Lighthouses Continued

Vintage Postcard of Boston Light
Vintage postcard of Boston Light
Fifth Auditor of the Treasury (18201852)—In 1820 control of navigational aids was placed under the fifth auditor of the treasury, Stephen Pleasonton. Pleasonton had many other responsibilities, no maritime experience, and was noted for his fiscal frugality. As a result, the lighthouse service suffered greatly during his 32-year tenure. An 1838 survey by naval officers found, for example, that the condition of the lighthouses ranged from good to terrible—many were poorly placed, of faulty construction, and had poor quality lights. Nonetheless, Congress took no action. Congress again failed to act in 1845 on recommendations from navy officers. Finally, in 1851, after years of protest from shippers, navigators, chambers of commerce, and the publishers of the American Coast Pilot, Congress appointed a special investigative board. After thorough study, this board recommended the establishment of a lighthouse board composed of navy officers, army engineers, and civilian scientists. Congress quickly complied and in 1852 created the U. S. Lighthouse Board (Noble 1997:7–12; National Park Service [NPS] 2001).

One innovation during the Pleasonton years had been the use of lightships—vessels moored in shallow water or near shoals where a lighthouse could not be built. The first lightship in the United States was installed at Willoughby Spit, Virginia, in 1820 but soon moved to Craney Island near Norfolk, Virginia, and quickly followed by four more in Chesapeake Bay. Like other navigational aids, lightships suffered during the Pleasonton administration—vessels were wooden, not designed for heavy seas, poorly equipped, manned by landsmen, and lacked relief ships (Noble 1997:129–32).
Vintage Postcard of Minots Ledge Light
Vintage image of Minots Ledge Light
U.S. Lighthouse Board Innovations and Organization (1852–1910)—The service the U.S. Lighthouse Board took over in 1852 had 331 lighthouses, 42 lightships, and other navigational aids, including numerous buoys. The board made many improvements, among them in the administration of lighthouses. The country was divided into 12 lighthouse districts, the twelfth being the West Coast, where the board built the first lighthouses. Each district was under an inspector, usually a navy officer, and later also an army engineer. The board issued detailed written instructions to the keepers and gradually, with the help of the Civil Service Reform Acts of 1871 and 1883, changed the keepers from patronage appointments to professional civil servants(Noble 1997:12, 28–29; NPS 2001).

The U. S. Lighthouse Board also made many technological improvements, including the installation of Fresnel (Fruh-NEL) lenses. Developed in the 1810s by Frenchman August-Jean Fresnel and installed in French lighthouses in the early 1820s, the lenses were composed of concentric circles of prisms that directed the light to a central bullseye which concentrated it, resulting in a far brighter light than that from any other contemporary lens. By the Civil War, all U. S. lighthouses had Fresnel lenses (Noble 1997:22–25; NPS 2001).

Other technological improvements concerned lighthouse construction,lightships, buoys, and lamps. Screwpile and sunken caisson foundations were introduced in this period as well as lighthouses in wave-swept locations built of interlocking stones (Witney 1975:37–40, 44–45). Screwpile lighthouses replaced many lightships in Chesapeake Bay, and by 1889 the total number of lightships had dropped to 24. But with the development of iron steam-powered ships, the number again increased until there were 56 lightships in 1909 (Noble 1997:130; Flint n.d.:3). The lighthouse board replaced earlier copper-clad wooden buoys with iron ones, color-coding all buoys and other markers. Buoys still used bells and later whistles, the latter first introduced in 1876. Gas-lighted buoys began to be used in 1882. Improvements were also made to fog signals. Mechanically rung fog bells were introduced in the 1850s, later replaced by steam whistles, reed-trumpets, and siren-trumpets. Changes to navigational aids were published in the Notice to Mariners, a supplement to the Light List, which recorded all aids, their locations, and characteristics (NPS 2001). At the end ofthis period, the incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp was introduced. Similar to a huge Coleman lamp but fueled by kerosene, the lamp produced a far brighter light than earlier ones without increasing fuel consumption (Noble 1997:34).

By 1910, there were 11,713 navigational aids of all types of which 1,397 were major lighthouses (compared to 297 in 1852), too cumbersome for the administrative structure set up in 1852. Furthermore, Congress wanted lighthouses controlled by civilians rather than the military. In 1910, Congress abolished the old lighthouse board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Commerce Department, to which lighthouses had already been transferred in 1903. (Noble 1997:30–32; NPS 2001)
Vintage Postcard of Deer Light
Vintage postcard of Deer Island Light at sunset
Bureau of Lighthouses or U.S. Lighthouse Service (1910–1939)—Under the 25-year administration of George R. Putnam the number of districts in the Lighthouse Service, as it was generally called, was expanded to 17 (Snowman and Thomson 1999:43) and placed under civilian superintendents. Navigational aids increased to about 24,000, most of them buoys and small lights. Important technological advances were also made. Electrification of lighthouses, which had begun in 1900 but proceeded slowly because of lack of electrical lines, progressed rapidly in the 1920s and 30s as electricity became more available. Powering lights by electricity rather than oil meant fewer duties for keepers, leading to a reduction in the number of lighthouse employees and ancillary buildings and eventually to automation. (NPS 2001)

U.S. Coast Guard (1939–present)—In 1939 the U.S. Lighthouse Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. Under the Coast Guard, especially with the Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Program (LAMP) beginning in the mid-1960s, automation proceeded apace. Lightships began to be replaced by structures similar to oil drilling platforms in the 1960s and by large navigational buoys (LNBs) in the 1970s. The last lightship (Nantucket I) was decommissioned in 1985, and by 1990 all lighthouses had been automated except Boston Light. (Noble 1997:38–40, 146–47; NPS 2001)

Prepared by Nancy S. Seasholes, 2009


Last updated: February 26, 2015

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