General Lighthouse Information

  • Lighthouse: a structure that, with the optic, has some sort of signal to help and guide ships at sea.
  • Light: short term for lighthouse, also used for a light-emitting device.
  • Lamp: a device for producing light.
  • Illuminant: refers to a lamp or similiar device. Also refers to the substance that is used by the lamp such as whale oil, kerosene or electricity.
  • Optic: any one of the lenses, prisms or mirrors of an optical device.
  • Fresnel lens: together with its lamp and illuminant, an optic that vastly improved lighthouses' beams of lights.
  • Beacon: either an illuminated or unlighted aid to ships
  • Daybeacon: also a daymarker. Lighthouses have individual shapes and colorings so that daytime identification could help navigators pinpoint their location.

  • History
    A national Lighthouse Service was established under the Treasury Department on August 7, 1789 when the First United States Congress passed the first public works act. The first lighthouses were: Boston (MA 1716), Brant Point (MA, 1746), Beavertail (RI, 1749), New London Harbor (CT, 1760), Sandy Hook (NJ, 1764), Cape Henlopen (DE, 1765), Morris Island (SC, 1767), Plymouth (ME, 1769), Cape Ann (MA, 1771), Portsmouth Harbor (NH, 1771), Nantucket (MA, 1784), and Newburyport (MA, 1788).

    For the next thirty-one years the management of the Lighthouse Service was bounced around the new country's bureaucracy. In 1820 Congress returned the service to the Secretary of the Treasury, who was told to reestablish it under a new service head. Auditor Stephen Pleasonton was chosen, a miserly bookkeeper without any maritime experience. Although his management was questioned, beseiged with accusations of felonious conduct, and severly criticized in investigation reports, Pleasonton remained in office for 32 years.

    Early lighthouses were simple structures, based on a form known as the "fustrum of a cone." They were round or polygonal toweres with thick masonary walls, few windows and ornamentation. Of moderate height and utilitarian design, they were made by local craftspeople using local materials (wood, cut stone or rubble, brick or granite). There were few people in America with formal architectural or engineer training. The first college courses were at the U.S. Military Academy. From 1850 to 1880 West Point graduates provided most of the know-how in improved and varied lighthouse construction.

    In 1842 I.W.P. Lewis' report on the lighthouses in Massachusetts and Maine prompted Congress to assign the U.S. Army Corp of Topographical Engineers to take over the construction of lighthouses being built by the Lighthouse Service under Pleasonton. Research and development of lighthouse designs and construction vastly improved the lighthouses. The effort to build off-shore stations to mark shoals, reefs and ledges became reality with the introduction of new foundation-building techniques. Lighthouses began to develope destinctive styles, as well.

    Federal Revival Lighthouses (1853-1909) - Early colonial American lighthouses were modeled after european lights, to have structural strength, resistance to wind, and maximum height. During the Federal Revival period, lighthouse design borrowed the simplicity of the colonial period. The towers were circular, square or square trapezoidal, mostly short with few ornamentation. The keeper's dwellings usually had roofs with steeply pitched gables.

    Italianate Influence - This styling shows a masonry structure with low-pitched roofs with wide eaves supported by large brackets; tall vertical windows in the second story, often with arched hood mouldings; and doors that copy the windows.

    Victorian and Gothic Revivals (1867 - 1870) - These were lighthouses with two-story houses with either integrated or attached towers. Roofs were steep-pitched and gabled, exteriors were coursed brick or patterned wood shingles, extended porches, ornate corner brackets and turned spindlework. New Jersey's Hereford Inlet or Sea Girt Lighthouses are good examples of the Victorian Revival style.
    The Victorian-Gothic lighthouse was usually a 2 1/2 story structure with thick granite walls, slate sloping roofs with extended cornices. The tower seems to sit atop the house in the front and is octagonal. Block Island North of Rhode Island is an example.

    Second Empire Revival (1870 - 1874) - This is another design where the tower is integrated with the keeper's dwelling. These structures are marked by a steep, sloping mansard roof with dormer windows (which can be arched). Rose Island and Ponham Rocks are examples in Rhode Island.

    The Iron Period (1847 - 1909) - Cast-iron lighthouses first emerged when lighthouse design research resulted in the piling-supported, lattice-styled platform on Massachusett's Minots Ledge and the first screw-pile platform lighthouse on Delaware Bay's Brandywine Shoal. Architectural advances in the new cast-iron technology permited the construction of "coffee pot" and skeleton tower structures. Massachusett's Scituate lighthouse is a cast-iron tower, Spring Point Ledge in Maine is of the "coffee pot" style, Finns Point Rear Range in New Jersey is a skeleton tower, and Drum Point in Maryland is an example of this.

    Back to the Lighthouse list

    These images are available.
    Copyright © 2001-2005. Donald K. Uvick. The photographs on this and other pages are protected under copyright laws. They may not be reproduced, stored, manipulated, and/or digitized without the written permission of Donald K. Uvick.

    Designed by Della Hoke