Lightships in America by Mike Boucher


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 coastlines 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 I.

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. 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 United States Lightship Museum, Boston, MA




LV-114/WAL-536 "Portland" renamed "New Bedford" capsized in 2006, sold for scrap 




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" Anchor Program, located Jack London Square, Oakland CA




WLV-612 "Nantucket I" Privately owned, New Bedford, MA




WLV-613 "Nantucket II" Privately owned, Wareham, MA