Buffalo itself was only a frontier village in Indian territory when the need for a lighthouse began to be felt. An old frontier of France, the western regions of New York State undoubtedly had been marked by temporary beacons at the 17th-Century Lake Ontario French outpost of Fort Niagara. The British built a lighthouse atop the main building of the fort between 1773 and 1782, and Canadian lighthouses were the first substantial towers on the lakes.
But the turn of the 19th century was marked by enough maritime trafficto bring calls for American-built lights as well.
The Village of Buffalo -- a handful of cabins and people at the junction of Lake Erie and the Niagara River -- was made a port of entry by an act of Congress on March 3, 1805. Six years and one month later, New York State lawmakers adopted a cession "with respect to a piece of land for a light-house in Buffalo, Niagara County," but the building of the tower was side-tracked by the outbreak of the War of 1812 and the British burning of Buffalo in December, 1813.
It was not until 1817 that Oliver Forward, collector of the port, was commissioned to actually buy a site for a lighthouse at Buffalo. He paid $351.50 out of his own pocket to buy some land at the mouth of Buffalo Creek, and the 30 foot stone tower of the first Buffalo Light was finished in l818.
There is a long-standing controversy over whether Buffalo or Erie, Pennsylvania -- then known as Presque'isle -- can boast the first American-built lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Some normally-reliable sources, including veteran Lighthouse Superintendent George Putnam, accord the honor to Buffalo, but no conclusive evidence has been found. A Treasury Department report to the 16th Congress dated November 8, 1820, includes the two Great Lakes beacons in a list of 60 American lighthouses, including five with construction dates later than 1818, but merely notes that both the Buffalo and Erie lights were "included in one contract, $15,500 for both."
That the light was needed seems clear. The Walk-in-the-Water, first steamship on the upper Great Lakes, left Buffalo for Detroit on her maiden voyage that same year under the command of one Captain Fish, who ran her aground near Erie one month later. And with 96 arrivals and clearances at Buffalo Harbor, which really was not anything but a sand-clogged creek mouth, the State of New York was ready to authorize a survey of the Buffalo Creek entrances.
In 1819, the state legislature authorized a $12,000 loan to Buffalonians to advance harbor improvements. On May 5, 1819, a petition by Asa Ransom, Augustus Porter and other local leaders asked the government to appoint Revolutionary War veteran Robert Kaen as keeper of the Buffalo Light and to fire keeper John G. Skaats, "a man of dissolute morals whose manners are singularly obnoxious to the public." The government appears not to have listened.
The lighthouse on the sandy spit between the creek and the lake was augmented by a private light on the new pier for the use of "the steamboat"; there was no mistaking which steamboat, for in 1820 on all the lakes there was still only one -- and that one's days were numbered.
On the night of October 31, 1821, the ship the Indians had christened "Walk-in-the Water" was caught by a gale just off Buffalo Harbor, and was "beached about 100 rods above the lighthouse," according to a newspaper account. Mrs. Alanson W. Welton, a survivor of the wreck, later recounted that "the boat struck the beach in a fortunate spot for the safety of the passengers and crew - near the lighthouse - and all were saved. The warm fireside we gathered around at the lighthouse was comforting to our chilled limbs and our hearts warmed with gratitude to God for deliverance from our peril."
In 1825 the Erie Canal opened, with its western terminus at Buffalo. And soon after that the government, goaded by complaints that the Buffalo Lighthouse was useless, too often obscured "by the smoke of the village," and perhaps even at fault for the wreck of the Walk-in-the-Water, moved to build a newer and better tower on the molehead at the end of the long stone pier.
The treasury department appropriated $2,500 for the task in 1826, and the following year Wilkeson contracted "to erect and build a pier, and lighthouse and ice-breaker" to be completed by November 15, 1829. The work apparently continued over the next few years; contemporary accounts indicate the tower was built in 1832 and 1833, probably by the Army Corps of Engineers.