US Lighthouse Chronology Seeing The Light

A chronological history of the United States Lighthouses



This chronology of US lighthouse history is by no means intended to be all-inclusive. It is included to provide an understanding of the important role that lighthouses fulfilled over the years, some of the changes an management and methods that existed over time, and the important role played by the lighthouses of the Great Lakes.. 

1716 The Boston Lighthouse was illuminated, making it the first lighthouse established in what would later become The United States.

1719 A cannon was placed near the Boston Lighthouse "to answer ships in a fog," becoming the first fog signal established in America. 

1789 The ninth law passed by the newly created Congress of the United States, and the first to make provision for public work, created the Lighthouse Establishment as an administrative unit of the Federal Government. This bill provided "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."

1793 President George Washington approved a contract for a floating beacon to be placed on the Delaware River at a cost of $264.00.

1797 "Eclipsers" were installed on the Cape Cod Lighthouse, becoming the initial use of a light with an intermittent characteristic."

1812 Parabolic reflectors were introduced in lighthouses. This lens was later discarded, and improved reflectors were imported."

1812 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase Winslow Lewis’ patent for a reflecting lantern, and to incorporate that lighting system in all US lighthouses.

1818 The first two lighthouses on the Great Lakes were established. One at Buffalo, New York, and the other at Presque Isle, Pennsylvania.

1822 The French physicist, Augustin Fresnel, began work on his improved lens.

1825 The Fort Gratiot lighthouse was built, making it the first light on the western Great Lakes.

1832 Lake Michigan's first lighthouse was built placed at the mouth of the Chicago River, and a Lightship was placed at Waugoshance Shoal, making it the first lightship on Great Lakes.

1837 The first lightship on the Great Lakes was stationed at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan.

An Act of Congress placed the construction of all lighthouses under the review of the Board of Navy Commissioners. E. and G. W. Blunt, publishers of Blunts "Coast Pilot," submitted a statement to the Secretary of the Treasury, in which they stated "the whole lighthouse system needs revision, a strict superintendence and an entirely different plan of operation."

1838 As a result of growing negative sentiments relative to lighthouse operation, Congress divided the Atlantic coast into six lighthouse districts, and the Great Lakes coast into two. A naval officer was detailed to each lighthouse district, a revenue cutter or a hired vessel was placed at his disposal, and he was instructed to inspect all aids to navigation, report on their conditions, and recommend future courses of action. After inspecting a number of lighthouses, naval officers submitted reports and recommendations, resulting in the deferral of 31 lighthouses for which appropriations had already been made.

Congress appropriated funds for importing two Fresnel lenses.

1839 The Treasury published a list of Lighthouses, Beacons, and Floating Lights.

"The first buoy in Lake Michigan was placed at the mouth of the Neenah River."

1840 The sailing vessel "Rush" was transferred from the US Revenue Cutter Service, and was placed into service as the first lighthouse tender.

1841 An attempt to illuminate a light on the Delaware River with rosin gas was undertaken.

The first imported Fresnel lens was installed in the Navesink Lighthouse.

1842 The House of Representatives passed a resolution requesting the Committee on Commerce to make an inquiry into the expenditures of the Lighthouse Establishment since 1816 to identify possible cost-cutting measures, and to evaluate alternate management systems.

The Committee on Commerce, as requested on 18 February 1842, made its report to Congress. It had found the operation and administration of the lighthouse work reasonably satisfactory, opposed the transfer of the Lighthouse Establishment to any other department, and recommended that permanent inspectors be appointed

Congress required that the site for a lighthouse on Lake Michigan should be surveyed and selected by the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

1845 Congress prescribed that the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury "shall continue to superintend the several matters and things connected with the light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers, as heretofore, of the United States, and to perform all the duties connected therewith, under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, until otherwise ordered by law."

The Secretary of the Treasury dispatched Navy Lieutenants Thornton A. Jenkins and Richard Bache to Europe to identify opportunities for improvement to the US lighthouse system. Subsequently, the Secretary submitted their report asking that a board be appointed to oversee lighthouse improvements. As was previously the case with similar recommendations, Congress did nothing!

1847 The Lighthouse Appropriation Bill of 1848 provided for "furnishing the lighthouses on the Atlantic coast with means of rendering assistance to shipwrecked mariners." This was the first appropriation by the national government for rendering assistance to the shipwrecked from shore bound facilities.

1851 Congress finally appointed a pro-tem board to investigate "the lighthouse problem." The board submitted a seven hundred and sixty page report, strongly recommending the creation of a Lighthouse Board to oversee the US lights.

1852 The Lighthouse Board, which would administer the lighthouse system until 1 July 1910, was organized. The Board was composed of two officers of the Navy, two officers of the Engineer Corps, and two civilians of "high scientific attainments." The Board was empowered under the Secretary of the Treasury, who served as President of the Board. The Board was further empowered to divide the coast of the United States into twelve lighthouse districts, with an army or navy officer assigned as lighthouse inspector for each.

1853 George G. Meade, then assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers and later commander of the Union forces at Gettysburg, invented a lamp adopted by Lighthouse Board.

By this date, only five lighthouses in the United States were equipped with Fresnel lens.

1855 The U. S. Lighthouse Service investigated the use of steam whistles as fog signals.

The Lighthouse Board made some unsuccessful experiments with various forms of petroleum as fuel for the lights..

1857 The schooners LAMPLIGHTER and WATCHFUL were purchased as the first Great Lakes lighthouse tenders

1859 Congress empowered the Lighthouse Board to determine when a lighthouse could be decommissioned, based on changes in commerce, alteration in channels, or other causes.

1859 By this date, Fresnel lenses had been installed in the vast majority of lighthouses in the United States.

1862 A bill to reorganize the Navy Department was introduced in the Senate, of which one of the proposed changes was the transfer of the Lighthouse Establishment to the Navy Department. Subsequently, the Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, himself a Navy Admiral, submitted a report expressing the Board’s unanimous disapproval of the proposed change. In the end, the bill failed, and the Lighthouse Establishment remained under the Treasury Department. 

1862 The schooner DREAM is purchased to replaces the lighthouse tender LAMPLIGHTER

1863 The schooner "Belle" enters lighthouse tender service

1864 Lard oil was adopted within the Lighthouse Establishment as the standard illuminant, replacing colza, rapeseed and sperm oil.

1865 The Lighthouse Service adopted the practice of naming its tenders after flowers, trees or plants.

1865 The Lighthouse Service purchased its first propeller-driven steam tender IRIS."

1866 By this date, most of the lights that had become discontinued during the Civil War had been repaired and re-lighted

1867 Congress fixed the maximum pay of light keepers at $600.00, a law which remained  unchanged for 50 years.

1867 The first steam lighthouse tender on the Great Lakes, The HAZE, was purchased, replacing two sailing tenders DREAM and WATCHFUL.

1869 The U. S. Lighthouse Service adopted a distinctive flag, which was triangular in shape, with a red border, and bore a blue lighthouse on a white field. The lighthouse tenders displayed this Service flag, in addition to the national ensign.

1870 An Act of Congress directed the Lighthouse Board to mark all pier heads belonging to the United States situated on the northern and northwestern lakes, as soon as construction or repair of pier heads was completed.

1871 the steam propeller WARRINGTON enters service as lighthouse tender.

1873 The schooner BELLE runs aground and is abandoned as lighthouse tender

1874 Congress extended the jurisdiction of the Lighthouse Board over the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers. 

The steam propeller DAHLIA enters service. This is the first Great Lakes tender specifically designed as a tender.

Spectacle Reef Lighthouse, located on a limestone reef at the northern end of Lake Huron, was illuminated. The structure was considered "a notable engineering work" at the time.

1875 The first steam fog signal on Lake Michigan was installed at South Manitou Island Lighthouse.

1876 The Lighthouse Service began installing libraries on all lightships and inaccessible off—shore stations.

Congress passed a law whereby it became a Federal offense for anyone to injure any pier, breakwater, or other work of the United States for the improvement of rivers, harbors, or navigation.

1877 Kerosene began to be used within the Lighthouse Establishment. Until this time,  sperm oil, rapeseed, or lard oils were being used.

1880 Congress asserted that "masters of lighthouse tenders shall have police powers in matters pertaining to government property and smuggling." 

The lighthouse tender LOTUS enters service.

1881 A first attempt at the use of oil gas lighted beacons was undertaken. 

The Weitzel Lock opens in Sault Ste. Marie.

1883 The Navesink Lighthouse was the first light with a First Order Fresnel lens to be illuminated using kerosene.

1884 The Lighthouse Board introduced a uniform for male lighthouse keepers, as well as for masters, mates, and engineers of lightships and tenders. Wearing of both dress and fatigue uniforms was also made mandatory.

1885 The Lighthouse Board reported that It had "at last succeeded in clothing all the male light-keepers, and the officers and crews of the lightships and the lighthouse tenders, in a neat, appropriate, and economical uniform, which the laborers employed as acting light-keepers are not allowed to wear. It is believed that "uniforming" the personnel of the service, some 1,600 in number, will aid in maintaining its discipline, increase its efficiency, raise its tone, and add to its esprit de corps."

Kerosene was adopted as the principal illuminant.

1886 Congress authorized an increase in the number of lighthouse districts within the Lighthouse establishment to 16.

The placement of an arc light in the torch of the Statue Of Liberty, in New York Harbor, marks the first use of electricity for illuminating an aid to navigation in the US.

Officers and crews of lightships and lighthouse tenders became entitled to free treatment and care by the Public Health Service on the application of their commanding officers.

1887 Fourteen-Foot Bank became the first lighthouse in the US built on a caisson sunk in the sand bottom by the pneumatic process.

1890 The lighthouse tender MARIGOLD enters service

1891 The first United States lightships with self-propelling power were constructed, and the lighthouse tender AMARANTH enters service.

1892 The Lighthouse Service began being charged customs duties on certain articles of lighthouse supply not manufactured in the United States, previously imported duty free.

1896 President Grover Cleveland placed the U. S. Lighthouse Service within the Federal Civil Service

1898 An electric arc lamp was installed in the south tower of the Navesink lighthouse, making it the first primary lighthouse lighted by electricity, and the only shore station outfitted with its own generator.

1901 The lighthouse tender "Lotus" leaves service. 

1903 Congress transferred the Lighthouse Service from the Treasury Department to the newly formed Department of Commerce and Labor.

Compressed acetylene dissolved in acetone was first used at Jones Rocks Beacon in Connecticut, and South Hook Beacon in New Jersey.

1905 The tender HAZE  leaves lighthouse service.

1906 The lighthouse tender ASPEN enters service 

1909 The lighthouse tender DAHLIA retired from service

1910 Congress abolished the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses to have complete charge of the Lighthouse Service. As a result, Mr. George R. Putnam and Mr. John S. Conway took office as the first Commissioner of Lighthouses and first Deputy Commissioner of Lighthouses.

1911 A new type of oil-vapor lamp was developed which was believed to be an improvement on existing lamps. It reportedly provided greater candlepower per unit of oil used and practically superceded the carbonization of the oil, which has been a defect of previous types of oil-vapor lamps." 

The tender WARRINGTON leaves lighthouse service

1912 As a result of the increasing cost of Fresnel lenses imported from France, the Lighthouse Service took steps to encourage American glass manufacturers in the production of lighthouse lenses.

A system of "efficiency stars and pennants," designed to promote efficiency and friendly rivalry among lighthouse keepers was initiated.

The Lighthouse Service installed a uniform system of inspection, introduced a new system of boat keeping and reporting, revised the methods of keeping the general accounts in both the Bureau of Lighthouses and its district offices.

1913 Lightship No. 82 was lost, along with her crew of six men,  off her station on Lake Erie about 13 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York.

1914 The first Conference of Lighthouse Inspectors was held

1915 The use of the Canadian diaphone fog signal, manufactured by the Canadian Signal Company was first introduced in the United States

The installation of temporary unmanned gas lights for winter use at certain isolated stations on the Great Lakes was tried. This permitted the keepers to leave under safer conditions and at the same time giving service to late season mariners. 

1916 Congress provided that "light keepers and assistant light keepers of the Lighthouse Service shall be entitled to medical relief without charge at hospitals and other stations of the Public Health Service under the rules and regulations governing the seamen of the merchant marine."

The Naval Appropriations Act provided for the mobilization of the Lighthouse Service in time of war by authorizing the President, "whenever in his judgment a sufficient national emergency exists, to transfer to the service and jurisdiction of the Navy Department, or of the War Department, such vessels, equipment, stations and personnel of the Lighthouse Service as he may deem to the best Interest of the country."

A bronze tablet was unveiled at the Boston Light Station on the 200th anniversary of its establishment.

Standard power boats were designed and built for use at various island stations in the Great Lakes.

A device for automatically replacing burned-out incandescent electric lamps was developed and placed in use at several light stations 

1917 Congress appropriated $300,000 to enable the U. S. Coast Guard to extend its telephone system to include all Coast Guard stations, and to include the most important light stations that then had no alternate means of rapid communication.

The first experimental radio beacon was set up, paving the way for later widespread use of radio in ship direction-finding.

1918 Congress changed the designation of Lighthouse Inspectors, who were in charge of the 19 lighthouse districts, to that of Superintendents of Lighthouses.

As part of a major cost-cutting move, the Lighthouse Service adopted the use of cotton towels in place of linen.

Congress provided retirement benefits for persons in the field service of the U. S. Lighthouse Service, including light keepers and lightship personnel.

1919 The Acting Secretary of the Treasury advised that light keepers and the officers and crews of vessels were not entitled to the benefits of the Public Health Service free of charge after retirement.

The Coast Guard had installed telephones at 139 light stations.

1920 Congress provided a system of general retirement for the civil employees of the U. S. Government, benefited those employees of the Lighthouse Service who were not covered by the retirement law of 20 June 1918.

A revision of the uniform regulations authorized light keepers and depot keepers to wear sleeve insignia to indicate length of service.

1921  system of pay increases for length of service was introduced as a means maintaining more efficient personnel on Lighthouse Service vessels.

1922 As a further cost cutting measure, acetylene lanterns, previously acquired from the manufacturers, began being made at the General Lighthouse Depot.

During Fiscal Year 1922, a readjustment was made of pay scales on vessels of the Lighthouse Service on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Great Lakes and a system of longevity pay for all officers was introduced,

1925 Congress provided for disability retirement within the Lighthouse Service.

Congress authorized the purchase of rubber boots, oilskins, etc., for the use of personnel while engaged in lighthouse work requiring such equipment.

Congress repealed the law providing a ration allowance for keepers of lighthouses and increased their salaries correspondingly.

The Lake Huron Lightship radio fog signal was placed in commission, being the first signal of this kind on the Great Lakes.

1926 Congress extended the benefits of the Public Health Service to apply to light keepers located at isolated points, who previously had been unable to avail themselves of such benefits.

1928 The first radio beacon in the United States, automatic In operation, was completed and placed into operation.

1930 Congress provided "that light keepers and vessel officers and crews, who during their active service were entitled to medical relief at hospitals and other stations of the Public Health Service, may be given such relief after retirement as Is now applicable to retired officers and men in other branches of the Government service, under joint regulations to be prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Commerce."’

1932 The 2nd Lighthouse District completed an improved type of boat for delivering bulk kerosene between the tender and the light stations.

1933 An extended test and demonstration of mobile radio beacons was undertaken on Lake Michigan, with favorable results.

A photo-electric-controlled alarm system for checking the operation of an unwatched electric light was developed.

1935 After extensive testing, a system of flashing-light characteristics to indicate the purpose of buoys was placed in general operation.

1936 The Service’s annual report for this year made the claim that the Lighthouse Service was perhaps the most decentralized agency of the Federal Government, with less than one percent of its 5,000 employees located at the seat of government,"

A battery-operated electric solenoid-operated fog bell striker of the clapper type was experimentally installed at the Peshtigo Reef Light Station on Lake Michigan.

Lighthouse Service radio engineers designed and constructed improved radio beacon equipment, including new types of transmitters and transmitter exciters for modernizing older type radio beacons."

1937 The initial installation for the broadcasting by radiotelephone was established at Sault Ste, Marie, Michigan. By cooperative arrangement, this station would also be available. for the broadcasting of weather forecasts, ice conditions, wrecks and, derelicts.

There were 1,644 more flashing lights than fixed lights in service, and the Lighthouse Service was continuing its policy of changing oil-burning fixed lights to occulting lights using acetylene or electric illuminant. 

With the rapidly increasing network of highways, the Lighthouse Service began making increased use of truck for servicing its facilities.

The continued extension of commercial electric power lines even into the remoter sections of the United States had a reliable source of energy for the operation of signals at an increasing number of lighthouses.

1938 President Theodore Roosevelt enlarged substantially the number of "personnel in the Lighthouse Service who are subject to the principle of the civil service," which allowed advancement in the Service solely on individual merit.

The first low power, unattended "secondary" radio aid to navigation was established at St. Ignace, Michigan.

The program for the broadcasting of marine information by means of radiophones had been expanded to five additional radiophone broadcasting stations on the Great Lakes, as well as such broadcasts from Key West and New Orleans.

The Lighthouse Service Radio Laboratory completed the developmental work on a high-power radio beacon amplifier, on ultrahigh frequency radiophone equipment, and on a calling unit to increase the efficiency and reliability of radiophone circuits.

The Lighthouse Service Radio Laboratory was moved from the shops of the lighthouse depot in Detroit, Michigan to the Lazaretto Lighthouse Depot in Baltimore, where a building had been constructed for its installation.

1939 The total personnel of the Service as of June 30, 1939, was 5,355, consisting of 4,119 full-time and 1,156 part-time employees, the former including 1,170 light keepers and assistants; 56 light attendants; 1,995 officers and crews of lightships and tenders; 113 Bureau officers, engineers, and draftsmen, and district superintendents and technical assistants; 226 clerks, messengers, janitors, and office laborers; 157 depot keepers and assistants, including watchmen and laborers; and 482 field-force employees engaged in construction and repair work." 

The tender WALNUT enters service.

The total number of aids to navigation maintained by the Lighthouse Service was 29,606, which represented an increase of 849 over the previous year."

Under the President’s Reorganization Plan No. 11, the responsibilities of the Bureau of Lighthouses was transferred to the Coast Guard.

On July 7, the Lighthouse Bureau was officially eliminated, and its personnel moved themselves and their equipment to Coast Guard Headquarters. Thus lighthouses returned  to the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department.

Suitable observance of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Lighthouse Service was called for by a joint resolution of Congress, and signed by the President on May 15. By this resolution the week of August 7, 1939, was designated lighthouse week.

1946 The tender MARIGOLD leaves service, and is rebuilt as dredge. The tender "Amaranth" is also decommissioned, and sold to a private company.

1948 The lighthouse tender ASPEN leaves service

The information above was paraphrased and condensed from "The U.S. Coast Guard Chronology of Aids to Navigation and the United States Lighthouse Service."

This page last updated 03/15/2004

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