The Elusive Utilities
When I first purchased the lighthouse, I knew it needed a lot of repair and restoration. I also knew that whatever utilities (running water, electrical power, and HVAC) that were used when the keepers lived there in the early 20th century, were no longer functioning. With some historical research, trolling the lighthouse for clues, and a lot of guesswork, I came up with my own theories of how the keepers procured water, disposed of sewage, generated electricity, and heated the lighthouse.
First, electricity. It was likely that when the lighthouse was first lit in 1925, there was no electricity. At that time, the original beacon was fueled by kerosene, thus the need for full-time keepers to constantly fill and clean it. I imagine they used other portable kerosene lamps around the house for lights when needed. There certainly wasn’t the demand for electricity as there is today without the advent of computers, cell phones, TVs and the other electronic gadgets we love. At some point in the 1930s, the Coast Guard laid an electrical cable under Fairport Harbor to the lighthouse in order to replace the kerosene beacon with an electrically powered one. That electricity automated the light for decades, which meant the keepers didn’t need to be there 24 x 7. I do know that the keepers “moved out” in the late 1940s.
When I purchased the property in 2011, the underwater electrical cable was no longer working. No one I spoke to seemed to know anything about it – including the local power company and those posted to Coast Guard Station Fairport. One theory is that the electrical cable was cut accidently by dredging being done in the harbor. If so, then the Coast Guard may have had to find another way to keep the light on. Based on photos and the type of solar technology used, it was probably installed in the early 1990s. The beacon is still powered by solar today with the Coast Guard checking on it regularly throughout the year. The wiring was rerouted to the outside of the lighthouse and the battery bank upgraded in 2013.
People often ask if I spend the winters at the lighthouse. My simple answer is “no,” because it’s not heated. But we do know the keepers who were there in the 1920s and ‘30s did have heat. Their source of heat was a coal burning furnace. Coal would have been brought in by ship, hoisted up and in the east-facing double doors, and then dropped through a trap door in the floor to the basement below. Another important job for the keepers during the winter was to keep the furnace going.
While there is no evidence left of the furnace, there were pieces of coal found in a metal bucket in the empty cistern space in the basement. Given the winter weather of NE Ohio and the challenging conditions of the break wall, it is no longer safe, practical, nor necessary to keep the lighthouse heated during the winter. Frankly, the early Spring and late Fall evenings are a little chilly, but nothing a pile of blankets won’t fix.
Then there’s the issue of water. Funny thing is, when I bought the lighthouse, I didn’t think that getting running water inside would be that much trouble given that Lake Erie was a freshwater lake. But I was wrong, dead wrong. First of all, taking water directly out of Lake Erie for private use is prohibited. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a rule. Enough said. Running a pipe from the mainland would have been prohibitively expensive for a house that is only open 4 ½ months a year. That left me with only one option – collect rainwater from the roof.
When the keepers lived there, they did pump water in from Lake Erie and stored it in the cistern that was built in the basement for that purpose. There’s a large pipe downstairs that looks as if it may go all the way through the platform into the lake and providing a path for the water. How they pumped water from the basement to the second floor where the kitchen and bathroom were located is still a mystery, but they may have used a small hand pump.
Collecting rainwater from the roof of the lighthouse is only the first part of the process and probably the easiest. To collect it, I installed a new commercial sized downspout at the southeast corner of the building, which is nearest to the cistern storage inside. The water runs off the roof, along its gutters, and into the downspout. I was able to affix a curved “ledge jumper” piece to the downspout and direct it through a previously created and now unsealed hole in the lighthouse foundation directly into the cistern. When it’s time for water to be drawn from the cistern, it is pumped through a series of filters, treated with chlorine and finally ready to travel through the lighthouse to the kitchen and bathrooms. The cleaning process is similar to that used when drawing water from a pond. Once the “used” water is ready to be disposed of, it will again be cleaned [still under construction] and returned to the lake.
Disposing of sewage and “used” water from the kitchen and bathroom was definitely less complicated when the keepers lived there. I suspect that wastewater and sewage simple drained right into the lake – something that certainly was not unheard of at the time. However, it’s not possible to do that today in any way, shape, or form. There is a plethora of rules and regulations to follow at the local, state and national level about such disposable into Lake Erie, which is what has made my journey to running water such a long one.
Given that the lighthouse is “off the grid,” I strive to use as many “green” options for utilities as possible. My toilets are composting, so the residual compost is easily bagged up for the trash. This past summer I installed a small wind turbine and solar panels, hoping to fully transfer the electrical source from the current gas-powered generator. The wind/solar combination is still in the testing phase, but it definitely works to charge a phone. With the help of my electrician, I just need to scale it properly to power the rest of the lights and appliances.
To top off my quest for modern-day utilities, in September 2020 plumbing was installed throughout the lighthouse to the kitchen, laundry room and three full bathrooms. The result is water now running to the kitchen sink and dishwasher, washing machine, and the three bathroom sinks and showers. It was a “watershed” day (pun intended) when I could finally stand at the kitchen sink and turn on the faucet to see good old H2O run out and down the drain. Who knew it would be such a long journey for such a simple necessity that we generally take for granted? I will never look at the ease of flipping a light switch or turning on a faucet the same again.