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Illuminating America's Shores

By: Michael Taube
June 6, 2016

“The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.” [Benjamin Franklin, letter to his wife, Deborah Read Franklin, July 17, 1757]

he lighthouse is, in many ways, a romantic reminder of the beauty of the high seas. People have long been mesmerized by the immense power and responsibility of this solitary building in directing watery traffic. In turn, ship captains and crews placed their trust in the keeper’s hand to shine a beacon of light to keep the mighty vessels safe.

Its influence goes much further, however. The American lighthouse, in particular, serves as an important window into the history of this great nation.

Eric Jay Dolin’s new book, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, succinctly examines the rarely discussed, but “wondrously wide ranging,” stories of U.S. maritime lore. The respected author notes that “the dramatic history of America’s lighthouses is about people.” A unique cast of characters, including the “Founding Fathers, skillful engineers, imperiled maritimers, and intrepid soldiers, as well as saboteurs, penny-pinching bureaucrats, ruthless egg collectors, and inspiring leaders,” make important appearances. Yet above all, “the most important actors are the male and female keepers, who - often with the invaluable assistance of their families - faithfully kept the lights shining and the fog signals blaring.”

Lighthouses have existed for close to two thousand years. The first widely accepted example was the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World “which guarded the entrance to the Greek City.” (It was almost completely destroyed in the 14th century, although remnants were discovered in 1994 in Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour.) An ancient Roman lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules, still stands in Spain. There are, and were, many fine English examples, including the Eddystone Lighthouse - which has been rebuilt on four occasions.

Yet, the introduction of lighthouses in colonial America was a remarkably slow process.

In 1701, Samuel Clough posed this question in The New England Almanack’s second edition: would a lighthouse at Point Allerton in the Boston Harbour “not be of great benefit to maritimers coming on these coasts?” After some local merchants petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1713, a committee was appointed to explore this issue. They ultimately chose Little Brewster, which was “about one mile north of Point Allerton, on the other side of the main shipping channel.” The act to build a lighthouse was passed in July 23, 1715, which led to the opening of the Boston Lighthouse on September 14, 1716.

Dolin describes the Boston Lighthouse’s difficult early years in great detail. The first keeper, George Worthylake, received “a yearly salary of fifty pounds” and lived rent-free “with his family and slaves.” He perished in an unfortunate canoeing accident in 1718 when heading back to the lighthouse, which was the subject of a poem written by a young Benjamin Franklin. Two temporary successors, Robert Saunders and a “man named Bradduck,” both drowned - while the next keeper, Captain John Hayes, requested a “great gun,” and received a cannon, to “fire periodically to warn ships away from Little Brewster and its adjacent shoals during times of reduced visibility.”

Even with those early mishaps, Boston realized that more lighthouses were in order. Nantucket became the next destination to provide aid for its “impressive whaling fleet,” and its first lighthouse “was lit by - what else? - whale oil.” Other states, including Rhode Island (Beavertail Lighthouse), Connecticut (New London Harbor Lighthouse), and South Carolina (Morris Island Lighthouse), followed suit.

Over time, early colonial lighthouses served other purposes. Lighthouses at Gurnet Point and Thacher Island, for instance, “had significant strategic value” in the War of Independence, and “the safety of the Boston Lighthouse remained of paramount importance to the Redcoats.” George Washington was forced to burn down Boston’s great beacon, which had fallen into British hands, to gain a military advantage - and fought a series of battles “to disable if not destroy” New York’s Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Fortunately, most were used “as lookouts to alert the countryside to the arrival and movement of British ships,” and little else.

Whereas lighthouses “contributed to the colonies’ economic vitality,” noted Dolin, the end of the Revolution led to a new chapter for the brilliant beacons. While Congress opted to “levy tonnage duties” on ships for the financial benefit of the federal government, it “wisely decided that the federal government should also manage the lighthouses themselves.” This led to the Lighthouse Act of 1789, which was “only the ninth law passed by Congress” and became, regrettably, “America’s first public works program.” (Well, it had to start somewhere.)

Hence, more lighthouses were constructed “from the very north to the very south of the fledgling nation.” An additional thirty-four were in place by the early stages of the War of 1812. Many were built in New England, which “reflected the region’s continued dominance in maritime commerce, as well as the power of its politicians and civic leaders.” The illumination process, which used to includes candles and makeshift lamps, shifted to spider lamps, followed by Argand lamps and, in due course, Winslow Lewis’s “magnifying and reflecting lantern.”

Alas, the Civil War made lighthouses “targets” and “strategic assets that would figure among its many casualties.” Abraham Lincoln’s blockade from South Carolina to Texas led the South to start “extinguishing its lighthouses” - meaning that Union ships “would find it more difficult to navigate and would be placed in greater jeopardy of wrecking.” Over the course of this bloody war that divided an entire nation, “virtually all of the lighthouses damaged...were in Confederate states.”

When it ended, the brilliant beacons evolved yet again. New illumination processes, including kerosene, carbon lamps and electricity, created strong amounts of light. While it didn’t always work perfectly - the Statue of Liberty’s “transitory days as a lighthouse” were unsuccessful - there was “progress in lighthouse design and construction.” Cost-effective cast-iron plates were used, as well as steel. Meanwhile, screwpile lighthouses fell out of favor in some states, due to weather conditions and the like, and were occasionally replaced by caisson-style lighthouses.

The book also contains some intriguing chapters about the lighthouse keepers. Readers will learn that a “keeper’s life was hardly one of relative leisure.” The men and women who filled this role had to maintain “a good light and fog signal” and “act as welcoming ambassadors of the lighthouse establishment.” There were “extremely detailed instructions” to follow, and strict duties that had to be fulfilled at specific times of the day. Many people wanted to see these impressive structures for themselves, but “visiting hours often had to be restricted to ensure that keepers had enough time to do their jobs.” As well, there are enlightening stories about the lighthouse heroes, who “rendered assistance to people in distress on the water.”

“For three centuries,” Dolin writes, “lighthouses have illuminated America’s shores...They truly are national treasures worthy of awe and admiration.” Even in this great age of technological advances, let’s hope that Americans always shine a light on this vitally important piece of the nation’s history.