Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Poland's Tallest Lighthouse at Świnoujście

Latarnie Morska Świnoujście

All photos by Elinor DeWire
            Getting to the top of lighthouses has never been a difficult chore for me. I love lighthouses and cheerfully approach each stairway with great anticipation. I no longer reach the top as quickly as I once did, but the experience is not about speed or agility, rather the view from the lantern. And the view from Poland’s lofty Latarnie Morska Świnoujście is incredible! I was fortunate to see it in July 2010 on a trip to the Baltic Sea.

            It was a very hot, humid day, and the climb up to the tower’s lantern gallery was long, slow, and difficult. Northern Europe was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, and temperatures inside the tower topped 38ºC (more than 100ºF). Several times I paused to rest, wipe the sweat from my brow, and ask myself who would climb a soaring lighthouse in such a swelter. The answer: Anyone who loves lighthouses!

            To mark visitors’ progress up the tower, someone had painted numbers on the steps. Number 280 was the last painted step. I added twenty more for the entryway stairs and the steep iron ladder to the lantern room, for a total of 300 steps.

            This is Poland’s tallest lighthouse and, according to many sources, the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. It tops Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—the tallest I had climbed to date—by 13 feet. The 65 meter Świnoujście tower (a little over 213 feet) looms over the large estuary of the Świna River, part of a labyrinth of island-riddled waterways that carry the heavy volume of water from the Odra River to the Baltic Sea on Poland’s Pomeranian Coast. The Germans, who once laid claim to this part of Poland, call it Swinemünde Leuchtürm, or Mouth of the Świna Lighthouse. They named the great river leading to the area the Oder, probably an old Slavic name meaning “water vein.” (Those of us who love crossword puzzles will recognize the name Oder.)

            Latarnie Morska Świnoujście (it means Sea Lantern at Świnoujście) lies on the east bank of the Świna River at the far northwestern shore of Poland near the border with Germany. Its purpose is to guide shipping to Świnoujście and the big port of Szczecin, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the lighthouse. The area is rife with islands, some forty-five of them in all. The three main islands are Uznam, Wolin, and Karsibor. They form a necklace of sandy barriers that enclose the protected waters of Stettiner Haff and Zalew Szczecinski.

            The islands are famous for their pleasant microclimate and healthful mineral waters and mud baths. Broad sandy beaches also draw people to the region, appropriately nicknamed the “Pearl of the Baltic.” In addition, Poland’s largest and most modern ferry terminal is here, connecting to ports in Sweden and Denmark.

            I learned a little of the history of the lighthouse from Apoloniusz Łysejko, a retired Polish navy officer from the Hydrographic Office of the navy and a former director of the lighthouse district in Gydnia. Apolo told me that construction of Latarnie Świnoujście began in 1854 and was completed in 1857. It was built by the Kingdom of Prussia during the rule of Friedrich Wilhelm IV, when Poland was part of present-day Germany. The workmanship was poor, however, so the tower was at least partially rebuilt twice. It gained its current shape—red and yellow brick octagonal base and conical tower—in 1903. A house for the keeper and a fog signal building also were included in the layout of the station.

            Apoloniusz (pictured below inside the lantern room) knew very little about the current optic, except to say that it was most likely the original one installed in 1857. The great first-order Fresnel lens has no maker’s plate but appears to be the work of Sautier of Paris, who supplied many lenses for the German Imperial light towers. The pedestal lists the name Veil-Meyer, possibly the company that installed the optic. The beacon occults white for one second every five seconds, with a red warning sector for shoals south of the lighthouse. Rotating screens suspended from the ceiling of the lantern room create the occultations. I had to be careful climbing into the lantern from the service ladder, timing my final step to avoid the moving screen.

            I also learned that though most Polish lighthouses were seriously damaged during World War II, this one suffered only cracks in its walls from the concussion of bombs during air raids. The damage was repaired in 1959 with the addition of metal cross-ties affixed inside the tower. About this same time a radio beacon was installed next to the lighthouse with the call sign “SW.”

            Lighthouse historian Russ Rowlett of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reports that “in 1945 retreating German troops ordered the destruction of the lighthouse, but the German keeper could not bring himself to light the fuses and the tower survived.” (The Germans had taken over most of Poland’s lighthouses during the war, using them mostly for observation towers but sometimes lighting them when needed.) Russ also notes that the lighthouse was completely restored in 1998-2000 as a Millennium project.

            I snapped numerous pictures inside the lantern, but none captured the size of the lens and the cramped interior. Świnoujście’s lightkeeper surely has to be nimble to care for the lighting apparatus, as there is little space to move about. It was extremely hot in the lantern, so I was eager to get outside on the gallery. I was rewarded with a fantastic view of the Baltic Coast and the busy waterway below. As far as I could see east and west, there were islands. Nearby were large cranes at a ship-loading dock. In the distance were two breakwaters, which Europeans call moles, with leading lights at their ends.

Old postcard view showing one of the breakwaters.

             The 520 meter long (1,706 feet) east breakwater is longer than the west one and has a small cylindrical rear range beacon 11 meters (36 feet) tall, built in 1877. The little tower is white and the lantern is red. Its red beacon occults once every 4 seconds. The west breakwater light is much more interesting. Its conical white tower has four windmills arms. I was unable to tell if the arms turn or remain stationary. Russ Rowlett says they do not turn. The light shows from a small porthole window on the front side of the tower. This charming little front range light is also 11 meters (36 feet) tall and was built in 1877. It occults for 2.5 seconds every 10 seconds.

            Cooled by the breeze on the lantern gallery, I decided to make my way back down the tower. My legs were slightly wobbly, since I’d climbed two other Polish lighthouses that day. I recounted the steps again—300 in all. On the ground, I paid a visit to the fog signal building with its modern machinery. The keeper was inside sitting at a desk, but he did not speak English. I wanted to ask him if the fog signal still operates. By the looks of the machinery, I think it does. I held up my Polish Lighthouses Passport Book, and the keeper smiled. He opened a desk drawer and withdrew a rubber stamp. “Stempel!!!” he shouted, jubilantly. “Stamp!” I thanked him for the keepsake.

            A souvenir stand next to the lighthouse was selling popsicles—a welcome treat on a hot day. I bought one and sat down on a stone wall to enjoy it. Soon, several kittens approached. I’d seen them earlier when our bus arrived—a litter of six and their mother. The lighthouse keeper had thrown them some fish heads and they had been squabbling over them. Now, one brave little striped one came near enough to lick the last bit of ice cream off my popsicle stick. Some things about lighthouses are the same everywhere, I thought. What lighthouse keeper doesn’t have a cat or two, or seven in this case, for companionship and to catch rodents?

            As we boarded the bus, Apolo had one last bit of information for me: “This lighthouse is classified as a historical monument!” he said, smiling.

            The Poles love their lighthouses. There are fifteen traditional light towers still standing on the Baltic Coast of Poland between Gdansk and Szczecin, all of them still operating. Many still have resident lightkeepers. I was able to visit fourteen of the lights over the course of a ten-day tour. At some sites I walked long trails, trudged through soft sand, or climbed steep hills. I made it to the top of all but one tower—the locked one. (Apolo did not have a key for it.) The roads were winding and narrow, and the heat wave never let up, but a bouncy ride and a little hot weather was no obstacle. I found plenty of cold drinks and popsicles to keep me going, and I shook hands with many happy Polish people proud of their lighthouses!


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