The information that follows was compiled from a number of book and internet sources with the intent to provide general background information to other volunteer "keepers" of these important parts of our nation's maritime history. When we accepted our first volunteer assignment at the lighthouse on Seguin Island, we knew little of the history of lighthouse administation and operation. Fortunately there are many folks, past and present, who have written books and created websites chock full of wonderful information. As in any field, the more you learn, the more you learn you haven't learned yet. Such it is with lighthouses. So this compilation has been part of our learning process. It is accurate to the best of the my knowledge but represents only the tip of the iceberg to be sure. I stand ready to be corrected and welcome corrections or additions.
As a very beginning, there are three lighthouse terms that must be clearly defined. Sometimes these are incorrectly used as if they were interchangeable. The first is the LIGHT. This refers to the source of the light, and as explained below was/is most likely an oil lamp or electric light bulb. The second term is LENS. The lens surrounds the light. Since the 1850s, all lighthouses have had various sizes of reflective "Fresnel" lenses, made up of many prisms set into a frame. Today many of these have been replaced by plastic/lexan lenses that do basically the same job. They magnify and redirect the light from the electric bulb and send out a shaft of light to great distance. The third term is LANTERN. We think of a Coleman-style camping lantern when we hear this word, but in lighthouse parlance, the lantern is the glass-paneled enclosure that surrounds the lens and protects it from weather.
LIGHT SOURCES - The earliest lights as aids to navigation were simply fires kept burning at locations where they could be viewed from a great distance. By the time lighthouses were built in the U.S., oil lamps and candles were the usual light source. Greater brightness was achieved by increasing the number of lamps, and by putting some kind of reflective devices behind the burning wicks. A variety of lard and vegetable based oils were used. SPERM WHALE OIL became a major lighting fuel in all of the world in the early 1800s, and it was of course used in lighthouses as well. By mid-century, whale oils had become scarcer and more expensive, and lighthouses resumed using primarily LARD OIL. By 1877, petroleum based "mineral oil", or KEROSENE as it was also known, became the fuel of choice because it was plentiful and relatively cheap. Kerosene was burned in all lighthouses by the 1880s and continued to be the main fuel until ELECTRICITY reached these often remote sites. That didn't occur until the 1950s at some island and offshore lights. The Statue of Liberty, which originally served as a lighthouse, was the first one in the U.S. to utilize electricity.
Around 1910, compressed ACETYLENE GAS came into use as a lamp fuel. This was most often used on buoys and unmanned towers, which then only had to be visited periodically to refill the gas tanks. These lamps had a pilot light that was always on and a "sun-valve" turned the gas on and off as temperature fell at dusk and rose at sunrise.
AMI ARGAND (1750 - 1803), a Swiss scientist, developed the first major advance in lighting in 1792. It was a nearly smokeless lamp with a glass chimney and a reservoir for oil. This lamp did not direct the light; it was left to others to come up with various styles of reflectors. A parabolic-shaped reflector, coated with silver, proved to be the most efficient. Numerous Argand lamps, each with its own reflector, were mounted in large iron frames and installed in lighthouses. Some had mechanisms to revolve the frame assembly.
WINSLOW LEWIS (1770 - 1850) patented a lamp that was basically a copy of the Argand lamp, except that it incorporated a parabolic reflector. This was in 1808. It was described as a "reflecting and magnifying lantern." Lewis's patent was purchased by the government for $20,000.00 Apparently Lewis's lamps did consume much less oil than those used previously. Lewis was also given a seven-year contract for "fitting up and keeping in repair, any or all of the light-houses in the United States or territories thereof." His contract was renewed in 1816, and apparently Lewis was the main builder and repairer of US lighthouses until his death in 1850, as well as the supplier of lamps, reflectors and oil.
In addition to a reflector behind the lamp wicks, Lewis's lamps also used a magnifying lens in front, something he had apparently copied from early English lighthouses. The British lighthouse service had concluded the lens was not effective and discontinued their use, yet our American lighthouses continued to use this reflector/lens system for many years.
Although the lamps Lewis provided were efficient for their times, they did not really produce much useable light. Tests showed that even with a good quality reflector only about 17% of the light produced actually was sent out as visible light to mariners. Each lighthouse needed many of the lamps. An early list of navigational lights, titled "Schedule of the Light Houses and Beacons in the United States", states that in 1833 there were a total of 160 light stations exhibiting a total of 1,932 lamps, or an average of about 12 lamps per lighthouse. Thus even though each lamp was stingy with oil, the total number needed resulted in large oil consumption, as well as the associated cost and work of obtaining, transporting, and storing the oil, and labor of tending the many lamps.
By the early 1900s, the IOV (incandescent oil vapor) lamp had supplanted the lamps of Lewis, Funck and Meade. These were similar to today's camping lanterns. The kerosene fuel, under pressure, was vaporized onto a cloth "mantle" and the burning produced a much brighter light than earlier lamps. The IOV remained state-of-the-art until electric bulbs replaced oil lamps. Acetylene gas also came into use in the early 1900s. Tanks of this gas allowed lights to be “unmanned”, as they only required refilling once a week or so. Acetylene was most often used on offshore buoys and on piers, but some traditional light houses were also converted.
A most interesting book on French lighthouses [ De Phare En Phare, by Jean Guichard, 2007 -translation "From Lighthouse To Lighthouse" ] states that at least one of the keepers of a light was required to be well experienced in the "preparation and clarification" of oils. There were three types of oil that were apparently mixed together to give the optimal burning qualities: olive oil, sperm whale oil, and "rabbet" (?) oil . I do not know the date of this requirement. Although no reference has been found as to American lighthouse keepers mixing oils, there is probably no reason to believe that it was not a common practice in lighthouses worldwide.
LIGHTHOUSE JURISDICTION - The oversight of U.S. lighthouses was originally assigned to the Treasury Department, and until 1820 they fell under the jurisdiction of several different Treasury offices. In 1820, an official with the auspicious title of "Fifth Auditor of the Treasury", a man named STEPHEN PLEASONTON, became the head of the what came to be called the "LIGHTHOUSE ESTABLISHMENT." There were some 70 lighthouses in the United States at this time. He had little or no technical nor engineering experience, but Pleasonton would reign supreme over American lighthouses for three decades. Giving himself the unofficial title of "general superintendent of lighthouses", Pleasonton was apparently a very autocratic and thrifty bureaucrat. He contracted out the construction and repair of lighthouses, plus the purchase and installation of lamps and oil to light them. New Englander Winslow Lewis held these contracts for many years during Pleasonton's rule. By the 1830s, American ship captains began to tout the superior brightness of lighthouses in Europe, but Pleasonton resisted using the newer, brighter, more efficient Fresnel lenses claiming their purchase was too expensive. The beauty of the Fresnel lens was two-fold: it needed only a single lamp as a light source; and it converted over 80% of that light to a useable beam to guide mariners. Yet they were expensive, even in that day. There are unproven allegations that Pleasonton was somehow related to Winslow Lewis, at least in business dealings if not by family, who provided lamps and fuel to our lighthouses, and that this relationship had something to do with the hesitancy to obtain the new Fresnel lenses.
In 1838, Congress mandated that the new touted French Fresnel lenses be tried. Two lenses, one a fixed type and the other a revolving/flashing type, were imported and installed at the twin Navesink lighthouses in New Jersey, near the shipping entrance to New York harbor. The installation was completed in 1841. [The fixed lens from Navesink, manufactured by the firm of Louis Sautter, was subsequently moved to the Cape Disappointment, Washington, lighthouse, and later still to the North Head lighthouse, also at Cape Disappointment. It is now on display at the Lewis and Clark museum at Cape Disappointment State Park.] They did in fact prove to be far superior to previous light mechanisms, and were much less expensive and time consuming to operate as only one lamp per lighthouse was needed. In spite of these tests, Stephen Pleasonton continued in charge of U.S. lighthouses, and continued to resist the introduction of Fresnel lenses until he was ultimately removed from his position in 1852. A report by the Navy after an 1845 study of European lighthouses recommended many changes in the American lighthouse system. Then, in 1851, a Congressionally mandated panel made a total review of lighthouse operation and administration. The report compiled by this panel was eventually adopted by Congress the following year. Legislation soon decreed the "placement of Fresnel lenses in lighthouses as rapidly as the Secretary of the Treasury thought best," and also specifically required that a Fresnel lens be installed at the Brandywine Shoal lighthouse (New Jersey), making it the third U.S. lighthouse to have such a lens (Sankaty Head Light in Massachusetts had been the second one.) This act also created the Light-House Board, which would oversee U.S. lighthouses until 1910.
The United States LIGHT-HOUSE BOARD, under the Treasury Department, became the governing body that was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all lighthouses in the United States in 1852. The term "U.S. Lighthouse Establishment" continued to be used when referring to the agency itself, and the term "U.S. Lighthouse Service" crept into use. There were 331 lighthouses, plus several light-ships (anchored at off shore locations too perilous for lighthouse construction) in service when this Board was created following complaints by the shipping industry of the previous administration of lighthouses. The single administrator, Stephen Pleasonton, was replaced by a Board comprised of nine members: two Army Engineer officers, two Army Topographical Engineer officers, two Navy officers, two civilian scientists, and the Secretary of the Treasury. The Board moved quickly in applying new technology, particularly in purchasing and installing new Fresnel lenses and constructing lighthouses in offshore locations. By the time of the Civil War, almost all lighthouses had Fresnel lenses. The nation was divided into twelve "LIGHTHOUSE DISTRICTS", each with an Army engineer and a Naval officer inspector. More districts were created as the number of lighthouses, particularly on the west coast, increased during the latter half of the 19th century. The Board also oversaw the construction of the first lighthouses on the west coast, the first of which was built in 1853 on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. [The word Light-House was hyphenated in official document reference to this Board, reflecting the grammatical useage of the day.]
BUREAU OF LIGHTHOUSES - A Congressional act of 14 February 1903, created a Department of Commerce and Labor, and provided for the transfer of the Lighthouse Establishment, and its governing Light-House Board to this new agency. In 1910, the military-oriented Light-House Board was dissolved and the civilian "Bureau of Lighthouses", still within the Commerce and Labor Department, was created. (Commerce and Labor would divide into two separate cabinet-level departments in 1913; The Bureau of Lighthouses would remain within the Commerce Department.) The unofficial "U.S. Lighthouse Service" name was more commonly used, and the old "Establishment" term fell into disuse. This agency governed the lights until 1939, when it was merged into the U.S. Coast Guard, the Treasury Dept. agency that remains responsible for navigation aids to this day. The Coast Guard had been formed in 1915 by the merger of the former "Revenue Cutter Service" and the "Lifesaving Service." Thus lighthouse administration and operation returned to the federal department in which it had started in 1789.
How many lighthouses are/were there in the United States? Ultimately, some 1500 lighthouses were built in the United States, many of these replacements for earlier structures at the same location. At the peak there were approximately 850 working lighthouse in service in the United States. Well that's what one source says. Another states unequivocably that in 1910, when the Bureau of Lighthouses was created, there were 1,462 lighthouses and 51 lightships, and by 1925, there were 1,951 lighthouses and 46 lightships. Suffice it to say that, other than the armed forces, the Bureau of Lighthouses had perhaps the largest staff of any agency of the federal government.
For a continuation, go to "Lighthouse Primer - Part 2."