Early Lights

With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, a new federal government was formed.  There were twelve lighthouses in existence at that time that had been built by the colonies that were now united as the new United States.  The first of these that had been built in what would become the 13 colonies was constructed in Boston Harbor in the year 1716. There may have been earlier lighthouses constructed by the Spanish in what is now Florida, but the one built in Boston is generally given credit as the “first in the United States.’

In August of 1789, the ninth piece of legislation passed by the fledgling federal government of the United States recognized the importance of the new nation’s aids to navigation by transferring the ownership and care of all existing lighthouses from the former colonies, now states, to the Department of the Treasury. This act also provided for the completion of the lighthouse at Portland Head, which had been begun by the Massachusetts colony in the area that would later become the state of Maine. The language of that law is as follows: That all expenses which shall accrue from and after the 15th day Of August, 1789, in the necessary support, maintenance, and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers, placed or sunk Before the passage of this Act . . . Shall be defrayed out of the Treasury of the United States. All subsequent lighthouses were built, operated and maintained by the federal government.

These lighthouses that stood then still did not become federal property until the individual new “states” got around to passing their own acts to affect the transfers. This took until 1795 in some cases. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not even ratified the new federal Constitution, making them part of the nation, until after the Act of 1789 was passed by the fledgling Congress.

In addition to the one in Boston Harbor, the other eleven lighthouses were found at:   Nantucket Island MA (Great Point);  Nantucket Island MA (Brant Point); Naragansett Bay RI;   New London CT;  Sandy Hook NJ;  Cape Henlopen DE;  Charleston SC (Morris Island);   Portsmouth NH;   Cape Ann MA (Thacher Island);  Plum Island MA; and Plymouth MA.  Lighthouses can still be found at each of these locations except Cape Henlopen, Delaware, but only two of them, the one in Boston Harbor and the one at Sandy Hook, are the structures that stood in 1789. The photo below is of the lighthouse at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the oldest “original” lighthouse in the U.S.

BOSTON HARBOR MASSACHUSETTS – The original lighthouse here, built in 1716, was the first in what would become the thirteen colonies and later the United States. Many sources will state that the lighthouse here now is the oldest in the country, but that is incorrect. A seventy-foot stone tower was built on Lantern Island (later renamed Little Brewster) and was at first lit by candles. This original lighthouse was severely damaged by fire in 1751, and the repaired tower was almost totally destroyed by the occupying British army in the early years of the American Revolution. At the close of the war, in 1783, a new 75-foot rubble-stone lighthouse, the one that still stands, was constructed by the Colony of Massachusetts, thus making it one of the two pre-1789 towers that remain today. In 1809, reinforcing iron hoops were placed around the tower. The first lighthouse fog signal, in this case a cannon, was used here as early as 1719. A fog bell replaced the cannon in 1851. The tower was raised to its present 89-foot height in 1859, the year a Second Order rotating Fresnel lens was installed. A brick lining was also installed in 1859, and the keeper’s house that remains today was built. This light remains the property of the Coast Guard, and in honor of its being the site of America’s first lighthouse, it is the only U.S. lighthouse still staffed by Coast Guard personnel.

BRANT POINT – NANTUCKET ISLAND MASSACHUSETTS – The first lighthouse on this part of the island was built in 1746. It was the second lighthouse built in New England following the one in Boston harbor. Perhaps no other lighthouse site in the country has had more individual towers over the course of its history. At least nine different lighthouses have been built here since the original, at least five of them before 1790. No detailed description survives of the wooden 1746 lighthouse, which burned down in 1757, likely the result of an oil fire which destroyed many early wooden structures. The second lighthouse, also of wood construction, was destroyed in a storm in 1774. The rebuilt lighthouse burned again in 1783; built in 1786, the next was destroyed in a storm two years later. The next lighthouse, built in 1788, was the one transferred to the new federal government under the auspices of the Act of 1789, although the transfer did not actually occur until 1795. Another new tower was built in 1825. This one was replaced yet again in 1856, when a 47-foot brick tower was built, along with a brick keeper’s residence. This bigger, stronger tower was needed to support the heavier lantern and Fresnel lens that was installed at that time. A portion of the 1856 tower, without the lens and lantern, still stands. This lighthouse served until 1900, when shifts in the shipping channel made it less useful. The present lighthouse, built in 1901, stands some 600 feet to the east of the many earlier structures, and is owned and operated by the Coast Guard.

BEAVERTAIL – NARRAGANSETT BAY RHODE ISLAND – Beavertail Lighthouse, located on Narragansett Bay on the southernmost point of Jamestown, was known as the Newport Light when it was built in 1749. It was the third light tower built in North America. That wooden tower, designed by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison, was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1753. A new tower, made of rubble stone and brick, was built that year, and lit in 1754. That tower was damaged by a fire set in 1779 by retreating .British soldiers. It was repaired at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and served until the third and present tower was built in 1856. This most recent tower is made of granite block and is square on the exterior, and round on the interior. A third order Fresnel lens was installed in the new tower; it was replaced by a fourth order lens in 1907. The keeper’s house was built in 1856, while the assistant keeper’s house, the site of the current museum, was built in 1898. Gas-powered lights were tested at Beavertail in 1817 by Newport inventor David Melville. Daboll trumpet horns were trialed at Beavertail during the 1850s, and this may have been the first light station to utilize a steam-powered fog signal. Beginning in 1860, Light-House Board member and noted scientist Joseph Henry (1797-1878) conducted a series of scientific studies on sound transmission. These were important in guiding the development and understanding the limitations of sound signaling devices at light stations across the country. The light and foghorn here are still in service. Located within Beavertail State Park, the tower and museum are maintained by the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association.

NEW LONDON CONNECTICUT – A 64-foot stone tower with a wooden lantern was erected at the west side of the harbor entrance in 1761, paid for with money raised by selling lottery tickets. This was the structure that was taken over by the federal government. By 1799 it was in poor condition, and a new 89-foot stone lighthouse with a cast-iron lantern was built in 1801. Built by Abisha Woodward of New London, the project included an oil house and a cistern building at a total cost of $15,547. This handsome octagonal brownstone tower still stands and is the oldest existing lighthouse in Connecticut. When the new station opened in 1801, its flashing light was produced by oil lamps and an eclipser, making it one of the earliest to display a light that appeared to flash. This apparatus was replaced in 1834 by eleven lamps with 14-inch reflectors. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, which remains in the lighthouse today, was installed in 1857. The present keeper’s residence was built in 1863 and enlarged in 1900. This lighthouse was one of the first to be automated, when an acetylene system was installed in 1912. The tower remains the property of the Coast Guard, but the grounds and the keeper’s residence had been in private ownership since 1928 and were not accessible. Ownership is now with the New London Maritime Society, so it may well be accessible in the future.

SANDY HOOK NEW JERSEY – This is the second of the two surviving lighthouses that stood in 1789 when the new federal government assumed responsibility for navigational aids. The 103-foot octagonal tower, first lit by 48 “oil blazes” on June 11, 1764, is the oldest operational lighthouse in the United States. Built before the Declaration of Independence, it is the only truly colonial lighthouse remaining. First named the New York Lighthouse at Sandy Hook, construction was funded by lotteries approved by the New York colony. Sabotaged by colonial forces during the Revolutionary War, British troops soon repaired it and restored it to service. By 1842, 21 oil lamps with reflectors provided the light. A fixed, third-order Louis Sautter Fresnel lens was installed in 1857 and remains in use. In 1863, a red brick lining was installed to reinforce the rubblestone walls, and a spiral iron staircase replaced an earlier one. A new keeper’s house was constructed in 1883, when the older 1840 dwelling was razed. In 1896, Sandy Hook became one of the earliest lighthouses to be electrified, following experiments with this power source by the Light-House Board at the Statue of Liberty, in New York harbor, which then also served as a navigation aide. After a short time, kerosene lamps were put back into use, and served until the lighthouse was once again electrified in the 1920s. The National Park Service assumed jurisdiction for this light station in 1996, and it is part of Gateway National Recreation Area. The lens and light are still owned and operated by the Coast Guard.

CHARLESTON SOUTH CAROLINA (Morris Island) – The first lighthouse here, a 42-foot tower, was built in 1767, the first lighthouse in the south. Not only is this original Morris Island lighthouse long-gone, but so is Morris Island itself, a victim of the relentless erosion power of ocean waves. A second 102-foot stone tower replaced this first one in 1838, and displayed a revolving light The tower was repaired and a first-order Fresnel lens installed in 1857-58. The American Civil War had a profound impact on lighthouses in the states that became the Confederacy, and Morris Island did not escape the turmoil of war. Lamps, lenses and often the lighthouse towers themselves were taken, hidden, damaged, or destroyed by both Union and Confederate forces to prevent their service to the other side. The Light-House Board report for 1862 indicated that the lantern and lens of the Morris Island light had been destroyed. It appears that the lighthouse itself was also largely destroyed during the course of the war. The present tower, completed in 1876, was furnished with another first-order lens and served until 1962. Erosion had slowly washed away most of the island, so the light was automated in 1938, and all other structures were removed. Eventually the rest of the island disappeared too, so that the tower, all that remains, stands alone some 1600 feet offshore surrounded by nothing but ocean. Owned by the State of South Carolina, it is leased to Save The Light Inc. A major effort is underway to save this old tower. The lighthouse that stands today to guide shipping into the busy Charleston harbor was built in 1962, to replace the deactivated Morris Island light. Until the 2009 construction of the new Kauhola Point light in Hawaii, it was the newest one in the nation. It is north of the city on Sullivan’s Island and is unusual in that it is triangular in shape and is covered with an aluminum/steel alloy. Owned and operated by the Coast Guard, it is the only lighthouse in the nation with an elevator.

CAPE HENLOPEN DELAWARE – Marking the entrance into Delaware Bay, Philadelphia merchants early on petitioned for a navigational aide here. Completed sometime between 1765-1767, the light shone from a stone octagonal tower set on a high sand hill. An 1851 report listed the light as 84 feet from base to the top of the lantern. The walls were six feet thick at the base. On April 1, 1777, the interior of the lighthouse, including the wooden staircase, was gutted by fire. The cause of the fire is not clear. One story says that British soldiers from the man-o-war Roebuck landed in search of cattle. When the keeper refused to sell any, the British returned in force and burned the lighthouse. However the fire may have started, it was not until 1783-1784 that the lighthouse was repaired and relit. Unlike many Atlantic shore lighthouses, for many years the ocean deposited sand around the Cape Henlopen light rather than eroding it away. By 1825, the distance of the lighthouse to the tip of the cape grew from 3000 feet to one mile. A first-order Fresnel lens was installed in December 1855. Gradually the lands to the east began to wash away. Despite efforts to hold back the sea, the lighthouse was finally abandoned on September 30, 1924. The lens was dismantled and stored at the Edgemoor Lighthouse Depot, where it remained until destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1925. Replaced by a metal tower, the lighthouse collapsed into the sea on April 13, 1926. Although a circa 1890 lighthouse known as the Delaware Breakwater Light stands not far offshore, it is not on Cape Henlopen, and thus this site is the only one of the original twelve colonial sites that no longer has any “lighthouse” still standing.

PLYMOUTH MASSACHUSETTS – Also referred to as Gurnet Light, the original lighthouse here was built in 1768 by the Massachusetts colony. It was most unusual in that it was built as a wooden residence with a small tower room on each end of the roof. Thus it was the first “twin” light. As was often the fate of wooden lighthouses, this one burned down in 1801, and a new pair of 22-foot towers were built some distance apart in 1803. These were in turn replaced by a pair of towers connected by a covered walkway in 1843. Fresnel lenses were first installed here in 1871. These twins would serve until 1924, when the northeast one was torn down, thus ending 156 years of a double light here. The remaining 39-foot shingled tower is the oldest freestanding lighthouse built entirely of wood. This remaining tower was moved some 140 feet in 1998 due to shoreline erosion. Although owned by the Coast Guard, this light is leased to a non-profit called “Project Gurnet and Bug Light.”

PORTSMOUTH NEW HAMPSHIRE – One of two coastal lights in New Hampshire, a lighthouse here was first constructed in 1771. A new 80-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse was constructed in 1804, 100 yards east of the 1771 tower on a spot called Pollock Rock. This tower was later reduced in height. The present forty-eight foot cast-iron tower, designed by Light-House Board District Engineer James Duane, dates from 1878. Electrified in 1925 and automated in 1960, a fourth order Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens remains in use in the tower. It displays a green light. The brick oil-house was built in 1903. Long abandoned, it was nicely restored in 2004. Owned by the Coast Guard, the light is cared for by the American Lighthouse Foundation and its local chapter, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse under a license agreement.

CAPE ANN MASSACHUSETTS – Thacher’s Island On April 22, 1771, the Province of Massachusetts Bay Council authorized the erection of twin lighthouses on Thacher’s Island. The first keeper, a Captain Kirkwood, was appointed 1771, but was removed from his duties during the early days of the Revolution because of his loyalist leanings. The lights remained dark until relit in 1784. The original towers stood until they were removed in August 1860, prior to the construction of the present twin towers which went into service in October 1861. These were the last twin lights to remain operational until the Lighthouse Service discontinued the north tower in 1932. The south tower remained in operation and was automated in 1980, as was the fog signal there. The first order Fresnel lens is now at the Coast Guard Academy. The northern part of the island and the north tower are now owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the southern part and the south tower are owned by the town of Rockport. The Town Committee, in conjunction with the Thatcher Island Association oversees the entire island. The north tower remains open for visitation.

GREAT POINT NANTUCKET ISLAND MASSACHUSETTS – This is the second light that had been built on Nantucket Island prior to the 1789 legislation. The original wooden tower here was built in 1784 on the northeast corner of the island. The presence of two lighthouses here in the colonial era is testament to the importance of the whaling, fishing, and maritime trade of early Massachusetts. The first tower was destroyed by fire in 1816. In 1818, a new round stone tower was constructed to replace the original which had burned two years earlier. In 1838, it was described as being 60-feet high, with the light itself 70-feet above the sea, and utilized 14 lamps. This tower was lined with brick in 1857, the year a Third Order Sautter et Cie Fresnel lens was installed. It was automated in the 1950s. A fire in 1966 destroyed the then-abandoned keeper’s residence, leaving the tower the only remnant of this light station. A severe storm in March 1984 destroyed this tower. The present lighthouse here is a 1986 reproduction of the 1818 tower. Replaced by a modern optic, the Fresnel lens is on display at the Nantucket Lifesaving Museum. Still owned by the Coast Guard, this lighthouse is operated and maintained by the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge.

PLUM ISLAND MASSACHUSETTS – Two small wooden lighthouses were built on Plum Island, in Newburyport Harbor, near Cape Ann, in 1788. These were the last to be built prior to the adoption of the new Constitution by the former colonies and the subsequent federal legislation of 1789. These were built on movable foundations, not a bad idea on the shifting sands of the Cape. Nonetheless, both towers were destroyed by a tornado in 1808. They were quickly rebuilt. One of the two was destroyed by fire in 1856. It was determined not to rebuild the second tower and the one that remained received a fourth order Fresnel lens. Shifting sands caused the lighthouse to be relocated several times. A new lighthouse, the 35-foot tall present one, was built in 1898. The Fresnel lens from the earlier structure was moved to it and today displays a green light.. Today it is owned by the city of Newburyport, and operated by the Friends of Plum Island Light.

These then were the twelve “first” lighthouses of our nation. As noted at the beginning of the article, the lighthouse at Portland Head, Maine, (in what was then still Massachusetts) was completed in 1791 by the new federal service that would eventually come to be called the Lighthouse Establishment. Legislation was soon approved for yet another lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia, followed by Seguin Island, Massachusetts (now Maine) and at Montauk Point on New York’s Long Island. The new United States of America was off and running in the lighthouse business.