Lightships in Americaby
Courtesy of The Beam, New Jersey Lighthouse Society
Lightships in America span just 165 years: 1820 - 1985. They marked dangerous moving sandbars, shoals, low water, harbor entrance, river's mouth or a spot where a lighthouse could not be built. They could be moved around as a channel moved due to shifting sands. A total of 120 stations were established on America's coast lines and the Great Lakes. The number was always changing- some of these were for a short time while others were permanent. During 1909, a total 56 lightships were in use, the highest number ever placed in service. As times changed with technology, so did the number of lightship stations-until 1985 and the last lightship was replaced. From 1820 to 1952 (when the last lightship was built), 179 vessels were constructed with wooden hulls and sail powered ships, to iron hulls with diesel engines.
The first lightship was placed in service in the Chesapeake Bay in 1820 to mark the Willoughby Split in Virginia. The first lightships date back to Roman times, but were not located at a fixed site. England had the first true lightship in 1732-a ship was placed on the Thames River to mark the Nore Sands.
The first true American lightship was placed off the coast of New Jersey to mark the entrance to New York Bay. The wooden hull ship cost $17,700 to build and was 90 feet long. Placed off Sandy Hook, it was known as the Sandy Hook Lightship and was in service between 1823 and 1829. From 1829 thru 1839 there was no lightship to mark this entrance. Prior to the Sandy Hook Lightship's replacement by a Texas tower, eight lightships marked this spot. At the turn of the 20th Century, a deeper and wider channel into New York Harbor was being dredged. The name of the Sandy Hook Lightship was changed to the Ambrose Channel Lightship with the opening of the new channel in 1908.
The boats did not have a numbering system. When a boat was placed in service it was known by the location it marked-which was fine in the beginning. As older ships were replaced by newer ones, the older ones were a problem to keep track of. Some ships were transferred to other districts causing more problems, while others were used as relief boats. With the tight-fisted purse strings of the early Lighthouse Boards, repainting the hull of a lightship with the new name was a tough sell. Some districts just painted the word "RELIEF" in front of the older name.
Starting in 1867, the older lightships were given a letter to identify them. The letters went from "A" to "XX" for the older ships and as new ones were built they received the numbers 1 to 91. With both sets of letters and numbers, some letters and numbers are missing. There were also eight lightships with no numbers or letters to identify them. The Coast Guard renumbered all active lightships in April 1950 with a WAL and number identifier LV-83/WAL-508. They renumbered the vessels again in 1965 to LV-83/WLV-508.
Over the years sailors on lightships saw many changes-from poorly designed wooden ships, lighting apparatus, living conditions, and pay. The poor design of the ship's hull tossed the ship around in storms, some driving it miles from its assigned location once the anchor chain was broken. The lighting apparatus was lowered from the mast and had many wicks to produce a dull light. Each day the sailors would spend a couple of hours getting the ship ready for that night's duty-the rest of the time it was boredom. They would spend eight months out at sea and two months on leave, all for twenty cents a day.
There were over 150 collisions with lightships and other vessels. Five lightships have been sunk in these collisions. Storms have taken four boats to the bottom, three without a trace. Another was sunk by a German U-Boat during World War 1.
Today only 17 lightships are left, mostly as museums with a few in private hands. The oldest surviving lightship is the Lake St. Clair (LV-75) which dates back to 1902. She is privately owned and is being restored. Two more are in bad shape: LV76/WAL-504 Relief is located in Vancouver, BC and LV-79/WAL-506 Barnegat is located at a marina at Camden, NJ. The lightship LV/WAL 114 New Bedford and was kept in New Bedford, MA-until she sank in 2006 and was sold for scrap.
The information in this article was gathered from the National Park Service, Maritime Heritage Program "Lightships in the America" by James P. Delgado and the website "Lightship Sailors" at: http://www. uscglightshipsailors.org/. This fantastic website has many stories and information on all of America's lightships and stations.
Photos by Mike Boucher
Click on any of the images to see a larger version
- LV-83/WAL-508* "Relief" renamed "Swiftsure" located Northwest Seaport, Seattle, WA
- LV-87/WAL-512* "Ambrose" located at South Street Seaport Museum, Manhattan, NYC
- LV101/WAL-524* "Portsmouth", located at the Portsmouth Lightship Museum, VA
- LV-103/WAL-526* "Huron" located at Port Huron Marine Museum, Port Huron, MI
- LV-107/WAL-529* "Winter Quarter"located at the marina at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ
- LV112/WAL-534 "Nantucket" owned by National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island, NY
- LV-114/WAL-536 "Portland" renamed "New Bedford" capsized in 2006, sold for scap
- LV-115/WAL-537 "Frying Pan" privately owned, Manhattan, NYC
- LV-116/WAL-538* "Chesapeake" located at Baltimore Maritime Museum, Baltimore, MD
- LV-118/WAL-538* "Cornfield" renamed "Overfalls" located at Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation, Lewes, DE
- WLV-196 "Umatilla" privately owned, Ketchikan, AK
- WLV-604* "Columbia" located at Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria OR
- WLV-605* "Relief" U. S. Lighthouse Society located Jack London Square, Oakland CA
- WLV-612 "Nantucket I" Privately owned, New Bedford, MA
- WLV-613 "Nantucket II" Privately owned, Wareham, MA
What's in a Name
In reading Mike Bouchar's excellent article on Lightships in The Beam, I was struck by the many different ways we identify the remaining lightships. I hadn't seen LV 118 referred to as the Cornfield for many years. It has been known as the Overfalls for the past thirty-five of its seventy year life.
While the ship numbers are unique, the names we now use seem to have a history of their own. These names refer to one of the stations where the lightship served or to what the current owner would like the ship called.
There are three vessels called Nantucket floating around in New England. Each served for a while on Nantucket Shoal but among them they also served the Ambrose Channel, Blunts Reef, San Francisco, Portland and as relief ships.
While South Street Seaport's Ambrose did spend the first twenty-four years of its life at that location, it served on several other stations for the remaining thirty years of its service.
The Columbia served all twenty-eight years of its service on the station of that name while the Huron spent the last thirty-four of its forty-nine year history on its named station. The Frying Pan also spent all but its last year covering the location for which it is known.
Sitting in Alaska is WLV 196 which was known as Pollock Rip, Nantucket and Umatilla Reef before it became the current Marine Bio Researcher.
Both LV 107 and LV 116 served along the mid-Atlantic Coast between the Chesapeake and Delaware Stations. After retirement LV 116 became the Chesapeake, now at the Baltimore Maritime Museum, and LV 107 was saved from the scrap yard to become an office suite at Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey.
The USLHS Relief served nine years at the Overfalls Station on the east coast and then nine years on the west coast at Blunts Reef before six years as a relief vessel. If this vessel were renamed San Francisco this would be consistent with the Swiftsure in Washington and the Overfalls in Delaware, named by their owners to reflect a former local lightship station.
The Portsmouth in Virginia and the New Bedford in Massachusetts were both named after the city in which they were located, neither of which was a lightship station. Unfortunately the New Bedford was scrapped in July 2007.
It has been over thirty years since the last U.S. lightship was on station so perhaps we should accept and use the names by which these historic vessels have come to be known.
New Lightship LV605 - RELEIF Webpage - A good friend of the Society has created an amazing webpage dedicated to the Lightship LV605. There are many interactive, panorama images that let you see nearly every inch of the ship, as well as some historic photos from our archives. Be sure to check this out.