Stories of sailing ships and great fishermen still abound in Port Ontario. Located in the Town of Richland, the area is noted today for the Salmon run in the fall. Tourists occasionally wander down to the marina at the mouth of the Salmon River and discover a landmark that looks like it dropped down from a time of sailing ships and double-masted schooners..
The Selkirk Lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still stands towering above the water with near by a shell of the old hotel where sailing ships docked, and guests stayed in the hot summers of the past.
Built in 1838, this venerable relic has one of the few “bird cage” light surrounds left on Lake Ontario. Costing the United States Government seventy-five hundred dollars, the building escaped the renovation of many of the lake’s lighthouses because of being scheduled to be decommissioned (which it was) in 1858. It was built because many thought that by putting a lighthouse near the lake in what was considered a dangerous area known for shipwrecks, and by dredging a deep channel in front, it would become a large port, which it was for a while. Unfortunately, its neighbor Oswego to the west took its business because of its link to Syracuse via the Oswego River and Canal.
Today, the port is just a sleepy reminder of a by gone era, except for fall when sportsmen arrive for the Salmon run which has replaced the Sturgeon fishing of the past.. In the old days the lighthouse would dock Great Lake schooners, allowing the local area to receive and send goods of all varieties. It’s most notable cargo however, few know about, even though a segment mentioning it was on the television show West Wing. In this episode Leo McGerry reminds everyone that it is cheese day and relates the story of President Andrew Jackson receiving a huge cheese and having it set in the White House’s main room, threw the doors open and invited the public into “their house” so that every citizen could share in the bounty.
The cheese that is recorded to have weighed over 1,400 pounds was made near Sandy Creek by Col. Meacham and was transported first by sets of gray horses to Pulaski and then on to the port where it was shipped via schooner and the canal system to Washington, D.C. The man who made it, Col. Meacham, was noted for his showmanship. The Colonel also made 500-pound cheeses fro the Vice President and the Governor of New York.
The hotel next to it ran for many years and was noted for its German Cuisine and dances. This building is now just a vacant and broken remnant of a time gone by when ladies and gentlemen summered by the lake.
This is a great place to visit with your children and is just a short ride from Syracuse on Interstate 81. It is also a spectacular place to view an upcoming storm. The public can even rent a room in the lighthouse for the night. The light itself is now a solar light with the lighthouse was recommissioned in 1989. Today it once again acts as a useful navigational marker.
For information on the history of the Town of Richland and the Selkirk Lighthouse be sure to visit the Pulaski Historical Society Museum in the Village of Pulaski, and or read the wonderful book they have put out called “Salmon River Odyssey” by noted author Hope Irvin Marston.