Perhaps the best known lighthouse of New England's "west coast," Colchester Reef Light was originally located about a mile offshore from Colchester Point on Lake Champlain, a vital waterway bordering New York, Vermont, and Quebec.
A report of the Lighthouse Board in 1869 stated, "It is recommended that an appropriation be made for the erection of a light-house on Colchester Reef, South Hero Island, or in the vicinity." The light was established in 1871, at a cost of $20,000, to mark a group of three dangerous shoals.
Similar Second Empire designs were used for Rhode Island's lighthouses at Pomham Rocks, Sabin Point, and Rose Island. The design for Colchester Reef Lighthouse was submitted by Albert R. Dow, a graduate engineer from the University of Vermont. His design was chosen over many entries in a national design competition run by the Lighthouse Service.
Herman Melaney was the first of nine keepers at Colchester Reef, and he remained for 11 years. The lighthouse had four bedrooms on its second floor, and a kitchen and living room on the first floor. The fixed red light was visible for 11 miles. The original sixth-order Fresnel lens remains in place.
A fog bell was sounded by winding a clockwork mechanism, and it was struck every 20 seconds when fog limited the light's visibility to less than three miles. No doubt the keepers and their families had many sleepless nights.
A storm in January 1873 shook the lighthouse, damaging the lens. $5,000 was spent to rip-rap the base of the building, affording it more protection in storms.
On January 29, 1888, a baby, Myrtle Button, was born at the lighthouse. When his wife, Harriet, went into labor, Keeper Walter Button sent for a doctor by ringing the fog bell, a signal to his assistant on shore. Unfortunately, as they tried to cross the ice to the lighthouse, the doctor and assistant keeper were carried by ice floes several miles to the north, and were lucky to escape with their lives. Harriet Button had her baby without benefit of a doctor, but all worked out well.
From 1933, when it was deactivated, until 1952, the Colchester Reef Lighthouse fell into disrepair. In July 1952, Electra Havemeyer Webb, who had inherited a fortune in the sugar cane industry and founded the Shelburne Museum, purchased the lighthouse from Paul and Lorraine Besette, who had bought it from the Coast Guard for $50. They had intended to use the lumber from the lighthouse for the building of a home on shore.
Before the building was dismantled, every part was photographed and number for identification. A crew of five men dismantled the lighthouse and took it to Shelburne by barge, reassembling it in less than a month. The museum's insurance company would insure the crew for work on shore only, so the men resigned and were reinstated after the operation was finished. The lighthouse was placed on a new foundation at the museum and much restoration was done over the next several years.
After more than 70 years in darkness, the lighthouse was relit with a solar-powered light, largely through the efforts of the Coast Guard's Burlington base and lighthouse historian George Clifford of Plattsburgh, New York. Clifford jokes that now, with the lighthouse illuminated at night, partyers aboard the Ticonderoga will be able to navigate their way home safely.
A $130,000 rehabilitation of the lighthouse's base got underway in March 2009, thanks largely to a donation by a descendant of one of the light's keepers. When the work is completed in the summer of 2009, the lighthouse will be handicapped accessible.
The Shelburne Museum is a must-see for lighthouse buffs and anybody interested in ninteentth century life in New England.
Keepers: Herman Melaney (1871-1882); Walter M. Button (1882-1888 and 1890-1892); August Pare (1888-1889); James Wakefield, Jr. (1889-1890); Chester F. Button (1901-1908); Willam H. Howard (1908-1909); August Lorenz (or Lorenze) (1909-1931); Joseph Aubin (1931-1933).