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Legacy of Light: Marblehead Light etched in Great Lakes history

Legacy of Light: Marblehead Light etched in Great Lakes history

Story by Walter Ham on 08/06/2019

MARBLEHEAD, Ohio Etching its place in history, the Marblehead Light is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes.

The limestone lighthouse, which has guided mariners on Lake Erie around Ohio’s Marblehead Peninsula since 1822, was also home to the first female lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes.

Rachel Wolcott took over as the lighthouse keeper after her husband Benajah Wolcott, the first Marblehead Lighthouse keeper and a Revolutionary War veteran, died during the cholera outbreak in 1832.

For two years, she kept the 13 whale oil lamps lit that powered the light and guided mariners around the rocky coast. Prior to automation in 1958, two of 15 keepers of the Marblehead Light were female.

Today, the members of Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Detroit keep the light shining.

“Marblehead Light marks Point Marblehead for commercial shipping traffic entering Sandusky Bay and for the heavy recreational boating traffic visiting any one of the 26 islands found in the area,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Kraig M. Mcclellan, the officer-in-charge of ANT Detroit.

From the tip of the Columbus Limestone headland that gives the peninsula its name, the 50-foot tower shines a green flashing LED light that can be seen every six seconds from up to 11 nautical miles away. The green light distinguishes the lighthouse from the white lights emitted by air beacons.

The Marblehead Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, visitors can tour the lighthouse daily from noon to 4 p.m. More information on tours as available at https://www.marbleheadlighthouseohio.org/

In addition to the light, the 13-member Aids to Navigation Team from the Motor City covers a diverse mix of waterways across two states, from the Black River in Port Huron, Michigan, to Huron Harbor, Ohio.

The ANT maintains 338 ATON, including 226 buoys, 10 lighthouses, 10 ranges and 92 other various structures. With secondary responsibility for 280 other Federal aids, the team also manages 617 private aids to navigation.

“We maintain aids that mark deep water commercial shipping lanes, shifting sandbars around estuaries and the approaches to rock islands and outcrops,” said Mcclellan, a Brazil, Indiana, native who has served 15 years in the Coast Guard.

Along the border with Canada on the Detroit River, the ANT often maintains aids to navigation on one side of the navigation channel while Canadian units maintain them on the other.

Saving lives, protecting property and enabling commerce, the ANT is part of Sector Detroit and the Cleveland-based Coast Guard 9th District. The 9th District maintains and regulates more than 5,500 federal and private aids across the five Great Lakes.

More than a third of the Great Lakes aids are seasonal and are removed every fall and replaced every spring to minimize damage from ice and severe weather.

Like other 9th District ATON units, ANT Detroit maintains seasonal buoys, establishing 174 buoys in the spring and pulling them out of the water in the fall.

Marblehead Light is the team’s most famous, and most recognizable, aid.

The 197-year-old lighthouse was featured on Ohio license plates and was one of five lights selected for a series of U.S. postage stamps that honored Great Lakes lighthouses. The other Great Lakes lighthouses were Split Rock Light on Lake Superior, St. Joseph Light on Lake Michigan, Thirty Mile Point Light on Lake Ontario and Spectacle Reef Light on Lake Huron.

Mcclellan said maintaining the buoys and beacons that help mariners to stay on course around Michigan and Ohio is a noble calling.

“The highpoint of this assignment has been introducing junior members to the fun and rewarding work of an aids to navigation unit,” said Mcclellan. “There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

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