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  • Writer's pictureDamian Brzeski

Gdańsk Nowy Port lighthouse

In the Nowy Port district of Gdańsk there is a lighthouse that not only defies the common proverb that "it is darkest under the lighthouse", but also testifies to the incredible transformation from a forgotten monument into a living symbol of history, culture and innovation. This historic structure, once a key point for safe navigation and commercial development in Gdańsk, today serves as a bridge connecting the city's rich maritime heritage with its dynamic present.


The lighthouse in Gdańsk Nowy Port is the result of the evolution of navigation needs, which changed with the development of the city and technology. Since the 14th century, Gdańsk has recognized the importance of lighthouses for safe navigation. The history of lighthouses in Gdańsk begins with a building from 1482, whose light was visible from a long distance, which was crucial for sailors. Over the years, changes in the flow of the Vistula and the development of shipping technology required new solutions.


The new lighthouse in Nowy Port, built in the 19th century, was a response to these changing conditions. Its history reflects technological development and adaptation to navigational needs, from fire and oil lamps, through hard coal, to modern solutions such as electric light, which proves Gdańsk's constant strive to ensure the safety and efficiency of navigation.


I invite you on a journey through the fascinating history of this inconspicuous monument. It is worth mentioning right from the beginning that this article would not exist if it were not for the hard work of the curator of this facility, Mr. Stefan Jacek Michalak, and the website http://www.latarnia.gda.pl/ where you will find even more interesting facts.



The lighthouse in Nowy Port, view from the side of the Westerplatte monument

The beginnings of lighthouse keeping in Gdańsk


Since the 14th century, Gdańsk's strategic location on the Baltic Sea has contributed to its growing importance as a key trade center in the region. To strengthen this role, the city's inhabitants had to ensure efficient navigation around the bay and safe access to the local port, which was achieved by building lighthouses.


The first lighthouse in Gdańsk, built in 1482 on the tower of the blockhouse built by the Teutonic Knights in Wisłoujście, was 18.3 meters high. Its fire was visible from over a dozen kilometers. Over time, additional fortifications were built around it, creating the defensive fortress of Wisłoujście.


After being destroyed by artillery in 1577, the lighthouse was quickly rebuilt, raised and equipped with a new light source in the form of four oil lamps with brass reflectors.


However, over time, the changing current of the Vistula and the deposition of sand, which led to the creation of Westerplatte, caused the lighthouse to lose its functionality, forcing the authorities to build a new navigation sign in a different location.


Finally, in the Brzeźno district it was decided to erect two lighthouses, the converging lights of which were to indicate a precise route to the port. Information about the closure of the lighthouse in Wisłoujście and the launch of new lighthouses was announced in a leaflet of August 3, 1758.


These new lighthouses, commissioned on September 24, 1758, included one with an iron coal basket and another, a brick tower that also burned coal.


In 1817, in order to improve the quality of light, hard coal was replaced with wax candles, and later gas lighting was introduced, followed by rapeseed oil and petroleum.


In 1887, tests with electric lighting were initiated, which was a sensational novelty in the Baltic Sea, but for better visibility, the light had to be placed higher.


View of the lighthouse in Nowy Port

The history of the lighthouse in Nowy Port


In the nineteenth century, the areas south of the port canal in Gdańsk began to fill with workers employed in the expansion of the new port. This developing area, together with the port, took on the name Neufahrwasser, also known as New Port.


At that time, this port flourished as a significant transhipment point, and in 1867 it gained a railway connection with the center of Gdańsk.


North of the lighthouse, in the area called Pilots' Hill, there was a naval pilots' station from at least 1849 and, from July 1876, a time ball station.


Increasing requirements for sea light visibility and the need to use stronger lenses led to the decision to erect a new lighthouse, which was to be equipped with electric arc lamps.


Work on the new lighthouse was completed on October 31, 1893, and its structure was based on a solid foundation of crushed stones connected with concrete, additionally reinforced with piles driven into the ground. The architecture of the lighthouse, built in the Gdańsk Renaissance style, was characterized by the use of red brick and decorative sandstone elements.


The new structure was more than seven meters taller than the previous one, with the octagonal tower reaching 27.3 meters in height, reminding some of the iconic Cleveland Lighthouse on Lake Erie.


The new lighthouse used an electric arc lamp as a light source and its construction cost was 156,000 marks.


At the top of the lighthouse, a time ball was installed, moved from an earlier structure, which every day at 12:00, on a signal from the Berlin Astronomical Observatory, signaled the time by falling down the mast. This device helped navigators precisely set chronometers, which was crucial for determining longitude on the open sea.


The lighthouse in Nowy Port not only made it easier for ships to navigate, but also served as a station for port pilots. Pilots, observing the movement of ships from the balcony or through the windows of the lighthouse, guided the vessels to a safe mooring in the port channels.


At a time when visiting the lighthouse was strictly regulated, few had the opportunity to admire the view from its top onto the Bay of Gdańsk. This panorama was once praised by Baron Alexander von Humboldt as one of the most beautiful in Europe.


Over time, the lighthouse's functions were adapted to meet changing navigational needs, including the installation of a flashing light, which helped distinguish it from other harbor lights and prevented ships from running aground.


A postcard showing the Lighthouse in Gdańsk Nowy Port

The lighthouse in Gdańsk witnessed the beginning of World War II


On the night of August 31 to September 1, 1939, the lighthouse in Nowy Port was occupied by German armed forces, who, armed with a heavy machine gun, were ordered to control fire over the Polish crew of Westerplatte, located on the opposite side of the canal.


Earlier that night, a Polish soldier reported observing an additional large red light on the lighthouse, interpreted by Major Henryk Sucharski as a signal that the port was closed.


That same night, the Germans sank barges at the entrance to the canal, thus blocking the access of larger Polish vessels that could have threatened the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which had visited the port of Gdansk under the guise of courtesy a week earlier.


Adolf Hitler ordered all German armed forces to launch an attack on September 1 at 4:45 a.m.


The lighthouse crew obeyed the order, while the attack of the battleship "Schleswig-Holstein" on Westerplatte began with a three-minute delay, at 4:48.


Shots from the lighthouse in Nowy Port signaled the beginning of World War II, which claimed 55 million lives.


The Polish response to the beacon fire was quick and precise; Using a 75mm gun, Polish soldiers destroyed a German machine gun and damaged the tower structure. The Germans immediately started rebuilding the damaged facade, but traces of the destruction remain visible to this day.


The history of the 75mm gun used to defend Westerplatte is equally fascinating. Captured by the Prussian army during the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914, after the war, the cannon was placed as a trophy in Gdańsk.


After the Treaty of Versailles, the cannon secretly made its way to Westerplatte, where it was dismantled and hidden from possible German inspection. In August 1939, it was reassembled and prepared for action. After the surrender of Westerplatte, the cannon became a German war trophy, disappearing from history after the Allies entered Flensburg in 1945.


After the war, the lighthouse in Nowy Port required renovation, and its operation was resumed after receiving new equipment from Sweden. In the 1960s, the mast on which the time ball was once lifted was removed.


However, the development of the Gdańsk port forced the construction of a new lighthouse, which ultimately ended the operation of the lighthouse in Nowy Port in 1984, in favor of a larger and more modern structure in the Northern Port.


The entrance channel to the port of Gdańsk with the lighthouse

Renovation and new life of the lighthouse in Gdańsk


For many years, the lighthouse in Nowy Port remained unused. Its condition systematically deteriorated under the influence of rain, snow, ice, wind, and corrosion caused by sea salt and sulfur. All these factors contributed to the serious destruction of the building, which was manifested by rusting railings, a damaged roof and a leaky lighthouse glass.


At the turn of the 1990s, Stefan Jacek Michalak, a Pole living in Canada for thirty years, came across the lighthouse during one of his visits to Poland.


Michalak, who grew up in Gdańsk and had sea blood flowing in his veins thanks to his family history, decided that this lighthouse must become his property. His grandfather, a master of artistic carpentry, worked in a German shipyard, and his father was a ship's doctor on Polish ships and later an epidemiologist.


After moving to Canada in 1969, Michalak settled in Montreal and also had a summer cottage in Rivière-du-Loup, where he could often observe the lighthouses.


His passion for lighthouses and their symbolic meaning prompted him to decide to renovate the neglected lighthouse in Nowy Port. His renovation project was met with enthusiasm by both local authorities and the Maritime Office in Gdynia.


After several years of formalities and renovation works, the lighthouse was thoroughly renovated. Rusting elements were replaced, new windows were installed, and the copper roof was recreated, trying to maintain the original appearance of the building.


We also managed to find interesting documents, including an invoice for a lens made by Barbier & Fenestre in 1894, which still operates in the lighthouse.


On May 7, 2004, the lighthouse was officially opened to visitors, becoming a viewing point and a mini-museum of lighthouse keeping. Guests can admire an antique telephone, a ship's clock and a Fahrenheit thermometer, as well as photos of a lighthouse from Canada.


In 2006, the lighthouse was entered into the national register of monuments, and in 2010 it received an award in the "Well-Kept Monument" competition. Additionally, thanks to the efforts of Michalak and Eng. Grzegorz Szychliński, a unique openwork time ball returned to the top of the lighthouse, one of the few functioning in the world.


The reconstructed time ball, made of the highest quality stainless steel, falls four times every day, constituting an extraordinary attraction for visitors.


Why is it worth visiting the lighthouse?


The lighthouse in Gdańsk Nowy Port is currently one of the most interesting tourist attractions in the region. It not only offers the opportunity to learn about maritime history and technology, but also delights with its original architecture and beautiful views of the Bay of Gdańsk and the surrounding area from the perspective of its top.


An additional advantage is an exhibition devoted to lighthouses from around the world, as well as a reconstructed time ball, which is a reference to the historical role of lighthouses in navigation. A visit to the lighthouse is not only a history lesson, but also an opportunity to admire unique views.


Time ball on the lighthouse in Gdańsk

Is it the darkest under the lamp in Nowy Port?


Despite the common belief that "it is darkest under the lighthouse", the lighthouse in Nowy Port in Gdańsk contradicts this saying, becoming a symbol of light, guide and safety not only for sailors, but also for residents and tourists.


The lighthouse, with its rich history and extensive renovation, has become a landmark that sheds light on the past and present, combining both practical and symbolic functions.


This saying has its roots in the experiences of people living in times when street lighting was not as advanced as it is today. Lanterns, although intended to illuminate the darkness, often designed the light in such a way that there was a shadow zone directly beneath them. Paradoxically, even though they were a source of light, they did not illuminate the space just below them as effectively as the areas further away.


However, the metaphor "it's darkest under the lamp" takes us far beyond the literal understanding of street lighting. In a broader context, this proverb speaks about the human tendency to look for solutions or answers in distant, often complex areas, when the answer may lie right next to us, in a place that we overlook, considering it too obvious or too simple to contain a solution.


The lighthouse in Nowy Port remained closed and forgotten for years, deteriorating due to time and neglect. One could say that during this time she was in a "darker" area of social and cultural awareness.


However, thanks to the efforts and passion of Stefan Jacek Michalak, the lighthouse was brought back to life, becoming a light in urban space that attracts attention and delights. So, although it may have once been dark under the lighthouse, today it is a place full of light, history and culture that attracts and enlightens.


The history of the lighthouse in Nowy Port teaches us that sometimes it is worth paying attention to what is right next to us, even if it seems unpromising or forgotten. Often, what is close and known may hold unexpected value or a solution that we missed while looking far beyond the horizon.


The lighthouse in Nowy Port, with its reconstruction and new life, is living proof that light can be found even in places that seemed to be the darkest.

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