History of the Administration of the Lighthouses in America by Wayne Wheeler
The first colonial American aid to navigation, of which we have firm evidence, was the beacon erected at Nantasket (now Hull) Massachusetts in 1673. The beacon was a small stone tower erected at Point Allerton, a promontory guarding the south approach to Boston Harbor. The citizens of that community provided funds to furnish “fier-bales of pitch and ocum” in an iron basket surrounding the small beacon.
Our first lighthouse was erected of rubble stone on Little Brewster Island (in Boston Harbor) by the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1716 at a cost of 2,285 pounds. The first keeper of that lighthouse was George Worthylake who was paid the princely sum of 50 pounds a year. Other colonies also constructed lighthouses of rubble stone prior to the revolution. The Collector of Customs of the ports near the lighthouses collected “light-dues” based on the tonnage of vessels using the ports.
Congress 9th Act
On August 7, 1789 the 9th Act of our first Congress, and the first Public works Act, provided for the transfer of the twelve existing lighthouses in this country from the individual states to the federal government and provided: “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 erected, placed, or sunk before the passing of this Act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States; Provided nevertheless, That none of the said expenses shall continue to be so defrayed by the United States, after the expiration of one year of the day aforesaid, unless such lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers, shall in the mean time be ceded to and vested in the United States, by the state or states respectively in which the same may be, together with the jurisdiction of same.
The states, however, wary of a central government, dragged their heels and it wasn’t until 1797 (eight years after passage of the Act) that all lighthouses were turned over to the fledgling government. The twelve existing lighthouses were soon joined by four which had been under construction when we became a nation: Cape Henry, VA at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay (1791); Tybee, GA at the entrance to the Savannah River (1791); Portland Head, ME (1791) and Bald Head at the entrance to the Cape Fear River, NC (1796). Cape Henry is regarded as the first to be completed by the new government. By 1800 there were 24 lighthouses in the nation, all along the Atlantic coast.
The responsibility for lighthouses and other aids to navigation was placed under the Secretary of the Treasury, at that time Alexander Hamilton. He had appealed to President Washington: in keeping with our free country, lighthouses should be as free as the air and that this country should waive the lighthouse dues which had been imposed by the colonies and were standard at most ports of the world. George Washington agreed.
Local control of our lighthouses was assigned to the Collector of Customs of a port. Some Collectors had but one lighthouse to “manage”, while others had many under their control. And, because the collectors were politically appointed, the keepers were politically appointed. When the Whigs were in the White House the Whig keepers were in the lighthouses.
It’s interesting to read about the involvement that our early leaders had with such trivial matters (for a Chief Executive) as appropriations for purchase of buoy chain and appointment of lighthouse keepers, it was surely a slower pace than today. The keeper of the Seguin Lighthouse in Maine wrote to President Washington requesting an extra allowance for clearing the land adjacent to his station. He received a letter dated Jan 24, 1797 “For the reasons assigned within, the allowance of $150 is approved by Go Washington.” On another occasion he made the following endorsement on a contract to furnish mooring chain for a floating beacon in Delaware Bay “April 27th, 1798. Approved, so far as it respects the new chain; but is there an entire loss of the old one? Go Washington.” Earlier in 1796 President Washington signed an executive Act raising the annual rate of compensation for the 16 lighthouse keepers of the nation from $120 to $333.33
Between the establishment of the Lighthouse Service in 1789 and the year 1820 the responsibility for our aids to navigation bounced around Washington like a Ping-Pong ball. On May 8, 1792 the department of the Commissioner of Revenue was created and the responsibility for aids to navigation was shifted to that agency. This department was abolished on April 6, 1802 and lighthouses were back under Treasury. Then in 1813 The Commissioner of Revenue was re-established and that agency was again responsible for lighthouses and aids to navigation.
Four years later, in December of 1817, the Commissioner of Revenue was abolished for the last time, but the Act was not to take place until 1820. On July 1 of that year the Lighthouse Service shifted again to Treasury and under the watchful eye of the Fifth Auditor, Stephen Pleasonton, an accountant, who knew nothing of lighthouses, lighthouse equipment or engineering. Fifth Auditor Pleasonton held sway for the next 32 years; three decades during which other maritime nations of the world embraced the Fresnel lens (perfected in 1822) and other improvements in aids to navigation. This was a period in which our country lagged behind other maritime nations in aids to navigation.
During Pleasonton’s reign as general superintendent of lights (1820-1852) the aids to navigation of this country increased from a rather modest 55 lighthouses and a few buoys to 325 lighthouses and lightships and numerous other aids to navigation (buoys, daymarks, range lights, etc).
The Fifth Auditor supplied the various lighthouses in his charge, and even had them inspected by contract. Local contractors made yearly visits repairing the illuminating apparatus as necessary and furnishing oil, glass chimneys and cleaning stores. This worked after a fashion when there were only 50 lighthouses, but as the number of stations increased, the time and paperwork necessary to manage individual contracts became impossible.
Thus, Pleasonton advertised for proposals for one contractor to furnish supplies for the entire Lighthouse Establishment and to keep all lighthouse apparatus in complete repair, bids to be submitted as cost per lamp per year; the winning bid was $35.87 per lamp per year. In those days before the introduction of the Fresnel lens in this country some lighthouses had as many as 30 lamps and reflectors in the lantern room.
The optical system in use during Pleasonton’s term was the catoptric system consisting of an Argand wick lamp(s) fitted with a parabolic reflector(s). Back in 1812 the government purchased a patent for a “reflecting and magnifying lantern” from Winslow Lewis of Boston for $20,000. Lewis was an unemployed ship captain with no engineering background or knowledge of optics. He apparently “borrowed” the Swiss Argand’s lamp and parabolic reflector design, although one critic of his optic stated that the reflectors were as close to a parabola as “a barber’s basin.” To make matters worse, Captain Lewis had round green lenses placed in front of the lamps, which drastically cut the range of the light. After Lewis had outfitted all of America’s lighthouses in 1815 the government started to remove the green “lenses”’ but it was many years before all of them were disposed of.
After Stephen Pleasonton took control he continued to rely on Winslow Lewis for technical advice and even awarded him several contracts to construct lighthouses, several of which collapsed in very few years.
The Investigation of 1837-1838
The 19th century was the Golden Age of lighthouses and maritime commerce. The number of lighthouses in this country went from 24 in 1800 to around 850 by the turn of the 20th century. The first lightship station was authorized in 1822 and by 1900 there were 50 stations, on every coast and in the Great Lakes. Numerous types of fog signals were invented, our system of buoyage codified, the Light List developed and Notice to Mariners published in a consistent manner. While some lighthouses were constructed in the 20th century, new fog signals developed and electronic aids to navigation (radio beacons, etc.) introduced, it was the 19th century that saw the greatest growth of aids to navigation in this country and throughout the world.
As trade between America and Europe increased, and more and more Fresnel lenses were established in the lighthouses of Europe, our sea captains complained that our lighthouses were vastly inferior. In the 1830’s and 40’s two critics of our system, and Stephen Pleasonton were E. & W. Blunt, publishers of Blunt’s Coast Pilot (a publication of sailing directions used to this day). They wrote to Congress “the lighthouse establishment was badly managed.” In a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury (November 30, 1837) they stated that the annual sums appropriated by Congress “were not judiciously or energetically used.” They continued “the establishment has increased beyond the ability of any single individual at Washington to superintend in its more important details…” They also included editorials in the preface of the Coast Pilot blasting our aids to navigation. Another critic of our system of aids to navigation was I.W.P. Lewis, nephew of Winslow Lewis.
In 1837 Congress made an appropriation for the construction of a large number of lighthouses and other aids to navigation. However, the Act stated that before any of the funds could be expended the Board of Navy Commissioners should make an examination to determine whether safety of navigation required any additional facilities and, if so, what was the most suitable for each place. The navy department detailed 22 officers, which reported to Congress. As a result of this ‘investigation’ the construction of 31 planned lighthouses was deferred. The board reported that the arrangements in force for the managing of our aids to navigation were the most economical that could be devised but that they were “sufficiently effectual.” It recommended the creation of an office to be known as “The Auditor of the Department of State and General Superintendent of the Lighthouse Establishment.” This office was to take the responsibility from the 5th auditor, but it never happened.
In 1838 the Senate passed a Resolution to import one or two Fresnel lenses for comparison and to investigate if our system of managing lighthouses should not be changed. The Congress also authorized the President to divide the Atlantic Coast into six districts and the “Lake Coast” (Great Lakes) into two districts and to assign a naval officer to each district. Under this Act, in August 1838, the districts were created and a naval officer was detailed to superintend each district. A Revenue Cutter, or hired vessel, was assigned to each officer so that he might inspect each lighthouse in his respective district.
As directed by Congressional fiat, a 1st order fixed and 2nd order revolving Fresnel lens were imported from France and installed in the twin towers of the Navasink lighthouse at the Highlands of New Jersey. Although even Fifth Auditor Pleasonton was impressed with the increased quality of light from the Fresnel lens, he declined to purchase them stating that they were too expensive. The fact of the matter was, that while the initial cost of a Fresnel lens was greater than a reflector system, in the long run it was considerably less expensive. First, a primary seacoast lighthouse might have 24 lamps with reflectors each burning oil, where a Fresnel lens relied on a single lamp thus resulting in a considerable savings of oil not to mention wick material, lamp replacements and time. Secondly, the silver on the face of the copper parabolic reflectors eventually wore out from polishing, where the Fresnel lens was basically good forever. But finances aside, the lenticular Fresnel system was vastly superior to the reflector system and Pleasonton just couldn’t see the value of importing them.
The 1st Order Fixed Lens bought for Navesink NJ
As instructed, the new District Inspectors began their investigation as to the state of “their” light stations.
In 1837 LT George M. Bache conducted an “inspection” of aids to navigation in the 3rd District (Newport, RI to New York City). His comprehensive report included testimony from sea captains, findings of the state of lighthouses, recommendations for new aids to navigation as well as improvements to existing aids and the manner in which the system was being managed. Some of the more salient points raised by LT Bache were (1) “More accurate information respecting the utility of a light appears to be required before its establishment is authorized.” That is, perhaps the government should talk with ships captains and others aware of a particular area, that the amount and type of commerce transiting the area should be studied before a site and design were selected. (2) The exact site should be selected jointly by a seaman and the engineer. (3) The appropriation should be based on a final design (suited to the locality) and selection of the type of optic. (4) Better construction of lighthouses and lightships should be provided for. He also felt that those who had erected lighthouses in the past lacked the knowledge of setting up the illuminating apparatus and making repairs to same, that oil should be inspected before being accepted, that good management was missing and more inspections were needed. LT Bache even went so far as to suggest that the nation adapt a uniform system of buoyage.
While this seemingly damaging report was sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, it was responded to by the 5th Auditor. Stephen Pleasonton countered that the Collector of Customs always selects the site for new lighthouses, acquires the land and accepts the low bid contract (missing the point made by Bache that qualified persons – sea captain, etc. be brought into the decision process). He also said that the lightboats were constructed in the same manner. Pleasonton then went on to explain how a contract was awarded to maintain a lighthouse for five years, at low bid. The President appointed the keepers, captains of lightships earned $700 a year and lightships were assigned a Captain, mate and 3 or 4 seamen plus a cook; that they couldn’t steal anything other than the illuminating oil as they were required to pay for all their own stores. He replied that when necessary to “suspend” (temporarily discontinue) a light the fact was always advertised, and finally, “I believe I have now given you full information as to every point which it appears to be material for you to know…” Pleasonton had ignored the questions and somehow survived the report.
An excellent example of just how far behind the state of the art Pleasonton and Winslow Lewis were, is reflected at the Nauset, Cape Cod, Massachusetts Light station which was constructed in 1838. Fixed and rotating Fresnel lenses (catadioptric system) had been in use in Europe since 1822. But even the archaic catoptric system had, since the turn of the century, provision for rotating banks of reflectors and producing a flashing characteristic. Yet at Nauset, Pleasonton had Winslow Lewis construct three towers in a row to provide a characteristic of three fixed lights. This was reportedly to ensure that this station wouldn’t be confused with the twin towers (2 lights) of Chatham. By not using the Fresnel lens, or even a rotating reflector system, the service would be required to maintain three towers (in lieu of one) and three banks of fixed reflectors each with 10 lamps to keep fueled, 10 wicks to trim and ten 13-inch reflectors to keep polished.
Shortly after the coast was divided into districts, the inspector for the 1st District, Lt. Edward Carpenter USN inspected the lighthouses of his district and submitted a report in November of 1838. In the Nauset lights he reported – “Half-way between Cape Cod [Highland Lighthouse] and Chatham lights, on the Tableland of Nanset [Ed. Old spelling of Nauset], have just been erected three stone towers, 15 feet high and 150 feet apart… This is a clean, bold, regular coast; no port to be guided into by these lights, making it difficult, at first, to comprehend their use. Never, before, seen any similarly located, I found it difficult to reconcile myself to them on any terms. They were doubtless, given this triple appearance to distinguish them from Chatham lights…Nauset beach has always been considered a dangerous place for vessels…to guard against such disasters seems to be the object of these lights. I cannot, however, think that three lights are at all necessary. Any single distinguishable light that can be seen eight or ten miles will answer every purpose. Such a light is a revolving red light.” Lt Carpenter went on to justify why one rotating colored light would suffice and stated “I cannot believe that the government will consent to consume 900 gallons of oil, when 300 or 360 will answer every purpose.” He stated that he was going to recommend conversion to a single tower and light. At this point the station had not been placed into operation but the newly assigned keeper was expecting oil for that purpose momentarily.
Another inspection as a result of this Congressional inquiry revealed several lighthouses to be in deplorable shape. Lt Wm. D. Porter wrote:
“Smith’s Island - …This tower built of bad materials; the cement has already been affected by the atmosphere, and is crooked in many places. …Light badly kept. Keeper’s dwelling requires to be new shingled, new plastering for dwelling and kitchen; class for the house; new floors and hearth.
“Bowler’s rock light-boat – Found the captain, mate and crew absent…[the lantern] smokes badly…the boat requires calking and painting…
“Smith’s-point light-boat – Captain absent, with all the crew, for a week, the boat left in charge of a black boy, 14 years old; the lantern half-mast, and could not be hoisted by the boy…the boat requires new rigging; the lanterns are badly constructed, and the lamps lose oil…
“Highlands of Navesink – The revolving light burns fifteen lamps, with parabolic reflectors; the works [ed.- clockworks) slightly out of repair; the window sills and many of the beams rotten; silver burnt off the reflectors…tower leaks in many places; the light shows badly toward the north.”
On and on the report went, describing a lighthouse establishment out of control. There were some good reports, remarks of well kept stations and dedicated keepers…but for the main, a great deal was left to be desired.
Inspector Pleasonton managed to wiggle out of these reports to his superiors, but the sharks were gathering and new investigations were forthcoming.
The Investigation of 1842-1843
In February 1842 the House of Representatives Resolved, in part, “That the Committee on Commerce inquire into the expenditure of the lighthouse establishment since the year 1816, including expenditures for the building and repairing of lighthouses, light-ships…and make a report of the result of their inquires, and also to examine into the propriety of reorganizing this establishment; of changing the mode of its superintendency…and of so modifying the laws and practice under them…as to secure strict observation of the duties of superintendents and keepers of lights.” It was further resolved that the Committee should look into better regulations for the service and determine if the lighthouse service should be placed under the Topographical Bureau.
In May 1842 the Committee submitted their exhaustive report which, overall, took a rather kindly view of the existing administration as indicated by the following excerpt;
“From July 1820, when the number of lighthouses was 55, to the present year, when the number of lighthouses is 256, of light boats 30, of beacons about 35, and of buoys nearly 1,000, the establishment has been under the charge of the present general superintendent, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. It might well be expected that a twenty-two years’ service would have given to the incumbent an experience and a practical knowledge of his business, which should not, for slight causes, be lost to the public…” The report stated that maybe new expenditures should be made…that “When an old and well-tried system works tolerably well, change and experiments should be avoided.” And while it is true that complaints have been made…why, they would be made no matter who was in charge. The committee saw no reason to change or transfer the existing system…they stated that the system, as it existed, could compare favorably with any nation in the world.
On the day that report was submitted to the House of Representatives, Secretary of Treasury Forward appointed I.W.P. Lewis (Winslow’s nephew), a respected engineer, to make an examination of our aids to navigation and the management of same. I.W.P. Lewis inspected 70 lighthouses in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which represented one third of the nation’s total.
The I.W.P. Lewis Report
After a general introduction, describing the unusual features of the Maine coast, etc., I.W.P. Lewis seriously questioned the decisions that had been made as to the placement of lighthouses and minor aids to navigation, use of characteristics and even inaccuracies of charting the aids to navigation. He found that small backwater lights had more reflectors in the lantern rooms than major seacoast lighthouses. “None of the great coast lights have more than ten lamps, except those near Portland, which have but fifteen. The beacon-light on Penobscot River has as many lamps, and much larger and better reflectors, than the great coast light of Petit Manan, where three wrecks have occurred since the period of this examination [Ed. – about four months]…As a rule of universal application to the lighthouses of this coast, resulting from careful observation in clear weather, it may be stated that the towers can be seen further by day than can the lights they respectively bear by night. In the structure of the lanterns and fitting up of the illuminating apparatus, all established rules and principles governing the subject are set at defiance…”
Concerning buoys and beacons he noted, ”Many of the existing beacons are located in close harbors, where they are of but little use, while there are but four on the entire coast of Maine that occupy exterior positions; and the same remarks apply to the buoyage of these waters. There are buoys in abundance on Kennebec River and in the snug harbors…but on the immense number of outlaying rocks and dangers there are none whatever; not one buoy, beacon, or spindle, to be seen in the whole navigation of Penobscot Bay. More than 10,000 sail of merchantmen pass annually through the Muscle Ledge passage…and this channel being notoriously dangerous, the utmost care is observed, by those who enter it, to avoid the sunken rocks and ledges, notwithstanding which, every day, almost, vessels are seen hard and fast upon one or other of these dangers,” Lewis slashed away, holding back nothing, “The mere arrangement of distinguishing lights on the coast of Mane will prove that there is neither knowledge of the wants of navigation, nor any attempt made to ascertain those wants.”
Lewis was appalled at the lack of variety on light characteristics assigned. He was amazed that certain areas of the coast had several lights in a row that were multiple or of the same flashing characteristic and that “From Monhegan island seven fixed lights are visible in one view.” It was very difficult, if not impossible, for a mariner to tell which light was which, or to fix his position. He noted that all the lights of Penobscot Bay were fixed and that there were only four rotating (flashing) lights on the coast of Maine and that they “are so badly fitted up that they frequently stop in their rotations, and become fixed lights in effect, though visible only in two directions.”
In Massachusetts he found the greatest danger to lie with the “Cohasset rocks” (better known to us as Minot’s Ledge). Ships entering Boston Bay during a northeast storm are driven on the ledge, which is “annually the scene of the most heart-rending disasters.” Although petitions had been circulating for years to erect a lighthouse on Minot’s Ledge nothing was done about it and, in fact, the situation was acerbated by the presence of the Scituate Lighthouse ‘behind’ the reef. I.W.P. Lewis stated “one of the causes of frequent shipwrecks on these rocks has been the lighthouse at Scituate, four miles to leeward of the reef, which has been repeatedly mistaken for Boston Light, and thus caused the death of many brave seamen and the loss of large amounts of property. Not a winter passes without one or more of these fearful accidents occurring. Notwithstanding this fact of the mistaken location of Scituate light (which is of no local importance whatever, standing at the entrance of an obscure harbor…) has been notoriously public for years, and nine out of ten of the wrecks on Cohasset rocks [Ed.- 416 wrecks in the general area in 9 years] attributed to its evil influence; still no report has ever been made to Congress by the superintendent.”
Lewis continued his inspection noting that off the beaten path lighthouses often had more lamps and reflectors than major seacoast or harbor lights, like Boston; that some areas had clusters of lights and other stretches were devoid of any light at all. He attacked the rated range of the various lights. The Lighthouse Service stated in Light Lists that a light with an elevation of 70 feet could be seen for 19 miles, when in fact the curvature of the earth will only allow a light at this height to be seen for 11 miles, not that the crude lamp reflector system would have that range were it properly elevated.
The inspection then shifted to the construction of the lighthouses. He began by castigating the vary mortar that they were constructed with, stating that the mixture of lime and sand was in such proportions that no “set” could be possible. He stated that there were two basic types of lighthouse in his area of inspection, “conical towers of rubble stone masonry, and wooden-frame towers, erected upon the roofs of the keepers’ dwelling-houses…a description of one of each kind will apply to all.” He noted that the rubble towers were capped by large slabs of soapstone laid on the top of the tower (projecting over from six to twelve inches) and not in anyway fastened to it. Thus during storms water was driven up the tower and between the soapstone slabs and tower wall and that “large quantities of water remain [in the tower] after every rain storm.” Then the water seeps down through the tower destroying the weak mortar, leaving sand and rotting the wood frame of the structure. Of course in winter this effect is worsened with the advent of ice, or the freeze-thaw situation. He found of the 31 lighthouses upon the coast of Maine, 24 were “injured from this cause alone.”
Of the wooden tower on the roof, type of structure he stated, “The angle posts [of the lantern] rest upon the attic floor beams, and are not supported by studding of any kind from below; consequently the whole weight and stress of the tower and lantern are borne by the horizontal beams…In every example of this method of construction…the same results were apparent viz: a distortion of the framing of the roof of the house by lateral swaying motion of the tower in storms, and constant opening of all the joints, causing profuse leakage. The same movement of the tower destroys the plastering of the ceilings beneath, and the frame work of the house rapidly decay.” He was shocked by not only the method of construction and workmanship, but by the design of the quarters. “… a division of the principal floor into three rooms, having a cellar beneath, and three above in the attic, which are always small and inconvenient, besides being cold and uncomfortable. The details of the work and materials are of the very roughest description, requiring regular annual repairs…At every station the complaint of smoky chimneys was made…very few of the stations were provided with the proper means of obtaining pure water…” he found that many remote and isolated stations either had no boat assigned or a boat too small to safely make it to civilization.
His findings for the construction of the lighthouses of Massachusetts were similar to his report on those of Maine.
In February 1843 Lewis submitted his report to Congress, through Treasury Secretary Forward. Secretary Forward included his recommendations with the report which stated, in part, that no further appropriations should be made for the erection of any lighthouse unless a competent engineer ascertained its necessity, suitability of site and a detailed plans and cost estimate for all buildings of the station. He also suggested that anytime repairs to any aid to navigation were estimated to exceed $500, funds should be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. Finally he requested that the supervision of lighthouses be placed under a “competent and scientific engineer” who would be paid $3,000 a year.
I.W.P. Lewis’s report was made with such vigor that Stephen Pleasonton”s rebuttal, made to Treasury Secretary Spencer (who had replaced Forward) characterized the report as “these calumnies” and declared himself as “having been grossly misrepresented by him.”
Pleasonton wrote to Spencer “Sir: The lighthouse establishment within the States of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and its management, having been grossly misrepresented by a man employed by your immediate predecessor to inspect the same, and these calumnies having been communicated to the House…I took [liberty] to instruct the …superintendents, not only of these states, but in all the states bordering upon the Atlantic, to open books at their respective Custom Houses, and to ask the masters of ships and other vessels, as they visited the custom-houses to make entry, to enter in those books their several opinions as to the quality of all lights from Maine to Louisiana, and forward these books to me prior to the meeting of Congress at its present session.” Pleasonton went on to state that the “books” that he was forwarding contained the names of 1,000 masters of ships and other vessels who all attested to the excellence of the aids to navigation of this country. He also forwarded favorable testimony from the Marine Society of Portland, Maine representing 1,400 ships and other vessels.
He added to this vote of confidence the following statement: “In the report [I.W.P. Lewis’s] before alluded to, is an affidavit by one Daniel Bryant procured with a view of impeaching my character in connection with Mr. Winslow Lewis, who was employed by Mr. Bancroft to build three small lighthouses at Nauset Beach [Ed.- the Three Sisters of Nauset on Cape Cod]. Unfortunately for Daniel Bryant, there is not one word of truth in his disposition in regard to myself.” Pleasonton explained that Mr. Bancroft, Collector of Customs at Boston, was directed by him to advertise for proposal for the lighthouses (which had been approved by Congress), give the job to the lowest bidder and appoint a mechanic to oversee the project and make payment if the job was well done. Winslow Lewis was the low bidder, something that happened with amazing regularity, and Daniel Bryant was appointed mechanic or inspector.
On July 30, 1838 Bancroft wrote to Pleasonton that the work was complete “and done in a manner to do credit to Mr. Lewis, and was the best work of the kind, probably, in my district.” On the same day Daniel Bryant certified that the contract had been fully complied with and Lewis paid.
However, four years later the 2 December 1842 affidavit of Bryant stated: ”When the job was finished, I was called upon by the contractor to sign a certificate that the terms of his contract…had been honorably fulfilled. This paper I refused to sign, and referred the contractor to the collector at Boston…After a delay of some time, I received notice to call upon the collector at the Custom-house; and when I called there, I was directed to sign the certificate of approval before named.” When Bryant inquired as to why he should sign, the collector told him that the Fifth Auditor had accepted the work and that he should sign as a matter of form (it was just government paperwork). David Bryant did sign thinking that his objection to the quality of the work was waived.
Pleasonton wrote that he never received a letter from Winslow Lewis, nor never wrote a line to Mr. Bancroft and that…”This man, Bryant, will be indicted, and probably punished, for perjury in this case.” Things were heating up for the Fifth Auditor.
The names that he submitted in his defense did stay his “execution” for another eight years, but one has to wonder about the politics of the situation. Perhaps the Collectors of the various ports had some influence over the local mariners. And many of the names were no doubt those of mariners who had never been to Europe; had never seen the “light” and had nothing with which to compare the weak reflector system.
A prominent Boston Journal said: “The report that resulted from this partial survey was a severe blow to the defenders of the old [reflector] system; and if the Government had possessed the proper energy and vigilance, such an array of facts could not have been passed over unnoticed. A most important benefit, however, resulted to the public from the detail of the defective condition of the lighthouses, and particularly as to the illuminating apparatus contained in this report of Mr. I.W.P. Lewis; for it compelled the general superintendent of lighthouses to bestir himself and “get things a little more to rights.” But Stephan Pleasonton wasn’t about to “get things a little more to rights.” The report and recommendations were tabled by Congress to the next session.
In June 1845 the new Secretary of Treasury, R.J. Walker, detailed Navy LT’s Thornton A. Jenkins and Richard Bache to investigate the world situation. They were sent abroad “to procure information which may tend to the improvement of the lighthouse system of the United States; and as it is alleged that important improvements have been made in the lighthouses of Europe, especially those of France and Great Britain, the Department wishes to understand fully what those improvements are, and if they are adapted to introduction in our country.” They were instructed to obtain information on the organization of the various systems, construction methods, lighting apparatus, costs, instructions to keepers and even information on types of buoys used abroad.
After spending a year abroad the young officers submitted a report in June of 1846 that recommended the reorganization of the Lighthouse Establishment by the appointment of an engineer and optician and number of District Superintendents under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury. They recommended that the engineer would make the plans, drawings and specifications for all construction work and inspect each lighthouse at least once a year. The optician would test illuminates and lens apparatus and visit each lighthouse once a year to make repairs and adjust the apparatus. The coasts were to e divided into ten districts, each placed in charge of an officer of the Navy who would inspect his lighthouses once a month and establish positions of aids to navigation by angles, bearings, etc., and make regular reports to the central office.
Secretary Walker submitted the very detailed report and recommendations to Congress stating “The report of the inspecting officers detailed…to examine the lights of our coasts showed their absolute defects; the present report shows deficiencies as compared with other countries. The trial made of one of the French lights [Fresnel lens] at Sandy Hook …has been very successful, but the use of this apparatus has not been extended.” The Secretary noted that the law still required the old reflector system be employed. He went on to suggest that our system had grown to a point that one man could not attend to all the details concerning construction, contractual matters, modern developments and inspections…not to mention having the expertise to understand all the ramifications to navigation matters. Secretary Walker thought that the formation of a board was the answer and that such a board might include the 5th Auditor, the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, two naval officers and two from the Army (a Corp and Topographical engineer) and a junior Navy officer to act as secretary. He requested permission to appoint such a board.
Congress dragged its feet in this matter until March of 1851 when suddenly an Act was approved in which the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to place Fresnel lenses in lighthouses “as rapidly as he thought best,” to appoint a board of proper persons to inquire into the condition of the establishment, to make a (yet another) detailed report, and to detail from the Army engineering officers to superintend the construction and renovation of future lighthouses.
The Lighthouse Board
On May 21, 1851 Treasury Secretary Corwin appointed the board which consisted of Commodore W.B. Shubrick, USN (president), CDR S.F. DuPont USN, General Joseph G. Totten, U.S. Engineers, Col. James Kearney, U.S. Topographical Engineers, Prof. A.D. Bache, Superintendent U.S. Coast Survey, and LT. T. A. Jenkins USN (Secretary). Finally professionals were about to take charge of the aids to navigation of this country. This ad hoc committee, in short order, submitted to the Congress a most comprehensive report of some 760 pages and 40 Plates.
Commodore William B. Shubrick
The report detailed construction of towers and dwellings, instructions as to how keepers were to perform their duties, ability and fidelity of the inspectors, mode of procuring and furnishing oil and other stores to the light stations, methods of testing supplies and types of reports to be placed into the new system. The report recommended that Fresnel lenses be placed in all of our lighthouses and that they be classed by Order, like the French) 1st Order being the largest and 6th the smallest). Every aspect of construction, inspection and administration was laid out in fine detail. The report also recognized Mr. Pleasonton, who had administered the lighthouse service for over 30 years, a period in which the number of lighthouses had grown from 25 to well over 300. They said “great credit is due to the zeal and faithfulness of the General Superintendent and to the spirit of economy which he has shown,) which spirit, perhaps, accounted for the “lack of zeal exhibited for the adoption of modern improvements”; and went on to say that, really, it was too much to expect that one person had the ability to manage such a vast organization and to stay on top of all the new developments, as well as ensure that all aspects of the service were running smoothly.
Both houses passed this organic Act and on 31 August 1852 it was signed by the President. The ad hoc committee became the U.S. Lighthouse Board and would hold sway for the next 58 years.
The Secretary of the Treasury was to be president but, in his (usual) absence, a chairman was chosen. Commodore Shubrick was named the first chairman. Joining him on the board were Professor Joseph Henry (Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), Capt. E.L.F. Hardcastle USA as Engineer Secretary. Shubrick served on the board, with some breaks, for 19 years, and Professor Henry was chairman for seven years. Other respected civilians who served on the board during this important period of lighthouse development were A.D. Bache, Mendenhall and Pritchett (all one time superintendents of the Coast and Geodetic Survey) and Henry Morgan, President of the Stevens Institute. Notable Navy officers were Jenkins, Dewey, Evans and Schley. The Army Engineers was represented by Totten, Humphreys, Franklin, Poe and Casey. Meade, in later years in Command of the federal troops at Gettysburg was engaged in lighthouse construction for six years in Delaware and Florida where he constructed Sombrero and Sand Key lighthouses, the first of the giant Florida reef structures. Other board officers that later served the Confederacy were CDR Semmes and Generals Rosecans and Beauregard.
The Lighthouse Board took up its duties immediately upon being organized. As instructed by the Act they divided the coasts of the country into twelve districts; seven on the Atlantic, two on the Lakes, two on the Gulf and one on the Pacific. At first an Army or Navy officer was assigned as inspector. Later each district would have a naval officer as inspector and an Army Corps of Engineer officer as engineer.
The board took immediate steps to replace all reflector systems with Fresnel lenses and by 1859 the substitution was nearly complete. The contract for the first 8 lighthouses for the west coast had been awarded in 1852 and the board immediately sent a change order to the contractor deleting the reflector system from the contract. The west coast lighthouses were to have Fresnel lenses from the beginning.
This was also the era in which the price of sperm whale oil skyrocketed. At first, following the lead of Europe, the Lighthouse Service substituted Colza oil (a wild cabbage) for whale oil to fuel the lamps. But our farmers could not be enticed to grow this crop in ample amounts and the service employed lard oil as the principal illuminate. The 1850’s also saw the development of several types of fog signals, invention of the bell buoy, construction of the first Lighthouse Service tender the Shubrick (which was assigned to the west coast), codification of a uniform system of buoyage and streamlining of the Notice to Mariners.
Lighthouses in the southern states suffered badly during the Civil War. A great many were partially or totally destroyed. In some cases the Confederates removed the lenses from the towers, hiding them until after the war was over. Nearly all the lightships in the Chesapeake were taken or sunk to obstruct various channels. Some 164 lighthouses were, in one way or another, placed out of commission during the hostilities. The management of the service also suffered as naval and army offers were reassigned to the military duties. The board tried to cooperate with the naval forces by relighting as many towers as was possible. In 1862 a bill was introduced into the Senate to transfer the Lighthouse Board to the Navy department. The Secretary of Treasury asked Admiral Shubrick his opinion of the proposal and Shubrick shot back that one need only to look at the progress made between 1852 and 1862 as compared to the situation prior to 1852 to see the folly of this reorganization. The bill failed.
Another attempt was made in the period 1882-1885. This proposal would combine the Lighthouse Service with the Life Saving Service and Coast Survey and transfer that amalgamation to the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy argued that those three services were maritime in nature and had no relationship to the Treasury…but the reorganization was thwarted.
In 1874 Congress extended the jurisdiction of the Lighthouse Board over the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers, providing for such “beacon lights, day-beacons and buoys as may be necessary for the vessels navigating these streams.” The Act also provided that the rivers be divided into two (new) districts. The first light in the river districts was established at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, MO in December 1874.
In 1883 several severe shipwrecks in Alaskan waters caused the board to establish 14 iron buoys in the new territory. However Alaska wouldn’t get its first lighthouse until after the turn of the century.
On July 26, 1886 Congress authorized an increase in lighthouse districts to sixteen, the rivers were now divided into three districts and by this time the west coast had two (California & the Pacific Northwest).
A Presidential Executive Order on May 1, 1900 placed the Puerto Rican Lighthouse Service under the Lighthouse Board. Several requests were made during this era for an increase of the Districts from 16 to 18 so that Puerto Rico and the Dutch West Indies could be districts. Requests were also made to provide for the Hawaiian lighthouses, should they be transferred to the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Although there were some aids to navigation in Alaskan waters (which were under the Pacific Northwest District) no lighthouses had been constructed. On the first of January 1905 the Hawaii lighthouses became a sub district of the 12th (California) district. Later that year the Midway aids to navigation joined Hawaii under the 12th District with Guam and the Samoan islands following suit in 1905.
Lighthouses Transferred to Commerce Department
The Department of Commerce was created by an Act on May 14, 1903. A provision of the act required the transfer of the Lighthouse Board from Treasury to this new department. The Lighthouse Board, by this date, had been in existence for over 50 years and had not only increased the number of aids to navigation in the country, but had carried out some notable and difficult lighthouse construction (Minot's Ledge, Tillamook Rock and St. George Reef to name but a few).
Bureau of Lighthouses Created
In June of 1910 Congress passed an Act that reorganized the Lighthouse Service. The Lighthouse Board had now been in control for 58 years. Total lighted aids had increased from around 335 when the board assumed control to nearly 4,000 (this includes minor lights and lighted buoys). Fog signals had increased from 49 to 457, and buoys from 1,000 to 5,300. The board, which had been necessary to oversee a system too complex for one man had now, itself, become obsolete. Congress now thought that a pyramid structure was necessary with a single bureau chief at the top of the pile. We had come, in a way, full circle. Congress also felt that assigning military officers as engineers and inspectors of the districts (for short periods of time) caused the loss of continuity. They wanted the assignment of a civilian inspector, who would hopefully serve for many years, to provide continuity.
The Organic Act of 1910 authorized that civilian personnel manage the system, and a period of three years be used to implement the new system. Further it increased the number of Districts to 18 to establish separate districts for Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska. In the future each district would be managed by a single head, a District Inspector (in 1918 this title was changed to District Superintendent) who answered directly to the Commissioner of Lighthouses on all matters relating to his district. Each district was staffed with an assistant, a clerk and an engineer.
George Putnam, who had a long and distinguished career with the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, was appointed the first Commissioner of the new bureau. He would reign until May 31, 1935 when he was forced to retire due to age. Prior to assuming control over the Lighthouse Service, Putman was director of the coastal surveys of the Philippines. Once appointed to the new bureau he took firm control and instituted, not only the new administration, but many changes as technological advances were developed, among them radiobeacons. At his retirement luncheon Secretary of Treasury Roper congratulated Mr. Putnam on his distinguished career of 45 years and noted that while aids to navigation had increased from around 12,000 to 24,000 during his tenure, the number of employees dropped from 5,832 to 4,980. Putnam was replaced by H.D. King who headed up the bureau until the Coast Guard assumed control in 1939.
George Putnam Commissioner of the Lighthouse Bureau
President Roosevelt’s Reorganization Order #11 consolidated the Lighthouse Service with the U.S. Coast Guard to take effect on July 1, 1939. It read: “Bureau of Lighthouses – The Bureau of Lighthouses in the Department of Commerce and its functions are hereby transferred to and shall be consolidated with the administration of the Coast Guard in the Department of Treasury.” And, thus, lighthouses were back under Treasury again.
After the reorganization the keepers had several options: (1) Quit, (2) Retire (if they had enough time in service (3) Remain a keeper (wearing the USLHS uniform) (4) Transfer into the Coast Guard at an applicable (lateral) rate. Keepers who transferred were given a petty officer rank that equaled the pay they were then drawing; a head keeper might become a 1st class, an assistant 2nd or 3rd. etc., and most keepers were given a boatswain mate rating. While some personnel remained “keepers,” there was an advantage to transferring to the Coast Guard. The storm clouds of WWII were gathering. Because keepers were Civil Service they were eligible for the draft.
During the 1960’s, when automation was in full swing, light stations were a strange mix of civilian and enlisted Coast Guard. By this period the few keepers remaining from the Lighthouse Service had acquired seniority, and knowledge, to the extent that they were head keepers of the manned stations to which they were assigned. They were provided two, or three, young Coast Guardsmen to assist in running the station. By the late 1970’s all civilian keepers had retired with exception of Frank Schubert, keeper of the Coney Island, NY station. Also by the end of the 1970’s most light stations of this country were unmanned, less than ten remained at the start of 1989 and this number dwindled to zero within the next few years.
After 273 years, the era of manned lighthouses in this country was fast approaching an end. That unique way of life passed as surely as had the era of the tall ship and steam locomotives. Somewhere, in a remote area of Canada or perhaps India, people are still assigned to a lighthouse to fulfill the role of weather watcher or to assist with a remote communications link. And there are stations, constructed long ago in the age of steam and clipper ships, where a scientist will reside to study and manage our wildlife. But the era of the manned light-station, and the Golden Age of Lighthouses (the 19th Century) has passed.
Modern inexpensive electronics (both ashore at major sea coast lights and aboard all size vessels) have obviated the need for people to tend the flame, record weather and watch for vessels in distress.
As our civilization progresses, we move two steps forward…and sometimes one step backwards. In the areas of convenience, cost of goods and their availability, health and creature comforts, we continue to gain…in matters of a slower paced way of life and the personal touch, we sometimes lose – ebb and flow. Progress continues but, for us, a quaint, unique and altruistic way of life has passed over the horizon.