History of the Ashtabula Maritime Museum Building & Ashtabula Lighthouses

Ashtabula Marine Museum, Ashtabula - OH | Roadtrippers

By Robert Frisbie  11/01/2014

From Volume 3, Issue 2, The Transporter, The Ashtabula Maritime & Surface Transportation Museum Newsletter which covers 1984-2016.

The official name of the Ashtabula Museum is The Great Lakes Marine & Coast Guard Memorial Museum (Though locally known as The Ashtabula Marine Museum) the ribbon cutting to open the building to the public was held on June 2, 1984.

The ribbon cutting followed a long and very rich history for the museum building and the light houses. The light keeper’s house that later became the museum was constructed in 1871 by the Office of Major Corps of Engineers 10th District, U.S. Lighthouse Services. The building in 1896 was redesigned with an addition to make it a duplex house. Now the Ashtabula Lighthouse Keeper and the Assistant Light House Keeper along with their families lived there. The husbands would alternate duty every week manning the lighthouse at the Ashtabula Harbor unless duties required them both.

Ashtabula’s First Lighthouse- Built 1835-1836

Prior to this, a single lamp or lantern was hung on a pole or post at the end of a harbor pier to mark the entrance to the river. The harbor was growing and because of new dock construction, a new light house was constructed.

 The first lighthouse keeper was Captain Bigelow in 1836. His job included keeping seven lamps burning. Each of these lamps burned sperm whale oil for fuel. The lighthouse was located on the river’s east pier. This lighthouse was built on a wooden crib approximately 12’ to 16’ above the water level and was about 40’ x 40’ square. The crib had two small storage buildings on it, along the sore side, as well as the tower located on the waterside or north side of the rib. A 3 to 3 ½’ high wooden safely railing was constructed around the outside edge of the crib. The ramp connected the crib to the pier and for possible security to get out onto the crib, it would be necessary to pass through doors on one of these buildings.

 The tower was of a hexagon construction. The first floor was built to a height of approximately 26’. Each side of the hexagon had about a 3’ 12 pane double-hung window located below the top floor to light the inside stairway. There was one door in which to enter the tower, and that was on the east side away from most storms.

Another floor of about 12’ was constructed for the “light” area above this. The top floor itself was made of (24) 6” to 10” window windowpanes. These made u[p each of the hexagon walls. These windows also made up the walls for the entire top floor.

The six walls were about 10’ to 12’ high. The floor extended out about 2’ and had an approximate 6” high safety railing around it. The lighthouse had a rounded or oval shaped roof with a wind vent in the center.  Harbor safety had come a long way with the addition of the new lighthouse.

Ashtabula’s Second Lighthouse was Built in 1876

The1876 Ashtabula Lighthouse

In 1876, a new lighthouse was built on the west pier head. This was done because of the construction of new dock facilities on the east side. A new Fourth Order Fresnel Lens was installed in 1896. The lens was a fixed red-light lens and the building had a first class siren fog signal.

This lighthouse was of a square construction. It was a four-sided building and was made of wooden clapboard siding in a pyramid shape. As seen in harbor pictures it appeared to be a lot higher than the original light. However, NO actual height has been noted.

Ashtabula’s Third Lighthouse -1904-1905

The harbor was still growing and again because of new dock construction and this time the widening of the river, another new lighthouse, the present Ashtabula Lighthouse was constructed in 1905.  It was built approximately 2,500’ north of the river entrance and of the 1876 lighthouse. Before the1905 lighthouse was completed, the river widening project left the 1876 light 60’ out into the river and away from the pier. This gave the appearance for a while of a “floating lighthouse”.

As the construction started on the river project and the new lighthouse, both the old and new could now only be reached by boat. The keepers alternated duties at the lighthouse and now had to make the relief trips by boat. From this point on, the only way the keepers would get to this, or any future Ashtabula lighthouse locations would be by boat.

Lighthouse Keepers

From the U.S. Coast Guard records, the keepers were:

Fayette E. Walworth, appointed keeper on February 6, 1894, and resigned for physical reasons on November 1, 1895.

Charles W. Anderson, appointed keeper on October 19, 1905 and was still serving in 1915.

No further USCG records have yet been researched. However, an information caution note: The keepers names listed above were form research on a USCG internet site. But information from the U.S. National Archives actually shows the names to have been:

Year                            Name                                             Appointed Date

1900-1902                   Enoch W. Scribner (5)                  Sept. 1, 1900

1902-1910                   Jos. F. Crawford  (6)                     July 10, 1902

1910-1915                   Tom Holton  (7)                            January 1, 1910

(Note #5. Scribner had also served at another station previously. His original oath of office was November 20, 1891.)

(Note #6. Salary increased to $560 on May 1, 1906, and later increased to $50 per month.)

(Note #7. Formerly was keeper at Sandusky light.)

Until 1915, the lighthouse was manned by civilian keepers who lived at the Walnut Boulevard house that later became the Ashtabula Marine Museum. After 1915, the responsibility for staffing the lighthouse became that of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Ashtabula’s Present-Day Lighthouse

Ashtabula’s present-day lighthouse was moved to the present location in 1915-1916. After being moved here, the taller 1904-1905 light house section had a much lower addition added to it.

In 1916, the light was moved 1,750 to 1,800 feet NNE of the 1905 site. The structure was also doubled in size. A 50-foot concrete crib or platform was built to hold it. A stone break wall was constructed from the east in 1905 and added to in 1915 from what is now known as Walnut Beach to this site.

The crib was on the west arm of the breakwater at the now new entrance to the harbor. Anyone taking the hazardous walk out to the lighthouse on the present break wall can still see the previous flat rock base location of the 1905 lighthouse. This is most evident on the inside of the break wall where the lighthouse originally sat.  The lighthouse how had quarters to house the light keepers.

The two-story building was constructed of steel with iron plate on a concrete crib. The new light has a height of focal plane of 51’. It also has a radio beacon tower located next to it. According to the 1994 National Parks Service (NPS), the original markings and patterns for the lighthouse were white with a black trim.

(Informational note:  In 1993, the marking and colors that the Coast Guard painted the lighthouse made it more photographed. They used the colors of white for the walls, red roofs, and green shutters.)

In 1927, the steamer Gleneagles of the Canadian Steamship Lines rammed this newest lighthouse. The collision drove the lighthouse back six (6) inches and heavily damaged the ship, forcing it into dry dock for repairs. At that time, the lighthouse was still a manned light.  No injuries were reported.

In 1928, an ice storm imprisoned two keepers within the lighthouse. The coastguardsmen had to tunnel through ice 5 feet thick to freedom.

In 1939, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service merged to form the U.S. Coast Guard, the ownership of the lightkeeper’s house located on Walnut Boulevard was also transferred to the new local Coast Guard Station. A new station was built in 1936 on the east side of the Ashtabula River and it was called “The U.S. Coast Guard Ninth District Station #237 Ashtabula.”  This station served until the year 2000, when the U.S. Government decided to replace it with a newly built smaller station. The newest station is located further south, but on the west side of the Ashtabula River near the 5th Street lift bridge (or State Route 531.)

The U.S. Coastguard installed a new light in the lighthouse in 1959. The new light, a 4th Order Fresnel lens, was made in France in 1896. Using this light, a new type of light was designed and built by the USCG, the first of its kind. Prior to this, old cannon casters were used by the service to rotate lighthouse lights. The USCG used parts of an 1896 4th Order Fresnel lens to construct a modern revolving light.

Below the special 1896 lens and bronze brackets the USCG built a steel cylinder base (white color) which is in the shape of an “Angel Food Cake Pan.”  This base was to hold eight (8) pounds of liquid Mercury for a fourth order light. The entire base was constructed heavily because of the heavy glass lens and bronze brackets to float on or in liquid Mercury. Because the glass lens and bronze brackets weighed several hundred pounds, they floated effortlessly in the Mercury bowl, and it also provided a very slippery surface allowing the turning lens to move with little friction and effort.

A heavily built shaft passed through the fairly large opening in the bowl. This shaft was attached to the glass lens and bronze brackets above the bowl and was also attached to the gears below.

At the very bottom of this new USCG structure where the gears are located, they also attached a moveable reel. A small gauge cable was attached to the edge of the reel then with just over 60’ of the cable wrapped around the reel the other end of this cable was attached to a varied size weight.  A 4’ or 6’ diameter tube or pipe was placed between the lighthouse basement floor and the “Lantern Room: some 51’ above. On top of this people in the Lantern Room was placed a small piece of wood which the USVG keeper placed under the varied size weight. When the action of the light was to move or turn, in order to start the motion the USCG keeper would turn a small crank to lift the weight up off the wood block. Then that cable and weight was released and as they began to slowly drop toward the basement the unwrapping cable turned the drum/reel, which turned the gears, which turned the shaft, which turned the French glass lenses with the bronze pieces holding them together.

Originally, the keepers burned sperm whale oil in small canisters for light, but soon they were able to run electricity out to this lighthouse. Now they would burn either a 1000 or a 500-watt bulb. This would allow the light to travel between 15 and 20 miles out on Lake Erie to passing ships. This light remained in use until 1995, when it was removed and taken by the U.S. Coast Guard to the Ashtabula Marine Museum where it is displayed to this day.

The light rotated and emitted a three second white flash that could be seen for as far as 19 miles on a clear night. In addition, an automatic radio transmitted a dash-dash-dot signal at a specific period, and a new foghorn, if needed, blew two blasts every minute.

The National Park Service (NPS) describes the fog signal in 1994 as an original/siren, Diaphone. These were important aids to the shipping navigations going into and coming from the harbor or just passing by on Lake Erie. Although the beacon light was electrically operational, the foghorn required immediate supervision.

In 1972, the U.S. Coast Guard light keepers house on Walnut Boulevard was placed on the list of U.S. Government Surplus Property (GSA). The lighthouse remained manned by U.S. Coast Guardsmen until 1973 when it was automated. At that time it was the last remaining light to be manned on Lake Erie.

Becoming the Ashtabula Maritime Museum

Also in 1973, the lightkeeper’s residence was deeded to the City of Ashtabula through the efforts of then Recreation Director, Don Bento. In 1976, the City of Ashtabula decided to use the building for an area-wide city Museum that would embrace the early Indian, Western Reserve and Marine History. This idea, however, was scrapped because of the lack of funds and the ownership reverted back to the U.S. Government.

In 1976, the incorporation of the Hubbard House & Underground Railroad Museum and the Ashtabula Marine Museum took place. As early as 1979, two Ashtabula dreamers, Paul Petros and Duff Brace, along with the help of Robert H. Fuller, a local attorney, wrote a letter to U.S. Representative William Stanton of Ohio. They asked for help to include the U.S. Coast Guard’s name in the museum’s official title.

On October 16, 1979, Mr. Fuller received letters from both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Honorable William Stanton, allowing the Ashtabula Marine Museum to use the U.S. Coast Guard’s name as long as it was not implied that it was an official activity of the U.S. Coast Guard or an official U.S. Coast Guard Museum. The museum could not use the U.S. in its museum name. The U.S. Coast Guard also offered to loan artifacts and exhibits for temporary display.

An example of the items Paul and Duff sought in 1980 for future museum displays was an alarm bell, which had been on the G.A.Tomlinson (1907). It was a gift fro the ship the USS Lawe Committee. The bell was purchased with remaining funds raised to provide a dinner for the crew of the USS Lawe after the ships visit to the port of Ashtabula. Any and all ideas were used to keep their goal in sight.

In the summer of 1981, the City of Ashtabula acquired Point Park from the Penn Central Railroad. This area is located across the street from a then U.S. Government owned building and just may have helped send a message to a marine museum committee to look into acquiring the building from the government.

 In 1982 the Ashtabula Jaycees and the Ashtabula Marine Museum Committee were awarded the building from the U.S. Government Service Administration. (GSA). The building was named The Great Lakes Marine and Coast Guard Memorial Museum. The co-chairmen wee: James (Jim) Hill and Paul Petros. Paul Petros and Duff Brace wanted to preserve the heritage of the Ashtabula Harbor. This started as a dream more than 40 years before. Paul Petros had been collecting and storing in his own house anything of historic marine value that he felt could be saved from the scrap yard. Mr. Petros began speaking of his dream for a marine museum for Ashtabula, Ohio. He felt that a marine museum would preserve a valuable part of Ashtabula’s history for future generations.

Paul and his good friend Duff Brace partnered up to being the long process to put together a museum for Ashtabula. For years they slowly collected artifacts. They also worked very hard to raise money for their project. Paul and Duff presented their own slide shows covering information about Paul’s specialties, the docks and the town. Duff’s specialties were the lakes and the steamship companies that sailed those waters for so many years.

The “Paul and Duff Show” always drew a big crowd and was widely known. The local Ashtabula Yacht Club & the Harbor (Topky) Library often sponsored the shows. Duff thought people, especially youngsters, would want to know about some of Ashtabula’s interesting facts. One of those facts he tried to preserve was that between the years 1900-1906, the Port of Ashtabula broke the world record for unloading iron ore three (3) out of six (6) years.

Through their tireless efforts, Paul and Duff were finally beginning to see their dream taking form. Donations were coming in and they were soon looking to locate their museum in the old U.S. Coast Guard Station Lightkeeper’s home at 1071 Walnut Boulevard. Money was still needed in order to complete work on the interior of the building. They decided that one way to help overcome the problem was to offer yearly memberships to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. The modest sum of $7.50 was charged for a family and $5.00 for a single person. They also started a lifetime membership plan. An area bank, Bank One, was a great help to the Ashtabula Marine Museum at the time. Both men also made sure that all who heard their message knew that they were interested in receiving donations of artifacts that were pertinent to the area and the history of the harbor as well as donations of money.

A ribbon cutting ceremony was finally held on the steps of Ashtabula’s newest Museum on June 2, 1984. The co-curators who cut the ribbon were Paul Petros, Duff Brace, and Clint Ekensten.  “While the ongoing maintenance is an endless task, the original conversion from an aging wooden building darn near beyond repair into a beautiful museum took many hours of painstaking labor from civic minded volunteers,” Paul Petros said. “It is a dream come true and well worth it. It’s beautiful and anyone can verify that,” he added.

Finally, on October 25, 1984, a formal Saturday opening gala was held for donors and members. Then on Sunday, October 26, 1984, the Great Lakes Marine and Coast Guard Memorial Museum in Ashtabula, Ohio, officially opened its doors to the public.

Inside The Great Lakes Marine and Coast guard Memorial Museum in Ashtabula

Once the Museum was open, some of the following large items were put on display around the Museum’s outside.

Steering Wheel

Paul L. Tietjen resting in Triad Salvage Company

Photo by Barry Andersen, November 10, 1978

A large fancy steering wheel is off the steamer Paul L. Tietjen, which was launched as the Mathew Andrews in 1907. Captain Lempoh took bearings from Lightship #61, which unknown to him had blown two miles off station. This caused the Matthew Andrews to ground heavily on Corsica Shoal. Renamed Harry L. Findley in 1933, the ship was renamed the Paul L. Tietjen in 1965. She again ran aground near the Lightship Huron. After bow damage was repaired, she later suffered a serious galley fire. In 1977, she unloaded her last load in Buffalo, New York. October 10, 1978, she was towed to Ashtabula where she was scrapped by the Triad Salvage Company, ending her 71 year career. She was the last boat that was built, owned and operated throughout her career by Kinsman Transit Company, Cleveland, Ohio.

Matthew Andrews donated this item.

Brownhoist Trip Bucket

This bucket was put into use in 1873. The bucket transferred hand-shoveled iron ore from lakers to railroad cars and on to stockpiles.

The Erie Belle Anchor

The Erie Belle was driven ashore and broken up by an 1884 storm. The anchor was recovered during work at the then CEI power plant on Lake Road east of Ashtabula, Ohio.

Emergency Steering Wheel

The wheel is from the Erie Queen, a cargo and excursion boat. This boat had a long and varied history on the Great Lakes and as a Maine Coaster.

The Bow Anchor

This bow anchor is off the schooner C.L. Burton. The C.L. Burton was carrying a cargo of sulfur when she sank in 1869 north of the Ashtabula Great lakes Marine & Coast guard Museum and a few yards north of the present- day Norfolk & Southern Railroad Coal Dock.

The Millwheel

This large millwheel is part of cargo from Holland, and was intended for Cleveland, Ohio. The millstone was part of cargo that was transferred after its long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to the schooner Gulnare (A Canadian Registry). This was done at Hamilton, Ontario. The Gulnare sank in a storm off Ashtabula Harbor on July15, 1892. The Millstone was recovered on July 8, 1992, by Bruce Watson and his crew of drivers who brought it to the location near the front porch and door of the Museum.

An actual lake boat pilothouse was removed from the steamer Thomas Walters before she was scrapped in Ashtabula in 1986. The pilothouse was removed and placed to the rear of the lightkeeper’s house in part by Dave Marshall, where it was mounted on a foundation for tours.

Before the pilothouse could be opened to the public in 1988 however, items had to be found to replace the gutted equipment within it. The steering wheel in the pilothouse is from the ship Renvoyle, which was built in Scotland in 1911.

The binnacle is from the tug Welcome. Frank Duva did most of the pilothouse welding. Much of the major work to make the interior/exterior of the old pilothouse presentable was done at that time by Arthur Louis Steel Company, Dave Marshall, Stan Kohut Jr., Frank Duva, James Lind, Dick & Bettie Coburn, Ned Sherry, Sr., Burr Blakeslee, Clint Eckensten, and Bob Leng. Captain Garvey and Captain Perkins, both retired lake boat captains provided technical assistance.

The Glidden Paint Company donated all the paint needed to refurbish the building also sent an interior decorator to figure out what colors should be used. The exterior area of the Museum needed a second story fire escape that was provided by Howard Morse. J.J. Dragon & Sons provided the labor for the handicap ramp.

These Artifacts Were Displayed in the Museum’s Early Days

  • Many different pictures depicting the Great Lakes and the Ashtabula Harbor life from 1871 through the present as well as period maps are on view.
  • The model of the Great Lakes Towing Company (Admiral), which was made by the great model builder Heige Anderson.
  • In addition to the Anderson model, there are several Gordon Amsbury models and many other boat models.
  • By far, the largest item to be displayed is the scale model of the Hulett unloader handcrafted by the late Warner Pearson of Ashtabula. This was loaned to the Museum by the Smithsonian Institution which is often called our nation’s attic.
  • Another of Mr. Pearson’s collections on display includes seventeen (17) cases of working miniature tools he made.
  • U.S. Coast Guard cutter models and flags are displayed in the Coast Guard section, along with a set of oars from a U.S. Coast Guard Life Saving boat. These boats were stationed along the lakes to assist the crews of sinking ships years ago.
  • The original Fourth Order Fresnel Lens from the Ashtabula Coast Guard Lighthouse is on display along with a model and pictures of the lighthouse itself.

Volunteers Keep the Museum Alive and Thriving

Bettie Coburn began polishing the brass in the pilothouse. Later, Herman Carnegie took over cleaning the brass in the pilothouse as well as all the other brass in the Museum. Several people have since taken on this project, but Jack and Judy Perskari have recently had help from Tommy Leveck in cleaning all of the Museum’s brass. This is a tremendously long winter project every year but they have been doing this in the spring and early summer.

Herman also spent time making the Hulett Room an attraction.  In 2011-2014, Sandy Jacobs, Tommy Leveck, Davie Poole and Bob Frisbie worked to have this area updated with additional displays.

Dennis Hale, the lone survivor of the sinking of the steamer Daniel J. Morrell once was the curator of the Museum and continued to make periodic visits until his passing. While there, he often told of his experience and signed autographs. The Museum sells items about his experience in their gift shop.

In 1985, the Museum had over 2,600 visitors that year and in the year 2000 it had over 3000 visitors. These figures are not bad, considering that the Museum was only open Friday-Sunday in June, July, and August. They had aby tour buses stop by to increase the visitor count. Today, tour uses are rare. Most folks want to go by bus to a gambling casino.

During these summer seasons when we are open, the Museum did not charge an entrance admission. They did however ask for donations. As years went by those donations became smaller and smaller. Betty Carnegie reported that the group decided they needed to charge and admission because the bills were mounting. Paul Petros thought this was a bad idea. “Nobody will want to come if we charge,” he once said.

After year 2000 we needed some sort of income due to the insurance, telephone, electric and gas company rate increases. At that time they were still paying property taxes too, but soon after 2001, Betty Carnegie and Anne Frisbie suggested we file with Ashtabula County to be changed to a non-profit, tax free status. We began to charge a $4.00 admission for adults and $3.00 for sixteen years of age and younger children. Children under 16 were free and they still are.

The year 2001 we tried to be more available to the any tourists who are beginning to visit our county. We were open Thursday-Monday during June, July, and August and weekends April, May, September, and October.  It was hoped that additional hours could serve the tourists if more volunteers were available to them. Unfortunately, our visitors did not increase ore than the costs to remain open longer. So in 2008, we again began opening only on Friday – Sunday.

Museum Dates for Your Maritime Date Book

  • In 1989, Point Park became the home for a large portion of Ashtabula’s last remaining Hulett, the bucket portion. Paul Petros and Duff Brace’s ever-continuing hard work saved the Hulett bucket from the scrap yard while the rest of this wonderful machine went to scrap.
  • In 1991-1992 a $31,000 addition of approximately 40’x50’ was built to the rear of the original 1871 light keeper’s home. This addition was due to the direct financing and supplied by the Ashtabula Jaycees and a temporary loan by Tim Hubbard.
  • In 1996, the Ashtabula Marine Museum joined forces with the Hubbard House Museum and later the Finnish/American Heritage Association of Ashtabula to become the Ashtabula Area Museum & Historical Society. This union was dissolved in 2009 in a mutual agreement.
  • A nautical library was planned and started upstairs as well as upgrading the gift shop and the main entryway. Several outside doors that had rusted out were replaced. More and better signage directing tourists on how to get to the Museum was installed.
  • A larger museum sign located in the front yard was al installed.
  • As of December 31, 2009, our name was officially changed to the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum, also known as the Ashtabula Maritime Museum.

Volunteers Keep Us Operating

The Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum has generated all of its operating funds locally and relies heavily on volunteers. As with most volunteer-run organizations, volunteers are always in short supply and the numbers seem to be dwindling. However, a few new or previous crew members are beginning to come back to help out again.

We can always use more help. Please ask our Director Robert Frisbie what you can do for your Museum.

Robert Frisbie…….440-997-5370

Or call the Museum and leave a message at……440-964-6847


Stop in at The Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum at 1071 Walnut Boulevard.

Our address is:  The Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum

1071 Walnut Blvd. P.O. Box #1546, Ashtabula, Ohio 44005-1546


You can email the Museum at bobandanne@windstream.net

(This article was compiled by the Great Lakes Marine & Coast Guard Memorial Museum Director Emeritus & Chief Advisor Betty Carnegie and written and edited by Director Robert Frisbie. The late Curator/Crewmember Gordon Amsbury provided information, maps and drawings which can also be looked at by contacting the Museum Director. Mr. Amsbury’s papers were titled:  “A History of Ashtabula’s Lighthouses”, printed in 1995. Many items from these papers were used or copied here.)