Tour a lighthouse with a vantage on the past

Charlotte-Genesee lighthouse stands sentinel over stormy Lake Ontario.
Photo by Tom Rivers
The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse, which guided boats into harbor throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is open to the public for tours.

Gene Edwards gives the warning as he begins climbing the forty-two steps that lead to the lantern room at the top of Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse. The walls will get closer up high. You can’t be afraid of heights or claustrophobic to make it forty feet to the top.

Edwards promises the journey is worth it, and he’s right. The lantern room provides a panoramic view of Lake Ontario and a close-up of the Genesee River.

“There’s solitude in this place,” says Edwards, a Kodak retiree who has been volunteering as a tour guide the past six years. “And for a little bitty moment, you can go back in time.”

Long before GPS and radio systems, boaters relied on lighthouses to find a safe port. The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse was built in 1822. It’s the oldest surviving structure of its kind on the American side of Lake Ontario. It’s on the oldest street, Lighthouse Street, in Rochester.

Charlotte was a thriving village about two centuries ago. It grew around the port.

But the War of 1812 made residents feel vulnerable to potential lakeshore invasions and the population shifted farther inland to the present City of Rochester.

“Without the lighthouse, Rochester wouldn’t be here,” says Bob Owens, president of the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society.

The port allowed for the flow of goods into the area, but, more importantly, in Owens’ view it was an entry point for immigrants. Owens is thrilled that the society has acquired a customs house from 1840 at the corner of Latta and River streets. The society wants to turn that into a museum to better tell the story of immigration in Rochester.
The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse also includes geologic and Native American displays. It has cannonballs from two centuries ago on display. Visitors can touch nautical tools from the era, including lead lines that helped boaters determine the water’s depth.

A cast-iron shoe scraper is mounted in a sandstone sidewalk next to the brick keeper’s house, which was built in 1863. The site once included a barn with a horse and cows. The scraper was used to remove excrement before someone entered the keeper’s home.

The keeper’s house also displays the tombstone from Charlotte’s first settler, William Hincher, who built a log cabin on the site in 1792. The federal government bought a portion of his property to build the lighthouse. His tombstone from 1817 was removed from the Charlotte Cemetery about a century ago. In 2009, it was donated to the lighthouse. The site was targeted for demolition in the sixties, but Charlotte High School students launched a letter-writing campaign to keep the lighthouse, an important symbol for the school.

The site now attracts about 5,000 visitors annually. But Owens, the society president, believes it’s one of the area’s best-kept secrets.

“In Rochester, a lot of people don’t know about the lighthouse,” he said. “We have a great historical story to tell.”