ESSEX — Gary Heurich spoke of the history of Split Rock Lighthouse with a sense of pride and a strong familiarity with the historic structure’s significance to Lake Champlain.
Heurich, whose family has owned the lighthouse and adjacent dwelling since 1959, invited members of a history tour from Clinton Community College onto his property to view the tower and the quarters where the lighthouse keeper lived during the heyday of commercial boating on Lake Champlain.
CHANGES THROUGH TIME
“This was the second established lighthouse on the lake,” Heurich said beneath a sweltering sun on his Split Rock property, just south of the hamlet of Essex. “What you see is not the original house or tower.”
The original tower was constructed in 1838, but the larger tower that now stands was erected in 1867. The connecting wood-frame quarters was replaced in 1874 and rebuilt again at the end of the century.
The advent of unmanned metal towers to light the way for lake traffic spelled the end for lighthouses and their keepers in the early 1930s. In 1931, Split Rock was sold to private owners when a metal tower was erected on an outcropping of rocks.
The U.S. Coast Guard began relighting the lake’s historic lighthouses several years ago. Although Split Rock is privately owned, Heurich agreed to put his lighthouse back to work and decommission the metal tower.
Plans are still being considered to remove the metal structure. Heurich told the group of current and retired school teachers in attendance that he did not want the state of the metal tower in flux and that he considers it a potential hazard as its condition deteriorates.
Clinton Community College professor Thomas Mandeville has been hosting the summer series for the past 15 years, selecting themes that have focused on such areas as the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, commercial travel on Lake Champlain and the history of mining in the North Country.
This year’s theme brought participants to lighthouses on both sides of Lake Champlain, including Valcour Island, Cumberland Head and Point au Roche in New York state and Windmill Point and Isle la Motte in Vermont.
The group, which includes co-host and regional history expert Thomas Pray, also visited Shelburne Museum, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Barber Point and Crown Point lighthouses.
“We really want to give thanks to the owners of lighthouses now on private property,” Mandeville said of the people who invited them to tour the structures they have been caring for. “It’s been a nice week; we’ve been to a lot of interesting locations.”
WHERE HISTORY HAPPENED
Many of this year’s participants have been on previous tours, as well.
“This is my fifth or sixth year,” said Christine Wood, a sixth-grade teacher at Peru. “I started taking it for credit (toward her permanent teaching certificate) but have continued because they are always so interesting. It’s so much more interesting to learn about the history of an area when you visit that area.”
Christine was so excited about her experience with the workshops that she convinced her father, Steve Wood, to participate in the lighthouse tours.
“She would come home and tell me about how much fun she was having,” he said. “I wanted to see more of the history in this area, and her interest got me interested.”
Both daughter and father praised the expertise that Mandeville and Pray bring to the tours.
Liz Bicknell of Ferrisburgh, Vt., is a retired teacher who began participating in the CCC summer tours as a way to bring a local flavor to the classroom.
“They offer a different perspective (than the classroom setting),” she said of the tours. “You can see where history took place, where Benedict Arnold was when he made history.”
Arnold was the U.S. commander during the Battle of Valcour in the Revolutionary War.
“As a retired teacher, I’ve enjoyed continuing the course as a lifelong learner,” Bicknell added.
After they toured the lighthouse grounds, Heurich led the group inside to view the living quarters, noting that the first private owner removed the breezeway between the home and the lighthouse and put in a large, rustic living room that continues that ambiance today.
Then, in groups of three, the participants climbed the tower to see the lighthouse itself, which offers a splendid view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont in the distance, a view that is as much a part of Lake Champlain history as the lighthouses.
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