SODUS POINT, N.Y. — The Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum in Sodus Point chronicles the area’s role in commercial development and war time. And, since it’s actually inside the original Sodus Bay lighthouse, guests can climb the spiral staircase to enjoy the view, overlooking Lake Ontario, the mouth of Sodus Bay, and Chimney Bluffs State Park.
For 33 years, the Sodus Bay Historical Society, along with help from other volunteers from the community of Sodus Point, has operated the museum. More than 20,000 visitors visit the site annually. They include visitors from 49 states and 20 countries.
Housed in the ground-level keeper’s home, the museum displays maritime artifacts in five full rooms. Most were donated and a few were purchased because of bequests to the museum. Among them are a few especially historically significant finds, including British cannon balls and musket balls from the War of 1812. There is also Asher Warner’s sword, and Catherine Wickham’s silver teapot and sugar bowl. Manufactured by John McMullen in Philadelphia in 1800, the set is engraved with the Wickhams’ monogram.
Joe O’Toole, director of the museum, said that these items chronicle a battle between the British and Americans during the War of 1812. On June 13, the British attacked west of Sodus Point, at the settlement in Charlotte, now Rochester, to confiscate supplies from their warehouse. The people surrendered. Two days later, the militia was called up at Sodus Point, known then as Troupville, because it represented the next logical step for looting after Charlotte.
The residents hurriedly concealed their most necessary supplies in the woods, including barrels of whiskey, so the British wouldn’t find anything. After four days with no appearance of the British, the militia left.
Later that afternoon, June 19, the British vessels were seen coming from the east, not west. The ship logs state that they sailed to Kingston to deposit their loot from Charlotte and returned to the States only to be repelled by the cannons at Fort Ontario, east of Sodus Point. Without a militia to defend them, 62 brave townsmen — farmers, millers and shopkeepers — waited in the dark with their families’ weapons for 150 British to storm their shores. Grossly outnumbered, they had agreed to fire only when they saw their lanterns. The British bought their bluff and left, fearing that a large militia defended the settlement.
The next day, the British fired their cannons and musket balls on the settlement. Outraged at the empty warehouse, the British roamed citizens’ homes to pilfer whatever they could lay their hands on.
Catherine Wickham, wife of William Wickham, a prominent merchant, was home alone while her husband traded in New York City. Determined that no one should get her silver tea set, she buried the items outside her home under a bush before the British arrived.
When the battle ended and the British left, Catherine Wickham recovered her tea set. O’Toole said that the teapot and sugar bowl were gifts to the museum from the descendants of the Wickhams.
“It was fortunate she did bury the items because the British burned down everything except the tavern,” O’Toole said.
The British burned the settlement, except for a tavern where a wounded American named Asher Warner lay recovering. Two Americans and two British died as a result of the battle.
Hence, the museum’s display of Warner’s sword.
Another significant artifact is a block-and-tackle from a ship that carried freedom seekers to Canada across Lake Ontario on the last leg of their journey from the South.
“The captain would head out of Sodus Bay with a manifest stating he carried sacks of grain,” O’Toole said.
The museum’s government-issued lighthouse keeper tools also help visitors better understand how difficult the job really was.
Numerous lighthouse household items, even dustpans and coffee mugs, were made of brass to prevent rusting. The items all bear the official seal of the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
“The inspector would walk into the family’s house unannounced and one of the first items he’d look at was the dustpan, an item naturally dirty, to see how well it was kept and how polished it was,” O’Toole said. “Brass requires a lot of polishing.”
Two prized artifacts on loan to the museum are Fresnel lenses, a type of light lens which O’Toole said revolutionized lighthouses. Instead of encircling lanterns with reflectors, Frensel lenses use a series of stacked prisms with a convex center to concentrate the light into a beam. The museum boasts a 375-millimeter lens and, suitable for use on a lake, a fourth-order lens, which is a standard size.
The five exhibition rooms in the museum are so small that it’s hard to believe a couple and sometimes up to nine children lived in the diminutive quarters.
In addition to displaying maritime artifacts, the lighthouse facility hosts weddings and other events on the grounds, including open-air music events all summer.
A nonprofit, donations, grants and visitor fees support the museum.
The original lighthouse for Sodus Bay was established in 1824 through a congressional act. It cost $4,500 to build its brick tower and separate dwelling house. By 1870, that lighthouse had fallen into disrepair and was demolished. The current lighthouse was completed the following year with limestone imported from Canada. The second lighthouse included an attached home for the keeper.
By 1901, the light itself was decommissioned and replaced by a light on a nearby pier.
Deborah Jeanne Sergeant is a freelance writer in central New York.LF20170617-sodus-lighthouse:
Photos by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
The Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum is housed in a lighthouse overlooking Lake Ontario.
A block and tackle from a freedom ship refers to Sodus Bay’s connection to the Underground Railroad.
The teapot of Catherine Wickham is displayed at the museum. She buried her silver tea set so that the British would not loot it during a battle at Sodus Point during the War of 1812.
The grounds of the Sodus Bay lighthouse include gardens that host weddings and other events. Left of the center, the pier lighthouse is pictured extending over Lake Ontario.
Vintage bathing costumes comprise one exhibit at the Sodus Bay lighthouse.
The grounds of the Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum host free musical events every Sunday all summer.