The history of America’s lighthouses is wondrously wide ranging. It is about the farsighted colonies that built the first lighthouses on the East Coast to welcome commerce to their shores, embracing the founding of the nation and its dramatic expansion across the continent. When the inaugural federal Congress convened in 1789, one of the first issues it took up was whether the federal government or the states would be in charge of lighthouses, and in one of its earliest acts, Congress made lighthouses a federal concern. From that point forward, as the country grew, so too did the number of lighthouses, creating a necklace of beacons and literally lighting the way for the settlement of new territories and states.
It is also a history of government ineptitude and international competition. For a long time America’s lighthouses were vastly inferior to those in Great Britain and France, even though many stubborn and misguided American officials refused to concede that fact. Only by emulating its cross-ocean rivals was America able to elevate its lighthouse system from one mired in mediocrity to one that was among the best in the world.
It is likewise a history of lighting innovation. Lighthouse illuminants changed dramatically over time, running the gamut from whale, lard and vegetable oil to kerosene, acetylene and finally electricity. Similarly, crude lamps gave way to more sophisticated ones, and reflectors that did a poor job of projecting the light were replaced by the crown jewels of lighthouse illumination — Fresnel lenses, which not only increased the intensity of the light, but also became one of the most important and strikingly beautiful inventions of the 19th century. Most of these elegant lenses have since been supplanted by modern optics, which are far less arresting to the eye, yet still effective in casting refulgent beams toward the horizon.
At its core, however, the dramatic history of America’s lighthouses is about people, and an intriguingly diverse cast of compelling characters brings that history to vivid life. These include Founding Fathers, skillful engineers, imperiled mariners and intrepid soldiers, as well as saboteurs, penny-pinching bureaucrats, ruthless egg collectors and inspiring leaders. Undoubtedly the most important actors are the male and female keepers, who — often with the invaluable assistance of their families — faithfully kept the lights shining and the fog signals blaring.
No one who has studied the history of these keepers could claim that their lives were a proverbial picnic, for they contended with loneliness, monotony and a myriad of dangers. Not surprisingly a few died in the line of duty. Many keepers rescued people in distress on the water, some performing so heroically that America’s highest award for lifesaving was bestowed on them. Above all, keepers provided a vital public service that was at once noble and altruistic. As the early 20th century historian William S. Pelletreau stated, “Among all the hosts who are called to the service of the government … perhaps none is charged with duties of such moment and of such universal usefulness as is the lighthouse keeper. The soldier and the statesman protect the national honor and the person and property of the citizen, and their acts are performed in the gaze of the world. But the quiet man who trims and lights the shore and harbor lights, and watches them through the long night … stands his vigil for all humanity, asking no questions as to the nationality or purpose of him whom he directs to safety.”
Lighthouses have undergone substantial structural changes. While early towers were made of wood or rubble stone, in later years cut stone, bricks, iron, steel, reinforced concrete and even aluminum became the materials of choice. Although all lighthouses required skill to build, a few posed such significant challenges that they are truly marvels of engineering, serving as testaments to human ingenuity.
America’s military history is one in which lighthouses have played a crucial role. They served as lookout towers in many conflicts, but during the American Revolution and the Civil War they also became key strategic targets, resulting in more than 160 of them being damaged or completely destroyed. Like wars, natural disasters — especially hurricanes — have taken a terrible toll on lighthouses. The Great Hurricane of 1938 stands out, both for the extent of devastation it wreaked, and for the gripping and tragic stories of survival and death that it left in its wake.
The 1900s saw the role of keepers diminish over time. As lighthouses were decommissioned or became automated, the number of keepers dwindled, and today only Boston Lighthouse still has one. But as keepers faded from view and lighthouses began suffering from neglect, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and private individuals stepped forward to become the new stewards of an increasing number of lighthouses, ensuring that they will be cared for and preserved for the benefit of future generations. Lighthouses are among the most beloved and romanticized structures in the American landscape. It is not difficult to find evidence of their hold on the public’s imagination.
The inherent beauty of lighthouses — starkly etched against the sky — is undeniably a big part of what makes them so alluring. But America’s intrinsic fascination with lighthouses runs deeper than that. Over three centuries, these brilliant beacons have indelibly woven themselves into the American fabric, and it is this rich history more than anything else that draws us in.
Reprinted with permission from Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse by Eric Jay Dolin; published by Liveright Publishing Corp., 2016.
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Eric Jay Dolin is well known to readers of maritime history for his books Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America; When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail; and Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. His book Brilliant Beacons, which is excerpted here, is a riveting account of our lighthouse history that also illuminates the early years of our nation.
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Matthew Cohen is an award-winning photographer who specializes in nautical and adventure photography. He is based in Newport, Rhode Island. You can see more of his work and buy prints at cohenphotography.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.