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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aids to Navigation to the National Register of Historic Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service


Research Aids to navigation have been described in a variety of ways. Reports describing aids to navigation emphasize features of interest to different audiences. For example, navigators only needed to know the description and position of a lighthouse. Accountants needed physical descriptions of all property at a light station. Engineers needed technical data. In evaluating the significance of aids to navigation, all of these various sources may be useful.

The National Park Service, in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, lighthouse historians, preservationists, groups, and owners, is compiling a computerized inventory of all known, extant historic lighthouses and aids to navigation in the United States and its territories: Preliminary Inventory of Historic Aids to Navigation in the United States. The various characteristics, including location, type, foundation, materials, date of establishment, date of construction for the extant aid, type and number of structures at a station, height, focal plane, and type of optic and sound signal, for example, are listed in the inventory. The inventory is constantly revised and annually released as a photocopied publication.

Detailed files on most lighthouses are available at the historian's office of the U.S. Coast Guard at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. A national overview describing 418 of an estimated 1,200 lights is available in America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History by Francis Ross Holland. Several regional lighthouse histories and guides have been published. Lighthouses and other aids to navigation may also have been surveyed by the State Historic Preservation Office or locally. The State Historic Preservation Officer should be consulted to determine if the State has information which will assist in the evaluation of the aid to navigation. Information may also be available from local and regional maritime and lighthouse museums, the Office of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian and the aids to navigation branch of the U.S. Coast Guard at their Washington, D.C., headquarters, Coast Guard district offices, the Maritime Department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and national organizations such as the United States Lighthouse Society, the Lighthouse Preservation Society, and the Great Lakes Light Keepers Association, as well as other maritime historical and/or preservation organizations and professionals. One or more of these organizations or individuals may have already researched the career of a lighthouse or evaluated its significance. A listing, including address and telephone number, of these and other such groups and individuals is available from the Maritime Preservation Department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

The characteristics of a light or sound signal were published by the Federal government from 1838 to 1851 as a List of Lighthouses, Beacons, and Floating Lights of the United States. In 1852 the Lighthouse Board began publication of a Light List, which through the years has grown and improved. The current edition of the Light List is a five-volume work systematically and geographically arranged. Lights are listed by State and Coast Guard district and then sequentially along the coast or waterway. It lists:

  • the navigation chart number on which the light appears
  • the name of the light
  • its characteristics
  • its location (both latitude and longitude and a written description)
  • a description of the structure
  • its height above the ground and the height of its focal plane
  • the range of the signal
  • remarks on features such as color and reflectors, and
  • whether the aid is privately or publicly maintained.

The Light List is the primary historical reference to be consulted for obtaining the legal measurements of a light. The edition published in the year that the aid was first built and those published in subsequent years should be consulted along with the present edition to determine changes to the aid through its career. A complete set of the Light List is available at the Library of Congress. Various editions are available in regional libraries and repositories. The current edition is available for sale through the Government Printing Office.

The particulars of an aid to navigation's career will largely be found in the annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, Bureau, and Service, published from 1852 to 1939, and thenceforth in the annual reports of the Coast Guard. Detailed correspondence (including materials purchases; change orders; and references to political pressures involved in establishing, constructing, and operating lighthouses, including the highly detailed description forms forwarded to the Commissioner of Lighthouses) is compiled in Record Group 26, the records of the Coast Guard, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Record Group 26 also includes plans of some lights. Many original drawings and plans of operating aids are filed with Coast Guard district offices. For several years, descriptions of light and sound signal stations were required from keepers and filled out on printed forms. These forms are a good source of real property descriptions of light stations and should be consulted. Copies may be found in the National Archives, at some Coast Guard Regional and local offices, and occasionally in historical societies and museums. The United States Lighthouse Society library (see bibliography) holds a number of these forms as well.

Examining any extant drawings or plans of the aid to navigation, e.g., construction plans, drawings, and renderings of lenses and other equipment may be useful. Technical manuals on the operation of specific equipment, such as sound signals, lamps, or lenses, may also be consulted if the property retains such equipment. Historic photographs, lithographs, and sketches of an aid, including construction photographs, overall views, and interiors, may help to assess construction methods, workmanship, and specific features. Local newspapers may reference the construction of an aid to navigation. Research at local and State historical societies, museums, and libraries may also prove helpful. Diaries, letters, and reminiscences of keepers and their families are yet another invaluable resource but require time and effort to locate.

Field Work

Adequate field examination of an aid to navigation may involve more than one visit to acquire a thorough understanding of the aid's construction, equipment, and layout. When evaluating a property for the first time, a guided tour of the aid, emphasizing condition, restoration or maintenance work, and the aid's history should be conducted by knowledgeable individuals. Often, the most knowledgeable persons will be aids to navigation officers of the Coast Guard, as well as the crews who maintain active aids to navigation. Discussions of foundations, such as caissons or screw piles, should be reviewed with engineers. The field examination of an aid to navigation should be a thorough process which leaves an evaluator with complete understanding of how an aid to navigation was built, operated, modified, and maintained through time.


As the research and field work progress, files of notes, sketches, reproduced reference materials, and photographs should be compiled. If an aid to navigation has changed over time, chronologically arranged files of plans, photographs, and notes will help to understand the progression and nature of the alterations. Color slides of the aid to navigation may be useful in preparing the National Register nomination when returning to the site is not possible.

Black and white photographs of the aid to navigation should be taken. The quality of the photographs actually included in the nomination will benefit from selecting among a wide choice of photographs. Historic photographs and graphics may be located and copied for inclusion with the nomination. Historic plans may be copied in photographs to aid in documentation. If historic plans do not exist, modern plans may be prepared.

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