Museum of mysteries

By Rebecca Sloan

A key attraction is a mummified feline

Lighthouses on Lake Erie are also popular with tourists.

FAIRPORT HARBOR, Ohio — Volunteers at the Fairport Marine Museum in scenic Fairport Harbor have long insisted the place is haunted.

Apparitions have appeared on the museum’s second floor, and “tails” have circulated regarding possible explanations for the resident ghost.

You see, the Fairport Marine Museum’s resident spook isn’t your typical two-legged haunt that rattles chains and goes bump in the night.

This specter has four legs, fluffy gray fur and says meow.

That’s right — the spirit that prowls the Fairport Marine Museum is a cat.

“During the 1800s, the lighthouse keeper’s wife was sickly, and she had several cats to keep her company,” said Elaine Molyet, a museum volunteer and member of the Fairport Harbor Historical Society. “It’s said one of the cats — a gray cat that was her favorite — was with her when she died in her bed. The ghost cat people have reported seeing in the museum is gray.”

The Lake County marine museum is located on the first floor of the lighthouse keeper’s former home — an 1871 brick structure that sits next to the lighthouse.

A live-in curator who once stayed in the second-floor apartment above the museum reportedly glimpsed a ghost cat on many occasions.

“Once she saw it skitter playfully through the hallway near her kitchen. Another time she says she felt it jump upon her bed and press its weight upon her,” Molyet said. “She even says she tossed it a balled sock and watched it play.”

The hair-raising “tails” of this spectral feline took a bizarre twist in 2001 when a worker installing an air conditioner in the museum’s basement made a chilling discovery.

“He squeezed into a tiny crawl space with his flashlight and found himself face to face with the mummified remains of a cat,” Molyet said.

The mummified feline is now displayed in the museum and is oddly in tact right down to its tiny nose, wispy white whiskers, pointed ears and slender tail. “You’d think it would be just a skeleton and nothing else,” Molyet said. “It’s very strange how well preserved it is.”

For a while the mummified cat was in a glass case in the mayor’s office, but now it’s back in its rightful home at the museum.

“It’s a popular curiosity here,” Molyet said. “People come just to look at it.”

This year the museum’s volunteers are inviting visitors to choose a name for the mysterious mummified cat that may or may not have been the beloved companion of the lighthouse keeper’s bedridden wife.

“The contest will run through the summer,” Molyet said.

Of course, there’s a lot more to see at the Fairport Marine Museum than a mummified kitty.

The historical lighthouse — known as the Grand River Light — was completed in 1871 along with the lighthouse keeper’s home that now serves as the museum.

Both structures were built to replace earlier ones.

“There was an earlier lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s home at this same site,” Molyet explained. “The earlier lighthouse was built in 1825 and was operated by an abolitionist who helped runaway slaves escape across the lake to freedom in Canada.”

In 1868, the 1825 lighthouse and keeper’s home were both demolished because of disrepair, and the newer structures were built in their place.

The current lighthouse is made of sandstone blocks that were quarried in Canada and then shipped across Lake Erie to Ohio. It rises 60 feet from a grassy hilltop and has weathered many a winter storm.

“It’s always colder here along the lake,” Molyet said. “In the winter there’s a lot of ice and snow, and the wind just cuts through you, especially at the top of the lighthouse.”

Even on a warm day, it’s breezy at the top of the lighthouse. To feel that brisk lake breeze, just climb the winding metal staircase to the top.

“It’s 69 steps,” Molyet said. “Keep your eyes on the railing while you climb if heights bother you.”

And don’t look down when you get to the top and step into the open air, either.

Gaze out over the white-capped waves of beautiful Lake Erie instead and — lo and behold — you will spot yet another lighthouse out in the water.

Fairport Harbor’s “other lighthouse” is called The Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse, and it’s located at the end of a long, snaking breakwall made of jagged boulders.

This other lighthouse is operable and also serves as a foghorn station. It sports a square white tower attached to a two-story house with a red metal roof. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains it, and it isn’t open to the public.

“You can walk out to the other lighthouse but you can’t go inside. Also, the breakwall is rather treacherous. It’s not a walk for children,” Molyet said.

The Fairport West Breakwater Lighthouse has been in use since 1925 — the same year the Grand River Lighthouse was decommissioned.

“Our slogan at the museum is ‘the light that shone for 100 years’ because from 1825 until 1925 there was an operable lighthouse on the museum site,” Molyet explained.

Also visible from the breezy top of the Grand River Lighthouse is the town of Fairport Harbor.

About 3,000 people call this sleepy lakeside village home.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Fairport Harbor was a bustling port where Finnish and Hungarian immigrants worked in the fishing industry and in the harbor unloading coal and ore from boats.

Fairport Harbor still boasts dockside industry — including a Morton Salt Mine — but there’s not as much hubbub as there was in the town’s earlier years.

“Freighters still come in and out of the bay, but there aren’t as many as there used to be,” Molyet said.

Museum memorabilia helps tell the history of Fairport Harbor.

American Indian artifacts, model ships, old photographs and — of course — nautical curiosities crowd the former lighthouse keeper’s home at 129 Second St.

Some of the most notable nautical items are the lighthouse’s original third-order lens — a mammoth contraption of glass and reflective mirrors — and an Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit that features a life preserver from the ill-fated freighter and photos of local men who went down with the ship.

A Lyle Gun — a device that shot ropes to boaters in distress — is displayed near the mummified cat, and outside the museum beside the lighthouse sits a rare, pod-shaped apparatus called a Life Car.

Life Cars were invented in 1845 and resemble small submarines. They could hold four passengers and were used to rescue people from sinking boats when other methods failed.

Molyet said only a few Life Cars are known to exist.

If you want to imagine what it might have been like to be captain of a ship just step into the marine museum’s pilothouse.

This semi-circular room is attached to the west end of the museum and was once the pilothouse for the former Great Lakes carrier Frontenac.

When visitors step inside, they’ll feel as if they’re ready to set sail. The room is equipped with a variety of nautical instruments and devices, and mounted in the center is a mighty wooden ship’s wheel.

Go ahead, step right up and pretend you’re navigating across Lake Erie.

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