- The first known lighthouse was the Pharos of Alexandria,
Egypt. Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II constructed it between 300 and
280 B.C. It stood about 450 feet high. This lighthouse was one of the Seven
Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed in stages by invaders and
earthquakes, being destroyed in the 1300’s.
- The oldest existing lighthouse in the world is considered
to be La Coruna in Spain that dates from ca. 20 B.C. A Roman lighthouse
is located on the Cliffs of Dover in the UK that was constructed in 40 A.D.
- The first lighthouse in America was at Boston on Little
Brewster Island (1716). The first keeper was George Worthylake who was
drowned, along with his wife and daughter, when returning to the island
in 1718. The original tower was destroyed by the British and eventually reconstructed
- The oldest existing lighthouse in America is Sandy
Hook, NJ (1764), which is still in operation.
- There were 12 lighthouses when we became a nation in
- The tallest lighthouse is Cape Hatteras, NC (196 ft.
built in 1872).
- The most expensive lighthouse built in America is St.
George Reef, off Crescent City, CA. It took ten years to construct (1882
- 1892) and cost $715,000.00. The Coast Guard abandoned it in 1972.
- The Lighthouse Service was created in 1789 by the 9th
Act of the first Congress. Over the years, lighthouses were placed under
the direction of Department of Revenue (this department was disbanded in
1820), Treasury (until 1903), the Commerce and Transportation. The Lighthouse
Board (of the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment) held sway from 1852 to July
1, 1910 when Commerce created the Bureau of Lighthouses. The Coast Guard
took over on July 7, 1939.
- After 1852 the country was divided into Districts;
originally eight, they eventually numbered 19. Today the Coast Guard
only has ten districts. The USLHE had a District Inspector (Naval Officer)
as operational control. He ran the district in tandem with an Army Corps
of Engineer who was in charge of engineering projects. In 1910 civilians
started replacing the military officers.
- There were never more than ca. 850 lighthouses in operation
at once, although about 1,500 were constructed in this country over the
years -- the hey-day being about 1910. There were 220 constructed on
the U. S. shores of the Great Lakes. Michigan had the most with ca. 90
followed by Maine with ca. 80.
- Lightships were employed where the water was too deep
to construct a lighthouse or it was impracticable. The first lightships
were located in the lower Chesapeake Bay (1820) and the most stations were
in 1915 when there were 72 lightships manning 55 stations. The extra ships
were used for relief. Lightships displayed lights at the tops of their
mast(s) and in foggy areas sounded a bell or other fog signal such as
a whistle, siren or horn. In 1921, lightships began being equipped with
radio beacons. The last lightship was removed from the Nantucket station
- The first fog signal in this country was at the Boston
Lighthouse and it was a cannon. Other fog signals have been whistles,
sirens, reed trumpets, bells, diaphone (BEEEEooooh) horns and diaphragm
- Whale oil was used with solid wicks as the source of
light until a parabolic reflector system was introduced around 1810.
Although the Fresnel lens was invented in 1822, it wasn’t used in this
country until the 1850’s. Colza oil (pressed from wild cabbages) replaced
whale oil in the early 1850’s, but our farmers’ lack of interest in growing
this caused the service to switch to lard oil in the mid 1850’s. Kerosene
started replacing lard oil in the 1870’s and the service was finally totally
converted by the late 1880’s. Electricity started to replace kerosene around
the turn of the century. All U. S. lighthouses had Fresnel lenses by 1860.
- Lighthouses are constructed of wood, granite, brick,
sandstone, steel, cast iron, reinforced concrete and one has an outer
skin of aluminum.
- The source of light is called the ‘lamp’ (be it electric
or fueled by oil); the magnification of the light is caused by the ‘lens’
or ‘optic’. They are located in the ‘lantern room’ of the tower and the
glazings (windows) are called ‘storm panes’.
- The reflector system and the Fresnel system had fixed
(steady light) and revolving (flashing) optics. The type of signal is called
the characteristic. Other characteristics are osculating, group flashing,
quick flashing, and equal interval. Some lighthouses display a green or
red light and some a white light with a green or red sector created by substituting
a colored ‘storm’ for a clear one.
- One-to-five keepers manned the light stations.
- Uniforms were not introduced into the service until
- Keepers were paid a lower middle class wage. George
Worthylake, our first, received 50£ ($250) a year. By today’s standards
that would be the equivalent of $16,000. During the 19th century, the Head
Keepers pay ranged from $250 to $600, others were paid less. The exception
to this was in the west, where keepers were paid $1,000 during the Gold
Rush. The service supplied certain foodstuff during most of their history.
- There were many female lighthouse keepers (Society
has files on 80), but most obtained their position when their husband
died or became incapacitated.
- The most powerful optic produces a light seen 25 miles
at sea. Although aircraft have reported “picking up” a light at 40 or
- Towers are given special (painted) patterns -- diamond
shapes, spirals, stripes, etc. -- or colors to distinguish them from