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Shedding light on a mystery: Answers sought on origin of Buffalo Launch Club beacon

•Taken from the Aug. 7 Island Wide Dispatch

Mon, Aug 10th 2015 07:00 am
Paul Leuchner uses a sextant to establish the height of the Buffalo Launch Club's range light on East River Road. The measurement is made from the base to the light of the beacon. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
Paul Leuchner uses a sextant to establish the height of the Buffalo Launch Club's range light on East River Road. The measurement is made from the base to the light of the beacon. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)

By Karen Carr Keefe

The Buffalo Launch Club lighthouse, an iconic and much-admired landmark along the East River, has become a history mystery.

Two men who want to document the lighthouse's background are asking for the public's help in resolving questions about its origin. Toward that end, they are planning a presentation in the near future that will likely include storyboards, vintage photos and video to outline what is known and what is unknown.

"The big question is, 'Who remembers the lighthouse that was at the Bedell House property near Anchor Marine?' " said Tom Frauenheim, a member of the launch club who has his own business, a boat shop, on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda.

He and fellow researcher Paul Leuchner, a retired Army Corps of Engineers biologist, have looked through archives and done exhaustive work to determine how that lighthouse landed at its current site. But there remain questions for which members of the public may have answers.

They are hoping that the historical presentation they are preparing will be a big draw, and that in the crowd will be some key people who can act provide facts, artifacts and memories to corroborate the exact itinerary of the lighthouse's travels. A similar Launch Club history presentation a little over a year ago was hugely popular. That one was called, "A Tale of Two Islands: The Lure, Legend and Future of Strawberry Island and Motor Boat Island." Frauenheim and Leuchner have referred to their current historical quest as "A Tale of Two Lighthouses."

Leuchner is a charter member of the Niagara River Greenway Commission who leads local kayak eco-tours through Blue Water Marina. A Niagara River enthusiast and active Grand Islander, he has immersed himself in the Launch Club lighthouse lore. Fascinating and competing stories have emerged along the way about the lighthouse, or, more accurately, "range light," that graces the Launch Club grounds, he said.

Paul Leuchner and Tom Frauenheim stand in front of the Buffalo Launch Club range light at 503 East River Road on Grand Island. The two are researching the origin of the lighthouse and seeking photos and recollections of those who may know about its history. They are planning an educational presentation on the lighthouse, where they will invite public input. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe) 

Paul Leuchner and Tom Frauenheim stand in front of the Buffalo Launch Club range light at 503 East River Road on Grand Island. The two are researching the origin of the lighthouse and seeking photos and recollections of those who may know about its history. They are planning an educational presentation on the lighthouse, where they will invite public input. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)

Tale of Two Lighthouses

"Our research is that we have two actual confirmed stories. One is a newspaper article from 1965 that talks about the lighthouse being on the Bedell House property, being moved to the Buffalo Launch Club site," Leuchner said. Records show that would have happened about 1918, he said.

 "And then we have an eyewitness account from a person who is still alive, who claims in 1946 or 1947, September of that year, that the lighthouse was floated down from the Buffalo River area and placed at the Buffalo Launch Club site, or Mike Steffen's property next door to the Buffalo Launch Club site."

The Courier-Express article that would support the first story states that the lighthouse was moved from Buffalo to the property of Michael Steffen on Towerwood Road, Grand Island, near the Launch Club site.

"It once was a channel range light and it was on the opposite shore where the Huntley Plant now stands," according to the article by Anne McIlhenney Matthews.

"In 1918, the Fix family, which had long coveted the lighthouse, got its chance when the government declared it obsolete," her article says.

"The family purchased it, loaded it onto the barge and floated it across the river to the old Bedell House landing, where they operated a ferry service. It was their proud possession for 28 years," Matthews wrote.

The Fix brothers ran all the ferries to Canada and Grand Island before the bridges were opened in 1935.

"Meanwhile," the article continues, "Mike Steffen and his wife, Marion, also wanted a lighthouse of their very own." She said the Steffens purchased the imposing tower and it was moved again "3,000 feet north."

Leuchner explains how that particular light became available.

"We know that the range light appeared on the 1910 nautical chart of the Upper Niagara River. This particular range was used to mark the deepest section of the natural river bottom for commercial vessels. These lights were made obsolete with the subsequent dredging of the federal navigation channel by the Corps of Engineers," he said.

As collateral research when looking into the lighthouse origin, Leuchner said they learned "the Fix brothers were very active during the Prohibition era, so it would be kind of interesting if we had somebody that knows stories about how that lighthouse played into their Prohibition activities. The Fix brothers used to have an old World War I sub-chaser and a couple of other vessels, and they were, of course, pretty much the guys that did all the marine work around Grand Island. They pulled the barges back and forth and so on. And they were very active in some of the smuggling trade."

In the second known story, an eyewitness involved in a lighthouse move in the 1940s says Buffalo Structural Steel provided cranes at both ends of a journey down the Niagara River from Buffalo to Steffens' property. Leuchner said it would have been a notable event back then.

"You're talking about Grand Island in the those days being very rural, anything that went on the shoreline that would involve a huge crane like that being brought across the bridge or brought on a barge should have attracted some public attention," Leuchner said. Grand Island Historical Society President Curt Nestark helped the two men with some research of the society's files, newspaper articles and archives at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, but didn't find evidence about moving the lighthouse down the river in the 1940s.

Those known scenarios, one tracing a lighthouse move in 1918 and the other a trip along the river in 1946 or 1947, are only two possibilities. Other narratives could also prove to be the accurate account of what happened. Neither Leuchner nor Frauenheim want to bias the public toward any one of the competing stories.

One historical account the two men came across shows a photo of a lighthouse said to be the current Launch Club range light.

"The lighthouse that they're showing in that picture is the lighthouse that's on the Fix brothers' property." He said the lighthouse that sits on the Buffalo Launch Club property, according to the eyewitness story from the 1940s, is a different lighthouse, "So they're not one and the same. There's a little bit of a mystery there. We need to figure out if one story's true - or if the other one's true - or if they're both true," Leuchner said.

Researchers want public's help

When, how and by whom did the Buffalo Launch Club lighthouse float down the Niagara River to its current site?

 Leuchner said clues to the real story may lurk in unexpected places. "Somebody should have taken a picture of it or been interested enough to take a picture. And that's probably sitting in a family album someplace."

Archives do not yield the definitive story, nor even prove if there was one lighthouse or two - or if another lighthouse altogether is the one that sits along the Launch Club's waterfront, Leuchner said.

"We don't know where to collect this information anymore," he said. "We have nothing in the way of media articles, nothing in the way of other pictures that are out there that are available to us that would corroborate either one of these stories. So, we need to find a way to get to the public and see if there's somebody out there that has an old photo album or somebody has a relative with some recollection or there's a descendent with a recollection about what happened there - what went on - to confirm whether we have two lighthouses or one lighthouse."

How the range light measures up

Last week, Frauenheim and Leuchner, armed with measuring tape and sextant, set out to establish the correct height of the Buffalo Launch Club lighthouse. Knowing the tower's height could narrow the possible origins of the lighthouse. It was a "Eureka" moment when they arrived at a figure of 42 feet high. That's the same height of what's known as the "Strawberry Island lower cut rear light," Leuchner reported.

While doing their calculations, wind gusts billowed out the tape measure, so the climb to the top of the tower had to be repeated to remove any possible error. The sextant, a tool that uses the geometry of angles to determine the unknown leg of a triangle, was set at 88 feet from the base of the lighthouse. Both methods fixed the height at 42 feet from the base to where the light would have been set.

Now that height can be compared to a record they call the light list, to figure out which known lighthouse it could be.

Frauenheim also noted that distinctive architectural features of the tower could rule out some of the lights on the list. This Launch Club lighthouse has eight sides, with three finials on each side, for a total of 24.

Renovations done in 1990s

Ed Hebelein, Launch Club commodore in 1987, did a restoration of the lighthouse exterior in the 1990s with a crew of two other men.

"It was one of those situations where it was getting too hard to keep it painted. The clapboards were too old and they were going to have it sided," he said. He bid on the job because he wanted it done right. "I made all those outside corners by hand," fabricating the corners with aluminum for an authentic look.

"We stripped all the old siding off and got to bare wood." It turned out to be more than a simple project. There was some kind of beetle or borer that had eaten the wood. He and his crew replaced damaged wood, installed some wood shingles and replaced old windows on each floor. The renovation included painting that has since been updated when needed.

"I know every nook and cranny of that lighthouse," Hebelein said. His opinion of where the lighthouse came from? "There's been so many stories. I know a lot of them are false." He said certain architectural features of the Launch Club lighthouse would rule out some of the candidates. "I personally think it came from the Huntley Plant."

If we could turn back the clock ...

Leuchner said the quest for accurate history on the lighthouse is a daunting task. "It would be so great if we could turn the clock back, like, 75 years and sit down and talk with these people."

 "And ask questions, " Frauenheim added.

To which Leuchner rejoined: "Questions that are bothering us now ... and that we are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out. And they would look at us and probably say, 'The answer was very simple; this is how it was.' "

Frauenheim realizes that he and Leuchner are not the only ones fascinated by the lighthouse stories, and finding out which version is true.

"Well, the Launch Club is the oldest power boat club in North America, and it's interesting that one of its members - who ended up buying the property next to the Launch Club - was Mike Steffen, who brought the lighthouse over to his property, and the Launch Club subsequently bought his property and the lighthouse. It's just another part of history, boating history, in Western New York. It's interesting. And there are a lot of stories out there about the lighthouse. We know that a lot of them are not true. We're trying to determine which one is, and also give people some information that makes it a little bit more meaningful as a part of boating history."

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