As most people who live in and around Rochester know, we have our very own lighthouse. Originally built in 1822 to guide ships coming in off the lake, the Charlotte Lighthouse (pronounced Shar-lot, as in a lot of money) sits near the mouth of the Genesee River. In this case, “near” is the operative word. When I first saw this light years ago, I was very much puzzled by its location. It’s a good half mile from where the river actually meets Lake Ontario. One would think that mariners of the day would have wanted it located as close as possible to the river’s entrance. Why, then, was it placed so far upstream?
Now I have to say that I wasn’t losing any sleep over it. Every time I saw it the question would pop into my head, only to pop right back out again as soon as it was out of sight (I’m a firm believer in the old “out of sight, out of mind” adage). But the other day – the same day that I saw the Stephen B. Roman – I decided to walk up to the lighthouse just to see if I could get any decent images of it. Lighthouses have always interested me and I’d never seriously attempted to photograph this one.
While walking around the grounds, a guy who was obviously connected to the place came up to me and said that he had to go up into the tower – would I like to come along? I said sure. It’s only 40 feet tall, so it wasn’t much of a climb. I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed the Hatteras tower on the Outer Banks, but that’s a serious lighthouse. You could have a heart attack walking up those stairs. But it’s one hell of a view once you get there.
I didn’t get any good images from the tower, but this one will give you an idea of the distance from the light to the mouth of the river, and hence an inkling of the mystery that’s been banging around in my head for all these years.
As you can see, the river’s mouth is a way’s off. So I asked him if he knew why they’d built the light so far from where it would be most beneficial to incoming vessels. For just the briefest moment I got this look of incredulity, a look that asked, “are you really this dumb”? But just for an instant. Then he pointed out through the glass.
“Do you see the railroad tracks down there”, he asked? “That’s where the shoreline was in 1822”. I was dumbstruck. It just didn’t seem possible that all of that extra land, land that was now covered with roads and houses and a very large beach area, could have materialized in only 187 years. He knew the questions that were forming in my befuddled brain.
“It’s because of the piers”, he said. “After the lighthouse was built, they put solid piers on either side of the river that extended into the lake. The piers kept sandbars from forming across the river’s mouth. But the sand had to go somewhere. It built up along the piers, parallel to them, slowly creating beach area. Once that started, dirt was brought in to fill in behind the sand, creating more useable land area. Over the years, the lighthouse got farther and farther away from the new shoreline”.
Well, son of a gun. And here I’d thought that the guys who originally built the light just flat didn’t know what they were doing. I thanked him and went on my way. He’s probably still chuckling about the tall, dumb guy with the nice camera.