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Architects, Engineers and Contractors

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Prior to the advent of the Lighthouse Board, contractors bid on lighthouse construction projects advertised in local newspapers. The advertisements included building specifications to guide the successful bidder. The local collector of customs, who also served as the superintendent of lighthouses for his region and was a political appointee, reviewed the bids, rejected the bids he felt could not satisfactorily complete the work, and informed the fifth auditor of the Treasury Department of his selection. The reasons for rejecting a contractor’s bid varied, for example, the contractor would not be able to make bond, he was too inexperienced as a builder, or he had done faulty work in the past. While the final approval of a contractor was decided in Washington, D.C., the superintendent’s recommendation was generally accepted. The superintendent then approved the formal contract, including the building specifications, and construction soon began. The local superintendent supervised the contractor throughout the building process.

Crayon portrait of Alexander Parris by W.E. Chickering, ca. 1887.
Courtesy of The Bostonian Society. For further information on Parris and the lighthouses he constructed see
John McComb, Jr., Alexander Parris, and Francis A. Gibbons successfully erected several lighthouses under the direction of the Treasury Department and their local superintendent of lighthouses. Three of the lighthouses that architect-builder John McComb built in the 1790s—Old Cape Henry Lighthouse (1792) at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Montauk Point Lighthouse (1796) on the tip of Long Island, New York, and Eatons Neck (1799) also on Long Island, New York—remain standing today. Alexander Parris, noted architect-engineer, built numerous waveswept lighthouses in the mid-nineteenth century off the coast of Maine. Mount Desert Rock (1847), Libby Island (1848), Monhegan Island (1851), Matinicus Rock (1857), and Saddleback Ledge (1839) were all constructed of local granite and are still standing. Parris likely built Whitehead Lighthouse in 1848, as well. Francis A. Gibbons’ early lighthouses were constructed in locations not particularly suited for such and thus were eventually rebuilt. Before building Bodie Island Lighthouse (1848) in North Carolina, fifth auditor Stephen Pleasonton directed the collector of customs to use piles for the foundation if the site was muddy. Gibbons observed a quicksand-like substance at the site and the collector of customs suggested he solve the problem by laying a foundation of bricks. The foundation did not last long and Bodie Island Lighthouse had to be replaced in 1859. Gibbons also erected Egmont Key Lighthouse (1848) in Florida. However, after two sequential hurricanes eroded the sand and undermined the tower, it had to be replaced in 1858. In the early 1850s, Gibbons partnered with Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore to build the first eight lighthouses on the west coast.

The Lighthouse Board subsumed all duties related to aids to navigation in 1852, initially erecting many lighthouses with their own crews. Soon, however, the country was divided into twelve lighthouse districts with an inspector (a naval officer) assigned to each district. The inspector was tasked with building lighthouses and seeing that they remained in good working order. After the 1870s, the majority of new lighthouses were generally erected by contract under the close supervision of the district inspector. A specific project was issued for bid only after the plans and specifications, which were much more extensive and detailed than those previously prepared under the fifth auditor, were completed and approved. The lighthouses constructed under the direction of the Lighthouse Board surpassed in longevity those erected during the first part of the nineteenth century, as the Board’s primary concern was quality over economy.

[photo] Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B13-1467A

After a few years, the inspectors became overloaded with work and an engineer (an army officer) was appointed to each district to oversee the construction and maintenance of lights. Army officers assigned included George G. Meade, Hartman Bache, and Orlando M. Poe. Meade, who later achieved fame as the commander of union troops at the battle of Gettysburg, partnered with Bache to build the Brandywine Shoal screwpile lighthouse in the Delaware Bay in 1850. Meade subsequently constructed the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse (1852), the first of several tall lighthouses built on Florida’s reefs, followed by the Sombrero Key (1858) and Sand Key(1853) lighthouses in surrounding areas. In addition to supervising the construction of Abescon Lighthouse (1857) in New Jersey, surveying and recommending the replacement of the Barnegat Lighthouse(1857) in New Jersey with a first-order tower, designing the Jupiter (1860) and Seahorse Key lighthouses (1854) in Florida, he also invented a five-wick, first-order, hydraulic lamp used in Fresnel lenses. Distinguished engineer of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers Hartman Bache built Pungoteague River Lighthouse (1854), the second screwpile lighthouse in the United States, in Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse was destroyed by an ice flow in February of 1856.

Brig. Gen Orlando M. Poe
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B813-1953A
Following a successful military career as chief engineer under General W. T. Sherman during the Civil War, Orlando M. Poe assumed the position of engineer secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Board and was charged with supervising building projects in the upper Great Lakes. Accountable for all aspects of lighthouse construction in the area, Poe was largely responsible for the design of several tall, conical lighthouse towers that gently tapered from bottom to top. The towers featured graceful embellishments in the form of masonry gallery support corbels and arch-topped windows. Exemplified by the towers at Presque Isle (1871) and Grosse Point (1873), Poe was responsible for the construction of a number of such towers throughout the Great Lakes region, including Big Sable (1867), Au Sable Point (1874), Little Point Sable (1874), Outer Island (1874), and Spectacle Reef (1874).

Essay by Karmen Bisher, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) contractor, working for the NPS Maritime Heritage Program.

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Last Modified: Tue, Oct 4 2005 11:02:48 am EDT

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