Lighthouse History / Trivia

Bodie Island, NC   ©Copyright J. Erhardt, 2001

History / Trivia / Poetry

History of Lighthouses

Although most of us have images of lighthouses with rotating electric beacons, lighthouses have been around to aid mariners for hundreds of years.  Lighthouses date back to the Roman Empire and even earlier.  The Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt,  is generally considered the first known lighthouse, and it was completed in the third century, B.C..  This structure contained many elaborate carvings and stood approximately 450 ft. tall.

The Romans built several, including a lighthouse north of La Coruna on the coast of Spain. This structure was commonly known as the Tower of Hercules.  After years of abandonment and then restoration and numerous retrofittings, it is now known as the oldest active lighthouse in the world.

Up until about the 15th century, wood was the main source of fire for these early lighthouses. In the 15th century, coal became commonplace, as it burned slower and made better light.  Candles were used in some, starting around 1540. Oil was then a common source of fuel for the lamps. The first  electric lamp was first used in South Foreland, England in 1858, and again in Dungeness, England, in 1862,  in an arc lamp.  Electric lamps were constantly improved, and today, many use a xenon discharge light, which gives off bright light.

In 1716, the first lighthouse believed to be erected in the New World, was built at the entrance to Boston Harbor.  Sandy Hook, NJ is the only surviving colonial lighthouse., and is the oldest active lighthouse in the United States.  

The first U.S. authorized public works project was the construction of the Cape Henry light in the Chesapeake Bay, in 1792.  Most of the lighthouses constructed during this era were harbor lights, with very few coastal lights being constructed.

By 1820, the United States had a total of 55 harbor and coastal lights.  This included two on the Great Lakes, with the rest on the east coast.

One of the first screw pile lighthouses was at Minots Ledge near Cohasset, Massachusetts. On April 12, 1851, a rough storm toppled the lighthouse killing the two keepers in the process.  This light was replaced by a conical granite tower.

One of the most dangerous occupations of the government's civilian service was lightship duty. In areas without lighthouses, lightships were used to light the way. Rough seas and ramming by other ships were some of the dangers of lightship duty.  In 1913, a storm claimed a ship and its six crew members 13 miles from Buffalo, New York.  In 1918, the lightship at Cross Rips station vanished. Subsequent retrieval of the wreckage revealed that it had been crushed by ice.  The last lightship in the U.S. was taken out of service in 1983.

Keepers have normally been thought of as male, but by 1852, there were 30 female lighthouse keepers. Kate Walker, a widow, whose husband had been the keeper of the light at Robbins Reef in New York Harbor, rescued more than 50 fishers in distress over the years. In addition to maintaining the lighthouse, she raised two sons, rowing them a mile each day to Staten Island to attend school.

The oldest known lighthouse keeper was Henry Hall at age 94.  He was the keeper at Eddystone in Great Britain, and during a fire in the lighthouse, he ingested  1/2 lb. of lead and died about two weeks later.

At the Flannan Isle Lighthouse in 1900, three lightkeepers vanished without a trace.

Mercury vapour lights also pose a problem of mercury poisoning, and the mercury was thought to have caused so many keepers to go mad after years of duty.

Currituck Beach, NC    ©Copyright J. Erhardt, 2001

Lighthouse Trivia

Tallest U.S. lighthouse - Cape Hatteras, NC (191 ft.)

First Colonial Lighthouse - Boston, MA  (1716)

Oldest U.S. Lighthouse in Service - Sandy Hook, NJ  (1764)

First American West Coast Lighthouse - Alcatraz Lighthouse (1854)

First Great Lakes Lighthouses - Erie, PA & Buffalo, NY  (1818)

First Lighthouse Built Entirely by the Federal Government - Montauk Point, NY (1797)

Most Expensive Lighthouse (Adjusted) - St. George's Reef, CA (1891)

First U.S. Lighthouse to Use Electricity - Statue of Liberty (1886)

Oldest Known Lighthouse Keeper - Henry Hall, 94 - Eddystone, Great Britain

Highest U.S. Lighthouse (above sea level) - Cape Mendocino, CA (515 ft.)

Newest Seaside Lighthouse - Charleston, SC (1962)

Weight of Diamond Shoals Lightship's Anchor & Chain - 14 tons


Lighthouse Beacon 

As the beacon spreads through the fog 
The sailors seek safe harbor 
The fog seemingly making her jewel-like 
They see her as their savior 
But alas, she is just a guide 
For all to see 
A simple tool to achieve 
Thought provoking to know 

7/98 ta 

© Copyright Terry Ann - 1998


From My Easy Chair 

From My Easy Chair
I'd like to see a lighthouse
on the rocky coast of Maine
while standing on the shoreline,
watching fishing boats in the rain.

I'd like to see the Grand Canyon
although I've never been,
or see a Montana sky,
but I'm just dreaming again.

I'd like to do so many things
as I sit in my easy chair,
but I never seem to get to
the life that's just over there.

So many places I'd like to go
and see before I die,
that at times it seems overwhelming
and leaves me with a sigh.

But tomorrow will come and life
goes on, all from my easy chair.

Eric L. Kopf

© Copyright 2001 Eric Kopf



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