Light’s Fort a poster child for need of local historical preservation

6 min read630 views and 297 shares Posted May 20, 2020

There’s a fort named “Light” at the end of Lebanon’s tunnel. But passages to escape Native American attacks isn’t the only thing that makes Light’s Fort so intriguing.

There are also ghosts, influential architecture, heritage, and stories and backstories—and of course, history. Light’s Fort is Lebanon County’s oldest standing structure, and perhaps one of the locale’s best kept secrets.

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But Light’s Fort is currently caught in a historical twilight zone. While its age makes it historically significant, it’s that same age that’s endangering its future.

Despite its rich history, Light’s Fort is not on the National Registry of Historic Places, mainly due to the condition of its remaining structure, located at 660 North 11th Street in Lebanon. To make it historically accurate, it might take up to $1 million of renovation funding.

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“When I think about Light’s Fort, it was built before the United States was founded,” said Randy Jaye, a local historian. “It was built when Pennsylvania was a colony of Britain. During the French and Indian War, it played a role for Britain in the war, and that war led to the Revolutionary War. Light’s Fort is a survivor from all the factors of early American history.”

Read More: Nation’s first whiskey distillery was in Lebanon County, but today not much remains of site that Washington may have visited

Most historical landmarks, Jaye said, have one aspect of historical significance. Light’s Fort holds several: It was a center for Mennonite teaching and student religious freedom. It was also important in community planning. It was the largest structure in its area. It was a meeting hall, and a central location for local development.

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Light’s Fort is owned by the Historic Preservation Trust of Lebanon County, which has enough funds to maintain the historical structure, but not enough money to renovate to National Registry of Historic Place’s standards. On three separate occasions—1970, 1986 and again in 2019—an application for Light’s Fort to become a national historic site was submitted to a Pennsylvania review board.

Each time it was rejected for the same reason: It will cost more money than it is deemed worth.

Jaye said that while the Historic Preservation Trust of Lebanon County is dedicated to its preservation, it would cost between $700,000 and $1 million at minimum to restore Light’s Fort.

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“There’s quite a significant amount of work that needs to be done, if you’re going to get it back to its original configuration,” he said. “It’s beyond economic feasibility. But as long as the Historic Preservation Trust owns it, it’s going to stand.”

Light’s Fort may not meet the common image of a “fort,” but it was utilized as such by settlers. According to folklore, there was a tunnel system beneath the stone structure. (Jeff Falk)

The structure, Jaye said, is sound.

“The stone structure itself is in excellent condition,” Jaye continued. “The basement is in excellent condition. The first-floor wall is in acceptable condition. Some of the rafters in the roof are gone. A lot of things need to be restored, but the structure is in excellent condition. The bones are good, but the guts need to be completely renovated.”

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Light’s Fort was built on 205 acres by John Light in 1742, and the original two-and-a-half story structure was constructed of local limestone. It served as, among other things, a private fortification to shelter up to 60 families. The property also featured vegetable gardens, woodlands, farm fields, a family burial plot, orchards, fresh-water wells, sheds, stables, corrals, workshops, a barn, roads and a large stockade surrounding the homestead.

“John Light was an immigrant who came to the Pennsylvania colony,” said Jaye. “He got enough money together to buy 205 acres of land. His family built a significant homestead. It’s been dwindled down to 1.1 acres.”

It may not look like what most people think of when they think of a fortification—there’s nothing medieval about it—but it was, nonetheless, a fort.

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“Light’s Fort was used during war time. It was a hideout when there was Indian activity in the area. People would run to these fortified structures,” said Jaye. “There were quite a few fortifications in Lebanon County and two others are still standing—the Isaac Meier Homestead in Myerstown and Zellers Fort in Newmanstown, both of which were used in the French and Indian War. Both of those are in really good condition for their age.”

Throughout the years, Light’s Fort has served Lebanon County in a variety of ways. At one time or another, Light’s Fort—or, “The Old Fort”—has been a private home, a distillery, a restaurant and bar, a beverage distributor and apartments, among other things.

“It’s been quite a few different things,” said Jaye, a graduate of Lebanon High School. “For 250 years, it has served the community in multiple roles. When you think about it, if it wasn’t utilized, it would’ve been torn down. It was a way to keep it standing until the trust fund bought it.

“I grew up in the area, and every day when I was a kid, I walked by Light’s Fort while going to Coleman Park,” Jaye added. “It’s the oldest building still standing in Lebanon County. It has a lot of important historical aspects to it. That’s why it’s important for me to live on and to keep it as a piece of our living history.”

Light's Fort is Lebanon's oldest standing structure. Local historians and preservationists would like to see the building restored and turned into a museum.
A major reason Light’s Fort is in such good shape: it has been occupied in one form or another for centuries. (Jeff Falk)

While he has performed extensive research on it through personal interviews and by reading books and newspaper articles, Jaye does not know everything there is to know about Light’s Fort. In many ways, Light’s Fort remains a mystery, a local landmark shrouded in rumors based in truth.

“You have to accept this as a lot of local folklore,” said Jaye. “There’s enough evidence to support the theory that there were tunnels there. The idea is that the tunnel left Light’s Fort and went to Tenth and Willow Streets, and then to Eighth and Cumberland Streets, the site of the old court house. As late as the 1890s, there was still talk about a tunnel system from Stevens School (at Tenth and Willow Streets).

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Read More: Your guide to the long-abandoned underground passages of Lebanon, PA

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“Supposedly, there have also been a couple of ghost sightings over the years,” continued Jaye. “One involved a native Indian girl in 1757, who tried to burn down Light’s Fort. According to the story, Marcella Light, the daughter of John Light, was given a knife by her father, and the daughter went over and killed her. When it was a bar, supposedly a ghost was seen in colonial clothing. But there’s not many old buildings that don’t have ghost stories associated with them.”

Jaye said that his personal favorite aspect of Light’s Fort is its Pennsylvania German Traditional architectural style. Not only is he a local history buff, he’s also a fan of history in general.

“I would say anybody in Lebanon County over 40 knows about Light’s Fort,” said Jaye. “The younger people and transplants probably have no idea about its history. But I think everybody probably has a limited knowledge of it. That’s been a problem, and if you know about it, there’s a better chance you’ll appreciate it. A lot of people have knowledge of it, but few people have appreciation of it.”

Jaye said his goal for Light’s Fort as a local historian is the same as the Historic Preservation Trust’s goal: for the site to be a safe, public history museum.

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“As it is now, it’s actually dangerous to be in there,” said Jaye.

What it all really comes down to is weighing the importance of practicality and sentimentality. Or perhaps, put another way: putting a price on history.

“Light’s Fort is the most important historical structure in the Lebanon County area,” said Jaye. “I would hope the people of Lebanon County would become more appreciative of it. It has to go past knowledge and into the appreciation realm. We’ve got to make something happen.”

Light’s Fort initially sat on over 200 acres. It has since been dwindled down to just over one. (Jeff Falk)

Do you know a piece of Lebanon County history we should share? Give us advice on what to feature next!

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