burner and a 270 degree, 6th order Fresnel lens, 18” in height and approximately 12” in diameter. Had the light remained in service, it would have been upgraded between 1858 and 1860 according to the recommendations and specifications set forth in the 1854/1855 Report to the Lighthouse Board, which identified the need for new lanterns to be supplied to numerous lighthouses, which were subsequently given a new Fresnel lens since “…the present lanterns are formed of heavy posts and sash bars with very small panes of glass of an inferior quality…”. No sign of any early lamp apparatus remains today, and we are one of only a very few lighthouses in existence to still have the original unmodified lantern structure.
Lewis Conant became Selkirk’s first keeper on activation in August, 1838 until he was relieved by Lucius B. Cole on July 20, 1849. Charles M. Lewis assumed command on October 6, 1854, to be relieved by A. H. Weed on March 2, 1857. Operating for 8 to 9 months during the shipping season, keepers were paid $350 for their annual tour of duty, after which they then returned to their winter homes in Pulaski/Richland. The lighthouse was officially deactivated in 1858, although Coast Guard records describe its conversion to Lake Ontario’s second activated lifesaving station at the beginning of the annual navigation season on April 1, 1877. Records after the 1858 deactivation are few, but it is recorded locally that Lucius B. Cole resided there from 1852 until his death in December, 1890, perhaps intermittently. Having prior experience as a keeper and having been the first tax collector of Pulaski since its incorporation, Cole may have been provided quarters as an honorarium, since his name appears as having served honorably in the 184th New York Volunteers, one of the last regiments formed in the latter days of the Civil War. We speculate that he stayed on after deactivation and the war, perhaps continuing his care of the light in an unofficial capacity. As keeper he was obliged to maintain three lights. One of those lights was fixed to each of the long-gone wooden piers that served as the original breakwater at the river’s mouth, now submerged under ten feet of water and sand. The third light was of course the lighthouse beacon, which marked the center of the channel at night, between the two pier lights. An early issue of the Pulaski Advocate claimed that Cole’s mother was Olive Monroe, sister to President James Monroe, but contemporary historical researchers tend to dispute that.
Cole’s death in 1890 was followed by a nationwide economic depression in 1893, and in a cost saving effort, many lighthouses were taken out of service and some were sold off by the federal government as “surplus”. A German émigré and successful hotelier named Leopold Joh, living in Syracuse at the time, purchased the Selkirk lighthouse from the government for $1,500 at auction on October 16, 1895. It became his private residence at first, but after acquiring several adjoining properties, the lighthouse was then incorporated into the small but prestigious hotel complex Joh began building two years later. With an exquisite view of the lake, excellent fishing and miles of sandy beaches, the lighthouse hotel became an immediate success with celebrities and vacationers from Syracuse, and as far distant as New York and Philadelphia. Leopold ran the resort until his sudden and unexpected death in 1914. Family members tried to operate the complex seasonally for several years afterwards, until the property was purchased by the Heckle family from Leopold Joh’s estate. The hotel was then doubled in size by the Heckle family in 1926 and became famous for its German cuisine - and the constant comings and goings of smugglers during Prohibition! In November, 1976, the Selkirk Lighthouse was dedicated as a “Designated Historic Landmark” by the Oswego Heritage Foundation and was subsequently elected to the National Register of Historic Places in March of 1979.
The entire property, including the hotel and the Lighthouse, was purchased by the Walker family in July 1987. As the key event during Bicentennial celebrations held here on August 6, 1989, the Walker family officially activated a Coast Guard-approved, photocell-actuated lamp with automated bulb changer and the Lighthouse was placed back on the NOAA charts as a Class II navigation aid. As part of preparations for the “Bicentennial of Lighthouses in America”, the Selkirk Lighthouse was visited in early 1989 by Ross Holland, researching surviving lighthouses for a book which he published later that year. Mr. Holland was an international authority on lighthouses and gained further prominence while serving as project manager for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. In his own words, the Selkirk Lighthouse is one of the best examples of its kind - of which only four were constructed - and is in perhaps the best condition of similar type lighthouses to be found anywhere. Sadly, prior to the Bicentennial celebrations and after the 1987 ownership change, the property fell on hard times following an explosion which destroyed much of the historic hotel and other buildings on-site. Since that time, the property has been in a continual state of decline, with significant deterioration of the Lighthouse, its residence, and the hotel, cottages and retail store.
Now however, the Selkirk Lighthouse property is entering a new period of renaissance. In April 2014, the Barnell and Ellis families, long-time summer residents at the Salmon River, purchased the site and have commenced the process of restoration and revitalization of the lighthouse property, including the historic structures, the marina operation and the waterfront. There is much to be done over the next several years, but the restoration work has already begun, with numerous repairs, upgrades and cosmetic improvements evident throughout the entire property. The structural integrity of the hotel unfortunately continued to deteriorate following the explosion and it was razed in early 2016. Today long term plans are in place and ongoing renovations and expansions of the facilities are underway, including improved and additional on-site lodging and hospitality, and seawall and waterfront enhancements. These improvements will continue to support both the commercial salmon and trout charter businesses operating from the marina and also will provide better public access to the lighthouse grounds. Leopold Joh would be proud of what will soon become the 21st century version of the Historic Selkirk Lighthouse and its new operational arm, the Salmon River Lighthouse & Marina.