From Touring Lighthouses to Owning One, Meet Lake Erie’s Modern-Day Lighthouse Keepers

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The Barcelona Lighthouse is just one of many lighthouses dotting the shores of Lake Erie, but if you ask Ann and Bruce Mulkin, it’s the best one by far. Perhaps they are slightly biased; after all, they own the lighthouse and the adjacent two-bedroom lightkeeper’s cottage.

“The day [the lighthouse] went up for sale, we came to look at it, and fell in love,” says Bruce Mulkin. “We bought it the next day.”

The lighthouse, which stands along the Seaway Trail at the Barcelona Harbor near Westfield, New York, is definitely unique. Not only was it the first lighthouse in the world powered by natural gas, it’s also one of the oldest on the Great Lakes, and one of only a handful owned by private individuals.

The Mulkins, who consider the historic landmark their “getaway,” like to spend time there with their friends and family, especially during the holidays. They have a front row seat for Fourth of July fireworks that light up the harbor and in autumn the family congregates in the kitchen to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s the best time of the year,” says Ann. “You never know what the weather is going to be like. We’re cooking and watching the lake from the window. And you can see more in the fall when the leaves are gone.”

The Mulkins split their time between the lighthouse and their primary residence— also on Lake Erie—just 15 minutes away. But they are never far from the water’s edge.

“I always tell people that I was a fish in a former life,” Ann laughs. “We’ve always had a love of the lake. And we’ve always loved lighthouses. Whenever we go on vacation, we try to tour one.”

A Beckoning Beacon
The Mulkins are joined by countless others with an unending fascination for lighthouses. These guiding lights have captured the imagination of travelers for generations. Romanticized in poems, books, songs, and movies, they are windows into our nautical past, replete with stories of shipwrecks, ghosts, and enduring love.

And the Barcelona Lighthouse is no different. One of the most important historic landmarks in the area, it is the constant subject of curiosity among visitors and locals alike. As a result, the current keepers of the light have had to strike a balance between their own privacy and the general public’s interest in maritime heritage.

“The lighthouse is very accessible,” Bruce says, adding that their high-profile property receives a steady stream of spectators and photographers. “But many people don’t realize it’s private.”

While the Mulkins have considered opening the property to the public, concerns over liability and the associated cost of insurance have held them back. But it doesn’t mean they keep the place shuttered up completely.

“We’ve had several people come and propose up in the tower,” explains Bruce.

One man told his unknowing bride-to-be that he had to repair the gas light in the 40-foot-high tower and invited her along.

“As they started up the steps, she questioned, ‘Aren’t you going to bring your tools?’ Bruce recalls. “The poor guy had to carry his big box of tools all the way to the top.”

Those fortunate enough to squeeze through a narrow opening and stand at the apex of the lighthouse tower are treated to a spectacular vantage point. In the foreground, boats sputter in and out of the harbor, and on a really clear day, buildings in Canada are visible 25 miles away.

Historically, the lighthouse has been owned as a private residence for more years than it has served as a government structure. Decommissioned in 1859, only 30 years being built, it reverted back to the original property owner, falling into the hands of George Patterson, an agent for Chautauqua County’s land office. Patterson officially bought the property in 1872, and five generations of his descendants lived there until the Mulkins took ownership in 1998.

Local Westfield resident Fred Johnson, co-owner of the Johnson Estate Winery, remembers life in the lighthouse as a child. He and his family spent a year living in the lightkeeper’s cottage during the 1960s. “A friend and I would clamor up to the top of the tower and pretend to spy on ships foundering out in the waves,” Johnson fondly recalls. “Or we’d poke around the foundations looking for buried treasure. Tom Sawyer found buried treasure, so why couldn’t we?”

Aside from all of the “usual boy stuff ” he would do, Johnson says he and his family would spend most of their time on the porch. “It was the most used room in the house,” he says.

And that tradition continues with the Mulkins. These days, the lake-facing porch is lined with a row of comfortable wooden rocking chairs reminiscent of a vacation the couple took to the Grand Hotel in Mackinaw Island, Michigan. Ann and Bruce like to spend time on the porch enjoying the simple pleasures in life, whether reading, drinking a beer, or just watching the activity in the harbor and beyond.

“We’ve been fortunate,” says Bruce. “[The lake] makes for a great neighbor.”

Article courtesy of Lake Erie Living magazine, published in the August-September 2008 edition.

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