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NSG Visit June 7, 2003

The Charlotte - Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society

Charlotte, New York


Bill Treichler

Members of the New Society of the Genesee traveled to Charlotte, New York, on Saturday, June 7, to see the Charlotte Lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s residence, now the museum and home of the Charlotte-Genesee Historical Society. We were greeted at the site entrance by Jack Kemp, who is a member of both the Lighthouse Society and the New Society of the Genesee. He showed us exhibits of early Indian life along the lower Genesee River and displays of prehistoric artifacts. Jack told us that Indians had camped here to catch salmon and to mine red ochre from the banks of the river. They used the iron compound as a pigment for face paint. The local Indians also traded to distant tribes the ochre they dug.

Probably LaSalle, Brulè and other French explorers and trappers moving along the lake brought their canoes into the river here. The location of the hut of the first recorded white resident at the mouth of the Genesee is shown on an early map and identified as “Walker’s.” When Butler’s Rangers were fleeing from Sullivan’s army, they hid here while Walker went to Niagara and brought back boats to carry them to Canada.

The first settlers on the lighthouse site were William and Mehitabel Hincher. He had been a soldier in the Revolution, a partisan in Shay’s Rebellion, and had fled to New York. His family from Brookline, Massachusetts, joined him at Big Flats on the Chemung River. Then, in 1791, he traveled with his 11-year-old son to the opening of the Genesee River. Before returning to Big Flats they built a hut on the west side of the river and cut wild grass for livestock they intended to bring the next year. The next spring they returned with family and possessions. The father died in 1817 and his wife sold to the U. S. government 3¼ acres of land for a lighthouse site.

A 40' high stone tower was built in 1822 along with a 34' by 20' stone dwelling for a lighthouse keeper. The house had two rooms separated by a fireplace and a full basement. The first actual keeper, Giles Holden, had 11 children. He enlarged the house at his own expense and when he retired took his additions with him. In 1863 the original house was replaced by a 2½-story brick house.

Leaving the displays in the entrance building, we moved on to the museum in the keeper’s house. The different ground-floor rooms are dedicated to exhibits relating to the Lighthouse and the site, the Genesee River Port of Charlotte, and to land and water transportation. There were also displays about Ontario Beach Park and the old village of Charlotte, and of the archeological excavations made at the lighthouse site in 1983 to find remains of the first house for the keeper. Members of the Society were on hand to tell us the history of the area and to answer our questions. William Davis was present to host our visit just following his return home from a stay in a hospital. Mrs. Davis showed a video tour of the lighthouse for the people who didn’t climb to the top.

We left the house to go into the lighthouse. We were shown the niches at the base of the tower where the containers of oil for the lamp were stored. A spiral stair leads to a landing and from it a steel ladder goes up through a hole in the platform that carries the lantern. Each of us scrambled from the ladder onto the deck. While we stood on the circular walkway around the lamp, we could look out through the encircling continuous windows and see the river and structures below.

In the early 1880s when this lighthouse was discontinued, the lamp and lens were moved to a beacon on the west pier some distance north. Over the years the shoreline had moved north because sand and silt had accumulated from the operations to keep the mouth of the river open for shipping. The present lamp with a surrounding Fresnel lens was supplied and installed by the Coast Guard to restore realism to this tower.

For lunch our group drove in their cars a few blocks to the Pelican Restaurant along the river’s
edge below the lighthouse. While we were eating, Marie Poinan, also a member of both societies, told us about the Hojack swing bridge, the largest movable structure in Rochester, which is in full view from the restaurant and the lighthouse site above. This bridge once carried the railroad across the river here. It appears to be in excellent condition. Presently it stands in open position so that river traffic can pass by. The Coast Guard would like it out of the way and its removal had been scheduled but people are resisting the destruction of the bridge and trying to preserve it.

Marie told us about the fast ferry which, when in use, will tie up close by on the west bank of the river. She also told us about an overlook site at the Stutsman Street Bridge that is in view up the river from the lighthouse. The new park area is to be named in honor of William Davis who has done so much to recover the history of the lighthouse, Charlotte, and the lower Genesee. Thanks to Bill Davis working together with Fr. Jack Lee of the Anthropology Department at St. John Fisher College, and Bob Gullo, former director of the Lavery Library, and historians Ed Spelman and Bud Steeb, as well as Jack Kemp and Marie Poinan and others, documentary evidence has been collected about the history of the lighthouse, the village of Charlotte and the Genesee River below the falls. The group even conducted archeological excavations at the lighthouse site.

The Port of Charlotte was established during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Samuel Latta was the first customs collector at Charlotte. The lighthouse, completed in 1822, was an aid to navigation and much of an improvement over lanterns hung from trees to guide sailors to the river. Piers were constructed out into the lake in 1829 to protect the opening to the river. In 1853, the tower was modernized by replacing wooden stairs with cast iron steps carried by a new brick tower lining, and the light was intensified by a fourth-order Fresnel lens that collected and directed the light in a horizontal band.

The Lighthouse Service was absorbed into the U. S. Coast Guard in 1939 and the pier lamp was fully automated by 1947 at the end of the term of the last keeper. The brick house became the residence of the Coast Guard commander.

The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1981 the lighthouse site was declared to be surplus property and was turned over to the newly formed Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society which began restoration of the tower, the keeper’s house and the grounds in 1983. That year an archeological dig uncovered a section of the brick basement floor of the first house and a nearby stone-walled well. The U. S. Government deeded the property to Monroe County in 1991. The Society now has a 20-year lease with the County.

The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society is an all volunteer, privately funded, non-profit organization. The Society publishes the Charlotte Beacon several times a year. There are different levels of membership beginning at $8.00 for students and senior citizens, $15 for individuals, $25 for families, and increasing to lighthouse keeper status for $1000. There are also many volunteer opportunities. The Lighthouse is open from May through October, Saturday and Sunday, between 1 and 5 p.m. Special tours can be arranged by calling 585-621-6179.

© 2003, Bill Treichler
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