U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
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: a stand of trees or two mountain peaks that aligned. 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. Congress created a special Lighthouse Board in 1852 to manage this important service. The Board became the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910. In 1939, the Bureau and its employees in the United States Lighthouse Service were amalgamated with other agencies with maritime responsibilities to become the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has retained authority over the nation's aids to navigation since then. Tied uniquely to the maritime history of the United States, lighthouses not only served a functional role but also became part and parcel of American culture. George R. Putnam, the first head of the Bureau of Lighthouses, noted that "the lighthouse and lightship appeal to the interest and better instinct of man because they are symbolic of never-ceasing watchfulness, of steadfast endurance in every exposure, of widespread helpfulness. The building and the keeping of the lights is a picturesque and humanitarian work of the nation."
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. The issue of lighthouse preservation is critical. This National Register Bulletin was prepared to assist in the process of determining where and what aids to navigation survive and to assess their significance and integrity.
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