Maritime Heritage Month
The National Register of Historic Places brings you a feature
on the significance of lighthouses, and other aids to navigation,
in American history, maritime history, architecture, and historic
preservation. Since the invention of sailing and maritime vessels
in ancient times, aids to navigation consistently played a role
in human history. Due to amazing technological advances in navigation,
imaging, and geographic positioning, the importance and domination
of lighthouses as aids to navigation has quickly diminished
over the past 100 years. Now these beautifully built lighthouses
and light stations are merely markers of a more precarious time
in maritime history – no longer functioning or active, we look
to them to study architecture, industry, commerce, travel, scientific
advancement, and the people and towns affected by what lighthouses
guided into harbor.
"The lighthouse is the most romantic symbol of the maritime
past. Marking dangerous headlands, shoals, bars, and reefs,
lighthouses have guided vessels safely on their voyages since
antiquity. Often placed in rugged, remote locales, in shifting
sand, on coral reefs, and on surf-washed rocks lighthouses posed
many engineering challenges in their construction. The technology
of the light itself also presented a challenge; the importance
of a constantly lit signal, visible for miles out to sea, attracted
the attention of many inventors.
"Lighthouses, daymarks, sound signals, and buoys all serve
as aids to navigation. The earliest aid to navigation was probably
a prominent natural landmark, but landmarks could be confused
with one another so distinctive man-made markers called beacons
were erected along the coastline to help warn off or guide mariners.
Beacons were useful only during daylight hours. Light signals
guided ships at night. Begun as bonfires on shore, they increased
in complexity and effectiveness to become towers built high
above the surf. The need for aids to navigation boomed as maritime
trade and commerce flourished. In the 17th, 18th, and early
19th centuries the number of lighthouses rapidly increased.
"During the 17th and 18th centuries, numerous aids to
navigation in North America included daybeacons, lanterns placed
atop poles, and signal guns fired to guide ships into harbor.
The first built lighthouse in the present United States was
erected in 1715-1716 with the construction of the Boston Light
on tiny Beacon (now Little Brewster) Island. First lit on September
14, 1716, the Boston Light's "feeble flame," noted
historian F. Ross Holland, "gradually grew brighter, and
in time illuminated all the shores of the United States."
Nine other Colonial lights were built in the 1740s through the
1760s. With the establishment of the United States of America,
as its ninth act after adopting the Constitution and the Bill
of Rights, Congress assumed federal responsibility for the construction
and operation of aids to navigation. This act, passed on August
7, 1789, inaugurated more than 200 years of federal commitment
to safe navigation. Since the Lighthouse Act of 1789, more than
1,000 lighthouses have been built along with hundreds of fog
signals and nearly 200 lightships.
"Lighthouses and sound signals are now passing from the
American scene. Technological changes in the 20th century ultimately
doomed manned lighthouses; the last keeper left his station
in 1989, the Bicentennial year of America's lighthouses. Some
lighthouses now stand dark, while others now automated still
function. Many lights are in non-federal hands. The Coast Guard
has control over some 500 active lights. Other federal agencies
are responsible for approximately 150 inactive light stations.
The ravages of time and weather strongly affect aids to navigation
which were intentionally built in exposed locations. The harsh
marine environment washes away foundations, dissolves mortar,
crumbles stone and brick, and corrodes metal. Lighthouses are
a finite resource in danger of being lost."
Bulletin 34: Aids to Navigation