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Lighthouse Facts
Courtesy of The United States Lighthouse Society
  • 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 in 1784.
  • 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 1776.
  • 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 in 1984.
  • 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 (brrrrrrrrr) horns.
  • 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 1884.
  • 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 50 miles.
  • Towers are given special (painted) patterns -- diamond shapes, spirals, stripes, etc. -- or colors to distinguish them from each other.