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At left: Lightship No. 101, Portsmouth, Virginia, currently known as "Portsmouth". Acceptance cruise photograph of No. 101, September 18, 1916. Photo courtesy of the City of Portsmouth Museums.
At right: Lightship No. 116, "Chesapeake", Baltimore, Maryland. Lightship No. 116 as "Chesapeake", prior to the Second World War, circa 1936. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office.
Lightships were essential partners with America's lighthouses as part of the federal government's commitment to safe navigation on the nation's coasts and on the Great Lakes. While the first American lighthouse dates to the colonial era, the use of lightships in the United States did not begin until 1819 with Congressional authorization for the construction of three light vessels. Britian had been employing lightships since 1731 and by the early 1800's their use had been established throughout Europe; light ships even had a prototype in the ancient world. Moored over treacherous reefs, or marking the narrow approaches to a channel or harbor entrance, lightships were placed where lighthouses could not be built or placed in areas too far offshore for a lighthouse's lens to reach. Between 1820 and 1983, the U.S. government established 116 lightship stations on three coasts and on the Great Lakes - a significantly lower number than the estimated 1,500 lighthouses built in the United States. In all, 179 lightships were built between 1820 and the 1952 and in 1909, the heyday of the United States Lighthouse Service, there were 51 lightships (46 on the eastern seaboard and five on the Pacific Coast) on station in the United States.
At left: Lightship No. 103, Huron, Port Huron, Michigan. Lightship No. 103 as Huron, on station prior to her retirement, 1960s. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office.
At right: Lightship No. 83, Kirkland, Washington, currently known as "Relief". Outboard profile. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard, 12th District, San Francisico, California.
To learn more about the history of U.S. lightships and specific lightvessels click on the links below:
The Maritime Heritage of the United States National Historic Landmark Theme Study Part One: Large Preserved Historic Vessels Lightships by James P. Delgado, Maritime Historian (June 1989)
Historic Ships to Visit: Government Service - Coast Guard - Lightships
Maritime National Historic Landmarks: Large Vessels -- Lightships
U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office - A History of U.S. Lightships by William Flint
U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office - Lightships and Lightship Stations of the U.S. Government by William Flint