In early American history,
shipping was very important. Ships and boats were the major way
to transport people and cargo at the time. Most of the American
colonies had long coasts, and relied on sea trade to get many of
the supplies they needed.
There were many hazards.
to early shipping: rocks, sand bars, shallow water and other
hazards made shipping dangerous. In those days, if a shipload of
cargo was lost, it could cause great hardship for the colonists.
And lives were often lost aboard the ships when they wrecked.
Before lighthouses were
built, some people used lanterns or fires on land to help ships
navigate at night. But the same system was not used everywhere,
and could cause confusion for mariners from another area.
The first "real"
lighthouse built in America was in 1716 on Little Brewster
Island near Boston. About ten more were built up to 1776. One of
these was the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey. It was built
in 1764, and is still in operation. -- the oldest operating
lighthouse in the United States.
In 1776, the American
colonies declared independence from Great Britain, and spent the
next seven years fighting a war to become truly independent.
After the war, the thirteen colonies formed a government based
on a document call the Articles of Confederation. This was the
first government of the United States of America. The government
under the Articles of Confederation was not strong, and there
were many problems in the new country, so many of the nation's
best leaders got together in 1787 to discuss a better form of
government. They designed a new government, based on the
"Constitution for the United States of America." The
Constitution, and its new government, became official on June
21, 1788. This is the same government we still have today.
During the early sessions
of the new Congress, the subject of lighthouses was discussed.
It was eventually decided, in a bill called H.R. 12, or the
Lighthouses Act of 1789, to make the building and maintenance of
lighthouses the responsibility of the new federal government.
The federal government has controlled American lighthouses ever
Although the lighthouses
were under federal control, the specific government department
that ran them has changed many times. Some of the more notable
periods are listed below:
From 1820 to 1852,
America's lighthouses were run by the Fifth Auditor of the
Treasury. His name was Stephen Pleasanton. During the War of
1812, as a clerk in Washington, D.C., he saved some of the
nation's early important documents by taking them from the city
before the British burned it. As Superintendent of Lighthouses,
he was much more controversial. The lighthouses built in America
during this period were not built very well and had bad lights.
Mr. Pleasanton did not like to spend money, even on improvements
in technology, administration, or building techniques. There
were several studies done of America's lighthouses during this
period, usually prompted by complaints from mariners. The final
report, in 1851, resulted in the creation of the Light House
From 1852 to 1910, the
Light House Board ran the lighthouses in the United States. This
new organization was composed mostly of military people with
experience in engineering and other important areas. The Board's
improvements in administration and technology made America's
lighthouse system the best in the world, with powerful lights
held in strong lighthouses. Many of the lighthouses from this
period are still standing and still serving mariners. The Light
House Board also improved the selection, training, and
administration of lighthouse keepers. American lighthouse
keepers became responsible for keeping their stations very
clean, running them well, and keeping strict records.
The Light House Board was
disbanded in 1910 and the lighthouses were once again put under
the control of a single civilian head. The administration stayed
that way until 1939, when the Lighthouse Service was made part
of the US Coast Guard. Lighthouses in America have been under
the control of the Coast Guard ever since.
Because of advancements in
the technology of maritime navigation, many people do not feel
that lighthouses are necessary anymore. As a result, the
government does not allow for much money to maintain them. The
support of communities, especially nonprofit preservation
groups, is now needed to preserve America's lighthouses and the
history that they represent.
– An act of legislation authorizing the expenditure of a
designated amount of public funds for a specific purpose.
– A lamp using a circular hollow wick and glass chimney.
Patented in 1784 by Swiss chemist and inventor Aime Argand
(1750-1803). Winslow Lewis’ lamps were based on Argand’s design.
lighthouse – A lighthouse that has been modified with
technological advances so that it no longer requires the
services of a full-time keeper.
– A tower on which a fog bell is hung. The elevation afforded by
the tower allows the bell to be heard further.
– A type of Fresnel lens that consisted of two bull’s-eye style
lenses, one mounted on each side of the lamp. Also known as a
clamshell lens, because of its appearance, or a lightning lens,
because of its powerful flash. Montauk Point’s 1903 bivalve lens
now resides in its museum.
Brig – A
sailing ship with two masts, both of them square-rigged.
Buoy – A
floating minor aid to navigation, moored to the seabed. Some
have been designed with lights, sirens, gongs, or bells to make
them easier to locate at night or in bad weather.
Butt – A
large barrel, of approximately 126 gallons volume, used to hold
– A watertight foundation that extends beneath the water line.
Candlepower – a measure of the intensity of light.
– The identifying features of a light, such as its color and
A tank for storing rainwater. These were often built into the
cellars of keepers’ quarters.
– The mechanism used to operate machinery, such as a rotating
lens or a fog bell. Early versions were wound by hand.
The size, shape, and markings that identify a lighthouse in the
A fog signal that makes a two-tone sound, as in the well-known
Jetsam – Objects found floating or washed ashore.
– A type of lens developed in the 1820s by French physicist
Augustin Jean Fresnel. Its power and efficiency allowed for the
use of one lamp in place of many, thereby decreasing the
consumption of lamp oil. These lenses came into general use in
the United States after 1852. Seven sizes, or “orders,” were
commonly used (First, Second, Third, Third-and-One-Half, Fourth,
Fifth and Sixth). The only active Fresnel lens on Long Island is
at Eaton’s Neck. Others are on display at Fire Island, Montauk
Point, Horton Point, and the East End Seaport Museum.
A body of water that provides safety for ships.
apparatus – The means by which light is produced and sent
out from a lighthouse. These could include oil lamps and
reflectors; an oil lamp and Fresnel lens; a modern electric
light; and others.
Oil Vapor (IOV) lamp – A type of lamp that used pressurized
and vaporized oil burned in a mantle. These powerful lamps were
the last oil-fueled lighthouse lamps.
The glass-enclosed part of the lighthouse, where the
illuminating apparatus is mounted.
Lard oil –
A form of animal-based oil used as a lamp fuel in the mid- to
late 1800s. It was cheaper than whale oil, but produced acrid
fumes and often congealed in cold weather.
(1770–1850) – The man whose lamp and reflector designs were
used in American lighthouses from the early to mid 1800s. The
origins and construction of his lamps and reflectors were the
subject of much criticism.
Light List – A book for
mariners that lists lighthouses, buoys, and other aids to
navigation. This list helps mariners determine where they are.
– A ship with one or more masts, on top of which one or more
lights is mounted. Also known as lightships, these vessels were
anchored at offshore locations where a lighthouse was needed but
could not be built. Light vessels generally also included a fog
signal. There are no longer any lightships on active duty in the
Someone who navigates, or helps to navigate, a ship; a sailor.
– Kerosene; A thin distilled oil used for American lighthouse
illumination in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
– An auxiliary building used to store oil. These were built at
American lighthouses with the introduction of mineral oil, which
was much more volatile than previous lamp fuels. On Long Island,
most oil houses were built between 1902 and 1904, and were made
The size of a Fresnel lens. A First Order lens was the largest;
a Sixth Order was the smallest.
Stephen (1777–1855) – Superintendent of Lighthouse for the
U.S. from 1820 to 1852, as Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. As a
clerk in Washington, D.C. in 1814, Pleasanton saved the
Declaration of Independence and other important early American
documents by taking them away from the city before it was burned
by the British.
Port – A
city or town that has facilities for loading and unloading
– An aid to navigation that consists of a radio transmitter
sending out distinctive signals.
– A pair of separate lights used in conjunction with each other
for navigation. Generally used to indicate a channel.
– A highly polished parabolic metal surface placed around a lamp
to direct the lamp’s rays in a particular direction. These were
used in the U.S. in the early- to mid 1800s.
Large, irregularly shaped rocks piled loosely to protect the
foundation of a lighthouse.
A sailing vessel with at least two masts, fore-and-aft rigged.
– A type of lighthouse foundation that used multiple iron piles
screwed into the seabed and braced together. These foundations
were rare in northern waters because of their susceptibility to
Shoal – A
shallow area in a body of water.
Shipwreck – The destruction of a ship by collision, or wind and waves.
Also, a ship that has been destroyed in such a way.
Siren – A
fog signal that used compressed air or steam through a rotating
perforated disk to create a loud sound.
– A tower made of exposed metal tubing.
Sloop – A
single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged sailing vessel.
– A soft rock, composed mostly of mineral talc.
– An early form of oil lamp that used multiple wicks from a
single source of oil. In some designs, the wicks looked like the
legs of spiders.
A fog signal consisting of a long metal tube, flared at the end,
through which air is forced to create a loud sound.
Watch room – The room in a lighthouse where the lighthouse keeper stays
when he is working ("on watch").
– The fuel used to power Long Island’s lights until the mid
1800s. The rapid rise of its price led to its replacement with
cheaper oils, mostly lard oil.
Whitewash – A mixture of lime and water, sometimes with additives, used to
whiten lighthouse towers, walls, fences, or other structures.
concentric – A series of
two to five hollow wicks, set one inside the other. This created
a brighter flame.
– A wick that formed a tube. Its invention improved the power
from an oil lamp by allowing air to flow inside the flame, as
well as outside of it.