From 1920 to 1929, many different types of diaphones were first tested at the Buffalo station; in 1925, the Buffalo breakwater lightstation got one of the first radio beacon installations on the Great Lakes. Buffalo's shore establishment, sprawling from the site of the first lighthouse toward Chinaman's Light, along built-up land that almost obscured the fact that the second tower stood on a man-made pier, was both district office and depot for the Lighthouse Service's Tenth District.
By 1955, the old landmark Chinaman's Light was part of a busy U.S. Coast Guard base -- and was being used to store explosives. But fate had still another twist in store for it, and its future was brighter than that of the light station that had replaced it.
On July 26, 1958, the huge lakes freighter Frontenac swung out of the Buffalo River and toward open water. One of the two Coast Guard keepers on a duty shift at the Buffalo Light was on the adjoining breakwater fishing, and he saw the ship's course swin g wider than usual.
The damage caused to the 1872 Breakwater Light can be seen in this 1958 photograph (The Buffalo News).
He yelled a warning to his watchmate, who joined him on the wall as the sound of shouted orders drifted from the oncoming pilothouse and the anchor chains rumbled through hawsepipes. But the Frontenac's rendezvous with the lighthouse was too near to be canceled, and the freighter met the concrete wall with a crash that tilted the lighthouse 15 degrees and moved it backward nearly 20 feet. The million-candlepower light, visible 16 miles, was knocked out of service until a temporary light tower could be rigged.
Things looked even darker a month later for Chinaman's Light, as the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to widen the river mouth and demolish the 1833 tower. But the announcement triggered public protest, a "Save the Light" campaign that marked th e start of a wide-ranging historic preservation movement in the City of Buffalo, and a 1962 restoration effort for the long-neglected tower itself.
Ironically, Chinaman's Light was reborn in the same year an era ended -- also in 1962, the three Coast Guardsmen who were the last of the Port of Buffalo's lighthouse keepers, were relieved from duty as the 1903 south entrance light was automated.
The fourth Buffalo Light, an automated beacon atop a 71-foot white tower on the end of the harbor's farthest breakwater, went into service in 1961, the same year the American Demolition Co. of Pittsburgh was awarded the demolition contract for what the press had taken to calling Buffalo's "Leaning Lighthouse." Buffalo's harbor lighting was thoroughly modem, but its treasured landmark from 1833 -- the city's oldest building still standing on its original site and a part of the design of the city seal its elf -- had outlived its successor.
The Coast Guard Cutter Ojibwa pulls up to the lighthouse on the west breakwall of Buffalo's outer harbor in this 1964 photograph. The Cutter is checking on ice conditions around the tower that's doing the job of the old "Leaning Lighthouse" which is what the 1872 Breakwater Light came to be known as (The Buffalo News).
Chinaman's Light was temporarily reilluminated with a floodlight display for the country's Bicentennial, and again for the city's Sesquicentennial. In 1979, it was included by the Coast Guard in a thematic listing in the National Register of Histori c Places.
Neglect again began to take a toll on the building, however, and in 1985, the Buffalo Lighthouse Association was formed to undertake major structural restoration of the tower and to enhance its setting under a 30-year license from the Coast Guard.
The tower has been restored, and a replacement lens was installed and re-lit for the first international Friendship Festival in 1987. Parkland development also has highlighted the tower's importance to a waterfront renaissance, and to the history of a ci ty that has come home to its heritage and its roots.
Anthony C. Gedid