Once, it stood as an American island in foreign waters -- thanks to an agreement between a president from Buffalo, and the Queen of England.
Today, Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse stands in America. The lighthouse never moved, but the border did. Long neglected, the spidery metal framework still marks the eastern end of Lake Erie and the entrance to the mighty Niagara River. Once, it guided ships heading toward the shelter of the harbor at Black Rock; once, it was a place where men lived and worked in desolate isolation within sight of a growing and prosperous city.
No one visits, save the seagulls; the Niagara is swift, and the treacherous rocks of the lighthouse reef wait just inches below the surface.
Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse has one of the most curious histories of any American lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Added to the difficulties of building an offshore light station on a submerged reef were the difficulties of international diplomacy; before t he 19th Century light house was finished, builders required not only a Congressional appropriation, but an opinion of the government of Canada, a formal protocol of Her Majesty's Government in London and the signature of the President of the United States .
Horseshoe Reef Light Station, at the junction of Lake Erie and the Niagara River (Buffalo Lighthouse Association).
Even more curiously, Horseshoe Reef Light does not mark Horseshoe Reef at all, but sits on another rocky outcropping known as the Middle Reef.
Buffalo had already had two lighthouses by the time consideration was given to marking the entrance to the Niagara River. A fine stone tower had been built in 1833 to mark the entrance of the Buffalo River and Buffalo Harbor, and the lower tower built a bout 1818 stood dark and abandoned a bit farther up river.
But the Lakes trade was booming; ships headed down the Niagara with lumber and other goods destined for the docks at Black Rock, in what would become a neighborhood of expanding Buffalo, needed a beacon to chart their way through dangerous waters that w ere dotted with reefs and rushing toward a rendezvous with the thunder of Niagara Falls.
In 1849, Congress approved an appropriation for a lightship or lighthouse on Horseshoe Reef. In their wisdom, the lawmakers thought $10,000 should be enough for the "lightboat" and $20,000 should suffice for a tower, should the surveys deem that more advi sable.
Some 25 days later, U.S. Navy Commander Abraham Bigelow did indeed recommend a lighthouse -- and estimated it would cost $45,000 to build the offshore installation, at a point where the river begins to pick up speed for the eleven knot currents that rush through the narrows about 1,500 feet to the north, where the Peace Bridge now stands.
Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton, of the Department of the Treasury, found still another objection to the proposed site, on Middle Reef to provide a more central location than the inshore Horseshoe Reef. The site actually was on the Canadian side of the i nternational boundary that had been laid down by the peace treaties following the American Revolution, and reaffirmed in 1822, just seven years after the bloody three year War of 1812.
Pleasonton, then nearing the end of his long tenure as superintendent of American lighthouses, recommended that the Department of Stare contact the British government to build the lighthouse. He also felt sure the answer would be no, because the British h ad rejected a similar request for a lighthouse in the Bahamas two decades earlier.
He was wrong. Aids to navigation at Buffalo would benefit the growing commerce of both the United States and Canada, and the British saw the need. They also saw that they faced a choice between building the lighthouse themselves, or ceding just enough of the British Empire to the United States to let the Americans tackle the difficulties and the expense.
In a late November gale on Lake Erie, a steamer approaches the "dummy light". (Buffalo & Erie County Public Library).
In London, U.S. minister Abbott Lawrence sent a note to Viscount Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, who in turn relayed the American request to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, who in turn asked Lord Elgin, the governor general, to consult the provincia l government in Ontario.
Lawrence's note, sent on February 5, 1850, was accompanied by a memorial and petition signed by "several hundred merchants and residents of Buffalo." Canadian commercial interests also supported the idea of a river lighthouse, and on April 23, the Executi ve Council of the Province of Canada, meeting in Toronto, approved the proposal.
The decision went back up government channels, and on December 9 Palmerston and Lawrence met at the Foreign Office in London to sign the Protocol giving part of the reel to the United States -- provided the U.S. did, in fact, erect a lighthouse, and refra ined from erecting any kind of fortification.
And so the British Crown gave the United States an acre of underwater reef, about one third of the entire Middle Reefs, some 1,150 feet inside Canadian territory and just a short cannon shot from the shore where more than a thousand British, Canadian, Ame rican and foreign mercenary troops had died in the Battle of Fort Erie just 36 years earlier. President Millard Fillmore approved the deal two months later.
Congress approved an extra $25,000 on March 3, 1851, shortly before appointing a new board to take over the Lighthouse Service. The new lighthouse board named a three-man committee, including board president Commander William B. Shubrick, to review a cons truction proposal by Isaac S. Smith, who was given the Horseshoe Reef contract even though the committee recommendation was not favorable. Bad weather, a discovery that the reef was not solid rock, and other problems delayed the project and Smith's contra ct was canceled; in 1855 and 1856, the government itself built a stone foundation and topped it with four iron columns supporting a one-story wood lighthouse.
Fifty feet above the river, a new fourth-order lens flashed on for the first time on September 1, 1856, and could be seen by mariners 10 miles out on Lake Erie.
Two keepers manned the station, living ashore but staying in rudimentary quarters at the light for long periods when bad weather made landings on the reef station too perilous.
Close-up view of Horseshoe Reef Light Station in 1910 (Buffalo Lighthouse Association).
Daniel D. Hill of Buffalo joined the Light house Service in 1904 and drew Horseshoe Reef as his first duty station. It was no bargain; although he would draw $490 a year as an assistant keeper, even the service itself was acknowledging that the station ju st offshore from the first city in the nation to be lit with electricity, was "one of the most comfortless and unattractive stations in the district."
By 1908, though, it at least was not duty in foreign territory, however friendly that territory may have become. A new treaty authorized adjustments to the boundary and in 1913 an international commission moved Canada 100 feet to the west of the Horseshoe Reel Light, putting the light station and the reefs within the United Stales.
By then, though, Horseshoe Reef Light was not really needed. The river traffic was still heavy, but Niagara River navigation had changed.
A new protected Black Rock Channel was walled off from the Niagara along the river's eastern shore, offering shelter from the swift currents. And a stone's throw from the Horseshoe Reef Light itself, the City of Buffalo had erected a water intake crib in the middle of the Emerald Channel, topping the tile-roofed cylinder with another navigational light.
Horseshoe Reef Light went dark in 1920, no doubt unmourned by the keepers who were stationed there. In time, the wood portions of the tower decayed and disappeared; only the iron framework remains.