Navigating Lake Champlain
The Bluff Point Lighthouse continues to guide boaters after 133 years
Story by Christine Thompson
In 1870, Congress approved funding for $15,000 worth of construction on the Bluff Point Lighthouse, located on the western shore of Valcour Island. The lighthouse is built out of dark blue limestone rock with a red-shingled roof and an octagonal tower set against the Lake Champlain backdrop. Three years later, workers began building the two story lighthouse. In 1874, the lighthouse opened for service. It was instrumental in guiding boats through the channel from the New York shore to the western Shore of Valcour Island.
"We had some inmates help us clear away an old shed behind the lighthouse (during the restoration process), and we found old shoes that may have been from a 3 year old," Clinton County Historical Society President Roger Harwood said. "We think they might be from the Herwerth family."
According to historical records, lighthouse postions on Lake Champlain were typically kept by disabled Civil War veterans. Major William Herwerth, one of the disabled vets from the 91st New York Volunteer Infantry, manned the lighthouse from 1876. In February of 1881, Herwerth passed away while working at the lighthouse. After Herwerth's death, his wife, Mary, took over the position as keeper. This was an uncommon job for a woman at this time. Mrs. Herwerth was appointed to the position with the utmost respect because of her involvement with the lighthouse duties with her husband. Mrs. Herwerth manned the lighthouse until 1902.
"We had some inmates help us clear away an old shed behind the lighthouse [during the restoration process], and we found old shoes that may have been from a 3 year old, we think they might be from the Herwerth family."
According to Harwood, in 1930 a steel tower was erected with an automated light which replaced the need for lighthouse keepers. Harwood said that in November 2004 the light was removed from the steel tower and put back into the lighthouse. A Massachusetts dentist purchased the property in 1954 and used the area as a summer residence. Not until the 1980s did the lighthouse become a part of the Adirondack State Park, thereby protecting and preserving it, as well as making it available to the public.
Harwood and his wife have been active in the restoration of the interior of the lighthouse. They are also in the process of working to get interpretive displays about the lighthouse and the lighthouse keepers put up around the island.
"We are in conjunction with the NYSDEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation), and are really excited about having the signs put up this summer," Harwood said. "This way people can find out information about the lighthouse, and see images of the inside, if they happen to visit outside of open season."
The NYSDEC has owned the deed to property since 1986.
"CCHA is outlined in the deed to maintain the lighthouse and the structure of the lighthouse," said Dan Levy, senior DEC forester.
According to Levy, the DEC pays for most of the maintence, but the CCHA and their volunteers do all the work. Through the Adopt Natural Resource agreement between the DEC and the CCHA, tours to the lighthouse are provided.
The Bluff Point Lighthouse is one of the many historical sights in this region. It is surrounded by the historical contexts of Valcour Island, Lake Champlain, the Adirondack Mountains, the Battle of Plattsburgh, and other famous events and places in this region. The efforts of Harwood and the NYSDEC to maintain this 133-year-old lighthouse, keep the rich history of this area alive, and continue to help those who navigate through Lake Champlain.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Lake Champlain was commonly navigated by a double-ended sailing ferry called Weatherwax. These sailing ferries brought passengers and their cars across the lake until the early 20th century. Weatherwax is named for Captain Thomas Weatherwax who operated the last ferry between Crown Point and Chimney Point, until the Champlain Bridge opened in 1929.
The Champlain Valley Transportation Museum operates Weatherwax from the Plattsburgh City Dock. It travels frequently to Valcour island. Professors at Plattsburgh State University College commonly use the Weatherwax trips across the lake as educational experiences. It can also be reserved by groups and parties.
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