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Inventory of Historic Light Stations
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[Please note that inventory information for individual light stations is now available on our web site. Go to our summary list of light stations in the United States Click on the state which interests you, then find the lighthouse in the list. Click on the lighthouse name for inventory information on that station.]


Lighthouses are among the most romantic reminders of our country's maritime heritage. Marking dangerous headlands, shoals, bars, and reefs, these structures played a vital role in indicating navigable waters and supporting this nation's maritime transportation and commerce. Sixteen lighthouses were already in place when the American colonies formed the United States and lighthouses were one of the new government's first priorities. Hundreds more lighthouses have subsequently been built along our sea coasts and on the Great Lakes, creating the world's most complex aids to navigation system. No other national lighthouse system compares with that of the United States in size and diversity of architectural and engineering types.

National Maritime Initiative

The National Maritime Initiative, a program within the History Division of the National Park Service (NPS), is responsible for the survey and evaluation of historic maritime resources preserved around the country. Inventories for four types of maritime resources are currently maintained by the Initiative: large vessels, light stations, lifesaving stations, and shipwrecks and hulks. In addition, an inventory of small craft has been developed in cooperation with the Museum Small Craft Association.

The Initiative's first survey efforts focused on large preserved vessels, resulting in the NPS publication, 1990 Inventory of Large Preserved Historic Vessels, and the popular guidebook, Great American Ships, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Press in 1991. The inventory of large vessels was produced in tandem with the large vessel phase of the National Historic Landmark (NHL) Theme Study, "Maritime Heritage of the United States," now nearing completion with 118 vessels designated and 38 vessels and shipwrecks being studied.

Criteria for Inclusion

In 1999, the lighthouse inventory lists 595 existing historic light stations. A historic light station is defined as a station with a resident keeper and often consisted of a complex of mutually-supporting structures. The light required fuel and maintenance that could only be provided by keepers. Keepers in turn required housing and transportation; hence a station might include a fireproof oil house, a keeper's dwelling, a cistern, and perhaps a boathouse, or garage, in addition to the tower. If a fog signal was required, a separate structure might be built to house it as well. At the very least, a station would have a tower supporting an optic and housing for the keeper; in many instances, one structure would serve both functions.

Most stations included here are at least 50 years old and most have been evaluated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the "official list of the Nation's cultural resources worthy of preservation." The National Register is administered by the National Park Service and includes districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. Of the historic light towers included in this inventory, 371 are individually listed in the National Register for Historic Places; 50 are part of a larger listing; 23 have been determined eligible for listing by the Keeper of the National Register, and 42 are known to have been determined eligible by a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Six lighthouses have been designated National Historic Landmarks and more will be evaluated in subsequent years.

Sources of Information

The information included in the light station inventory was gathered primarily from the National Register of Historic Places, the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office, the U.S. Lighthouse Society, State Historic Preservation Offices, and survey forms from the owners and managers of the individual light stations. See Sources for More Information on Lighthouses.

Lighthouse Preservation

Technological changes in the 20th century ultimately doomed the manned light station. Today, all stations but one, Boston Harbor Light, are automated, eliminating the need for a keeper to maintain the light and its associated structures. Of the existing lights, approximately 400 are operational aids to navigation. The majority of these are operated by the U.S. Coast Guard; however, we know that 17 serve as private aids to navigation. Many additional stations continue in operation with the optic placed outside the tower's lantern, generally mounted on a steel pole.

Automation has permitted the Coast Guard to lease many stations to state, local, and private groups for use as museums, parks and recreation areas, research laboratories, and nature preserves. Finding an adaptive use for those stations in isolated, inaccessible locations has proved challenging.

Lighthouses in accessible locations have become popular tourist attractions and educational resources. Some lighthouses report annual visitation in the tens of thousands. Approximately 250 stations are accessible to the public. At some locations, a person may enter the towerand climb the stairs to the lantern room; in others only the grounds outside the buildings are open. Thirty-five light stations fall within boundaries of national parks.

As the U.S. Coast Guard and other caretakers look for new uses for the obsolete towers and nature takes its toll, the issues surrounding lighthouse preservation have become more critical. The popular appeal of lighthouses has created a tremendous body of support for their preservation, especially at the local level. State and national groups have also organized to promote the cause of lighthouse preservation. This inventory is intended to support lighthouse preservation organizations by providing a means for coordinating their activities and assembling a baseline for comparison.

Ordering Information

As of May 1996 the 1994 Inventory of Historic Light Stations publication is out of print.

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Last Modified: Thurs, Mar 21 2002 5:58:02 pm EDT

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