For some unknown or unexplainable reason, my wife and I have had somewhat of a fascination with lighthouses over the years. Not the all-consuming allure that others may have such as completely decorating with that theme or planning vacations solely for the purpose of visiting as many of these structures as possible. No, just a mild interest in them including a modest collection of models by Harbour Lights, a few books on the subject and a few photographs and paintings of a few of our favorites such as “Old Baldy” on Bald Head Island, North Carolina; Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse in Nova Scotia; the Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey; and the Harbour Town Lighthouse at Sea Pines, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
By definition, a lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses and used as a navigational aid for ships at sea or on the inland waterways. Lighthouses are (and have been throughout history) used to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, and reefs, provide guidelines for safe entries to harbors, and may also assist in aerial navigation. Once widely used, the number of operational lighthouses has declined due to the expense of maintenance and replacement by modern electronic navigational systems. Yes, that ever more popular term “Technology” has come into play even with the wonderful history of the subject of this month’s Pop’s Perspective. Perhaps at some point I will devote a future Pop’s Perspective article to that subject!
And speaking of “Technology”, perhaps we should take just a minute to gain a basic understanding of how the lighthouses accomplish their mission of guardianship of our waterways. In a lighthouse, the source of light is called the “lamp” (whether electric or fueled by oil) and the concentration of the light is by a lens. Originally lit by open fires and later by candles, the beginning of modern lighthouse power technology was developed in the late 1700’s in Europe and deployed at a lighthouse in France in 1782. By 1790 a rotating element was added.
The early U. S. lighthouses employed whale oil used with wicks as the source of light until a reflector system was introduced around 1810. Kerosene then started replacing oil in the 1870s and the lighthouse service was finally converted by the late 1880s. Electricity and certain gasses began replacing kerosene around the turn of the 20th century.
For our history buffs out there, a bit of Lighthouse History is in order. Going way back in time, perhaps the most famous lighthouse is the Lighthouse of Alexandria that was built on the island of Pharos in Egypt. (In fact, the name “Pharos” is still in use today as the noun for “lighthouse” in some languages). This ancient structure was built in 280 BC and served as a landmark for the port, was extremely tall for it’s day and was even identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And Chinese history mentions the construction of several structures erected in the 700 – 800 time period as well as towers serving as lighthouses in the 1100’s. History writings from the Dark Ages as well as the medieval and Late Middle Ages contain references to many and varied lighthouse structures. Lighthouse development then accelerated in the 17th century with several new and “modern” structures coming on line in Britain, Denmark, France and Scotland.
The earliest light in North America was in St. Augustine, Florida, built somewhere around 1586. The next lighthouse in America was Boston Light on Little Brewster Island (1716). The first keeper was George Worthylake who drowned, along with his wife and daughter, when returning to the island in 1718. The original tower was destroyed by the British during the evacuation of Boston in 1775 and eventually reconstructed in 1784. The oldest existing lighthouse in the United States is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey (1764), which is still in operation. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had the most lighthouses of any nation.
As to our National control of lighthouses, in 1789 the US Bureau of Lighthouses was created which placed lighthouses under federal control. Through the years, lighthouses were placed under the direction of U.S. Department of Revenue (disbanded in 1820), U.S. Department of Treasury (until 1903), then the U. S. Department of Commerce. The Lighthouse Board (of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment) held sway from 1852 to July 1, 1910, when the Lighthouse Service was established. The United States Coast Guard then took over on July 7, 1939.
Lighthouses were extremely labor intensive in the classic era of lighthouse operation. Lighthouse keepers were needed to trim the wicks, replenish fuel, wind clockworks, and perform maintenance tasks such as cleaning lenses and windows. The first “automation” was seen in 1907 when the invention that allowed beacons to be turned on and off using daylight was created. Over the next several years, further inventions such as automatic light changers began to make lighthouse keepers obsolete. But for many years, lighthouses still had keepers, partly because they could serve as a rescue service if necessary. Improvements in maritime navigation and safety such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) have led to the phasing out of non-automated lighthouses in the United States, with the last keepers removed in the 1990s.
And, of course, our modern (and non-manned) lighthouses are often located in inaccessible locations, are much more functional and less picturesque, usually use solar-charged batteries and have a single stationary flashing light sitting on a steel skeleton tower. The last manned lighthouse built in the U.S. was the Charleston Light constructed in 1962.
All over the world and particularly in the U.S., visiting and photographing lighthouses are popular hobbies as is collecting ceramic replicas (such as our Harbour Lights collection). Some lighthouses are popular travel destinations and the buildings are maintained as tourist attractions. For those whose interest I have peaked, the National Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend is celebrated on the first weekend of August (too late for this year – start making your plans now for 2014), and International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend on the third weekend. Many lighthouses are open to the public and amateur radio operators communicate between them on these days.
We should also note that in recognition of the role of lighthouse keepers in maritime safety, the U.S. Coast Guard named a class of 175-foot (53 m) after famous U.S. lighthouse keepers. Fourteen of these ships were built between 1996 and 2000.
Finally and on a light note, there is the age-old urban legend that tells of a radio conversation between a naval vessel and what is believed to be another ship on a collision course. The naval vessel insists the other ship change course, but the other ship continues to insist the naval vessel do so. After the captain of the naval vessel identifies himself and demands a course change, the other party responds with, “I’m a lighthouse. It’s your call”.
Thanks for reading and look for more of “Pops Perspective” in the coming months.