Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2018

Restoration of the Water Works Gear Tower

The Lighthouse That Isn’t

By Ray Halt

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Vintage post card of the Water Works Gear Tower ...

Concern about the need for a backup water supply for the city of Erie, Pennsylvania led the Commissioners of the Water Works in Erie to commission a second water intake. The result was the Water Works Gear Tower placed at the ferry dock on Presque Isle (destined to became a State Park in 1921).

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The Water Works Gear Tower in Erie, Pennsylvania ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

Its appearance as a lighthouse has caused many to think it actually was a lighthouse. However, it never incorporated a light and never served as a formal aid to navigation. Instead, it contained a windlass on its second floor which was used to raise and lower a control valve at its base below waterline. The windlass was subsequently removed and a chain block and tackle installed (date unknown). When opened, the valve would allow water to flow to the city from Presque Isle Bay instead of the primary source, Lake Erie. Fortunately, the City of Erie’s main water intake in the Lake never faltered, and the backup intake to the Bay was never used. It was eventually decommissioned and fell into disrepair.

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Removal of the Water Works Gear Tower for its ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

Enter the summer of 2017 when a local couple, Dan and Sallie Shipley, viewed the tower and thought the tower’s faded exterior and peeling paint was an eyesore. Dan approached his friend Pete Alex (Alex Roofing) and a plan was formulated to take corrective action. Seed money was made available, thanks to Dan, with a large grant by The Dan and Sallie Shipley Charitable Fund. A group was soon formed, including Erie Water Works, Presque Isle State Park, Presque Isle Partnership, Alex Roofing, Donjon Shipbuilding and Repair, Lakeshore Towing, and ROG’s Incorporated. Other local businesses and individuals also contributed and continue to assist.

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Removal of the Water Works Gear Tower for its ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

Due to ecological and future maintenance concerns, it was decided to move the tower from its water edge location and, when refurbished, to relocate it to a grassy area just to the north but adjacent to its original location. It was not feasible to refurbish it at the state park. The owners of Donjon Shipbuilding and Repair donated a crane, forklift, and manpower assistance to move and store it. They also are providing an accessible land-based work site.

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Removal of the Water Works Gear Tower for its ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

The structure is constructed of curved five- eighths inch thick metal plates riveted and bolted together, tapering from base to top. Its weight is approximately 25,000 pounds. Ornate dental work adorns the metal top of the tower. A sloping main roof with overhang is constructed of wooden staves covered with copper and painted red. A decorative cupola with glass windows tops the main roof and a weather vane adorns the apex. Three brass portholes are located on the second floor level. There is a base entry door and a second floor door with a small balcony. The door openings in the steel tower appear to have been torch cut after construction of the tower. The doors are flat. To attach them to the curved metal tower, the white oak frames were curved and bolted to the tower walls.

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Removal of the Water Works Gear Tower for its ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

Moving the tower necessitated removing the roof, installing temporary steel beam bracing to insure integrity during horizontal placement, cutting the metal base of the tower at the waterline, and lifting the tower to place it horizontally on a barge. This allowed transit across the bay to Donjon Property. Although the move was undertaken in mid-November of 2017, they were blessed with a warm sunny day and a flat, calm bay.

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On board a barge to be transported to Donjohn ...
Photo by: Ray Halt

A detailed work list of issues was formulated. The doors are being reproduced as original. The dental work at the top will need to be replicated as the original is not usable. The interior will be addressed to allow safe public access with maximum visibility of the internal structure. Portholes will be removed, cleaned then polished and reinstalled. The tower will be sandblasted and repainted in original colors.

The ease of obtaining enthusiastic support and cooperation in progressing with this historical community project has been gratifying. It has generated excitement on the part of many in the community, and the most asked question has been “When will it be completed so we can visit the Tower?” Expectation is for completion by earlier summer 2018 if sufficient volunteers and donations allow. You can watch for the conclusion in a future edition of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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