Nighttime Navigation and Light Station Landscapes

Sunrise begins behind the silhouette of a lighthouse
Sunrise at Au Sable Lighthouse, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

NPS Photo

Navigating Under the Night Sky

Celestial navigation has been practiced throughout history, on both land and sea. It uniquely combines art and science for the purpose of wayfinding. From the Phoenicians to the Polynesians to the Corps of Discovery, many cultures have utilized the night sky when navigating the world’s waterways. These mariners and travelers would identify a star on the horizon in the direction they wanted to navigate and point the bow of their ship in that direction (Osmond 2007, 165). While the stars were useful for navigation, they didn’t help early sailors steer clear of hazards like shallow water or rock outcroppings.
A coin depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria
Coin depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Wikimedia (with CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

In The Iliad, Homer mentions that the Greeks would build a fire on a hill near the shore line to direct boats towards a location or away from a hazard. These beacons were the precursors to the first lighthouse. Legend has it that Palamidis was the first person to stack stones on a hill and build a bonfire on top to lead ships into the harbor in the Greek city of Nafplio.

We don’t know if this legend is true, but we do know that the Greeks did build one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse in Alexandria, also known as the Pharos. Construction on the Pharos was initiated in 280 B.C., and at its competition it stood as the largest lighthouse ever built. Earthquakes in the 14th century toppled the once soaring structure into the bay of Alexandria (DeWire 2010, 4-6).
Little Brewster Island from the top of Boston Light
Little Brewster Island seen from the top of the Boston Light in Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

NPS Photo (in Boston Harbor Islands Cultural Landscape Report, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation)

Lighthouses are human-made stars on the night sky horizon, built as navigational aids to mark entries into harbors and warn sailors of dangerous coast line, reefs, and sand bars. These beacons mark the intersection of earth and water in the cultural landscape and are an important part of America's history and development.

The first lighthouse in America was built in Boston Harbor. In 1713, a group of Boston Merchants petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature to build a lighthouse to help vessels navigate into Boston Harbor. Construction was completed in 1716 on Little Brewster Island in the main shipping canal in Boston harbor (Dolin 2016, 2).

Light Stations of the Great Lakes

The visibility of landforms meant that geo-navigation was the primary means of wayfinding in the Great Lakes region, a practice well known to Native Americans who navigated the waters by canoe and developed place names for geographic features.

There were few navigational aids available to Indigenous mariners. They relied on dead reckoning for planning their course and intimate knowledge of the shore line to make their way. Place names given to coastal features, to which stories would often be attached, helped to keep alive knowledge of coastal features. For example, the Anishinaabeg legend behind the naming of Sleeping Bear Dunes accounts for the prominent headland and the two islands, North and South Manitou that help form the Manitou Passage. In the story a raging forest fire on the Wisconsin shore drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake. As they swam to the safety of the Michigan shore, the two cubs became tired and drowned. The Great Spirit Manitou then created the great dune in memory of the grieving mother bear and made North and South Manitou Islands to mark were the two cubs perished (Karamanski 2017, 14).

Later, as America’s commerce grew, the need for navigational aids and life saving stations in the Great Lakes area was quickly recognized. Lighthouses and stations became symbols of organized habitation in what was described as wilderness. The manmade stars warned of rocky shorelines and offered hope to vessels caught off guard by unpredictable weather and winds.

While the Great Lakes remain wild, the development of charts, lighthouses, buoys, improved channels, locks, harbors, and cities were all attempts to domesticate these great inland seas. Those features are as much a part of the process of “settlement” as such well-recognized markers of terrestrial development as roads, farms, factories, and towns (Karamanski 2017, 7).

Three people stand on tram tracks beside the buildings and a lighthouse
Looking north along tram tracks at Devils Island Light Station. From left: Assistant Keepers Quarters, Keepers Quarters, Light Tower, Fog Signal Building, original Light Tower, Store House (c 1901).

NPS Photo (Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Archives)

A short light house of red and brown brick stands on a rocky outcropping.
The Passage Island Light Station at Isle Royale National Park was constructed in 1881.

NPS Photo

In 1811, Congress authorized construction of two lighthouses along the shore of Lake Erie as aids to navigation. By 2013, the Great Lakes were home to more than 400 standing lighthouses: 262 on the U.S. side and 151 on the Canadian side, with almost 90 percent being active aids to navigation (Karamanski 2017, 9).

Today some light stations have thriving towns with shipyards and engineered ports that have developed around them. Other light stations are now within the boundaries of national parks and are carefully managed and interpreted because of their historic significance. Lightstations in the Midwest Region of the National Park Service can be found at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Seeing Beyond the Lighthouse: Light Station Cultural Landscapes

The importance of light station cultural landscapes to American history cannot be understated. While some stations are individually recognized by the National Historic Landmark and National Register Programs, the National Park Service manages a unique collection of light stations. For example, the light stations at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are, according to Karamanski, “an outstanding collection of aids to navigation that represent the evolution in design technology” (2017, 256).
High angle view from above a white lighthouse and keeper's quarters, surrounded by trees and grass
Michigan Island Light Station at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

NPS Photo

Many light station properties still have functioning automated lights that provide navigational aid, and some of these lights are still maintained by the US Coast Guard. The parks, in turn, are responsible for the cultural resources associated with the site including the buildings, structures, and cultural landscape features.

Examples of defining features of a light station landscape include walkways, gardens, and remnant fruit trees once tended to by the station keeper, their family, and occasionally an assistant keeper. They are tangible reminders that people domesticated and shaped these often isolated locations.

Cultural Landscape Reports for these sites guide park management on how to preserve, restore, and maintain the features of the landscape and enhance integrity so the site evokes the setting, feeling, and association realitive to the period of significance. Management of the light station resources in this way provides an opportunity for the visiting public to fully understand and appreciate the histioric value of these resources and the daily activites associated with being a keeper of the light.
A fruit tree, gardens, and lawn surround a two story structure with a light tower built into it.
Development of the Raspberry Island Light Station landscape, part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, first started in 1862.

NPS Photo

Sources and More

Karamanski, Theodore J. Great Lakes Navigation and Navigational Aids: Historical Context Study. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2017.

Best, Elsdson. "Polynesian Navigators: Their Exploration and Settlement of the Pacific." Geographical Review, No. 5 (March 1918): 169-82.

Osmond, Meredith, Malcolm Ross, and Andrew Pawley. The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic: The Culture and Environment of Ancestral Oceanic Society: 2 The Physical Environment. ANU E Press, 2007.

DeWire, Elinor, and Dolores Reyes-Pergioudakis. The Lighthouses of Greece. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2010.

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Pharos of Alexandria." In Encyclopædia Britannica online, June 29, 2016 Accessed 4 April 2018.

Dolin, Eric. Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2016.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Last updated: May 17, 2019