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Digital Exhibits

Lighting America's Beacons 

U.S. Lighthouses Under the Department of Commerce 

The Bureau of Lighthouses

In 1910, Congress established the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Department of Commerce. For 29 years, the Bureau—commonly known as the Lighthouse Service—managed the nation’s lighthouses, fitting them with updated technology and supervising the lighthouse keepers who kept lights burning through the night, often heroically coming to the aid of vessels in distress.


[Left] An illustration of the Boston Light. Completed in 1716, it was the first lighthouse built in the U.S.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Oregon's Heceta Head Lighthouse is a historic site that not only offers tours to visitors, but also features an onsite bed and breakfast with scenic views.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


The Department of Commerce took over this responsibility from the Treasury Department, which had overseen navigational aids since 1789. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses, updating and preserving these historic properties through the present day. Since the first U.S. lighthouse was built in 1716, these structures have represented feats of engineering and technology and a mastery of the nation’s sometimes treacherous seas and waterways. They have assisted Americans in wartime and helped sailors, fishermen, and travelers make a safe journey home.

 

1789-1910: The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment

The first U.S. Congress under President George Washington created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in 1789, bringing 12 colonial-era lighthouses under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. Treasury personnel, including Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, became responsible for administering the nation’s lighthouses and navigational aids.

By 1820, the Lighthouse Establishment had built around 40 new lighthouses, and assigned the Establishment’s administration to Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Pleasonton’s 32-year tenure in this role was productive, but controversial. Under Pleasonton, the Establishment built over 200 lighthouses but faced an increasing number of complaints that the nation’s lighthouses were inadequate. This was largely due to Pleasonton’s resistance to technological updates. For example, in 1822, French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel invented a lens that significantly improved navigational beacons by producing a stronger beam of light. But Pleasonton refused to install these lenses in U.S. lighthouses until the 1840s, when Congress forced him to begin to do so. After Pleasonton’s tenure, in the1850s and 1860s, all the nation’s lighthouses were finally fitted with the Fresnel lenses.

A lighthouse keeper standing inside a giant Fresnel lens in 1939.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration

 

Careful engineering and updated technology were vital for lighthouses, which were often built on exposed islands or rocks. The lives of sailors and lighthouse keepers depended on structures that could withstand all kinds of elements, as the notorious example of the Minots Ledge Light demonstrated.

This 1851 illustration depicts the Minots Ledge Light being washed away.

This 1851 illustration depicts the Minots Ledge Light being washed away.
~ Photo Source: Library of Congress

The Minots Ledge Light, completed in January 1850, stood off the Massachusetts coast. It was constructed of iron piles sunken into rocks that were only exposed at low tide, with the keeper’s house and light stories above. Though the light took several years to build, it only lasted until April 1851, when a storm snapped the iron piles and washed away the light, and tragically, two keeper’s assistants inside. In 1860, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a new structure for the site which withstands battering waves that reach as high as the light dome to this day.

 

The original Minots Ledge Light was one of several 19th century lighthouses worn or washed away by waves—underscoring the critical importance of using new engineering techniques and technologies that Pleasonton had resisted. In response to complaints about Pleasonton’s leadership, Congress set up a Lighthouse Board to administer the Establishment in 1852. This board relied on rigorous technical expertise and military engineering and organization to build, upgrade, and maintain lighthouses.

Over the next 58 years, the Lighthouse Board established a flag for the service, instituted uniforms for lighthouse keepers, introduced new types of light fuel and fog signals, published an annual list of lights for navigators, and kept important navigational aids lit through the Civil and Spanish-American wars. By the time the Lighthouse Service came under the direction of the Department of Commerce, the Lighthouse Board had developed a well-organized, up-to-date network of navigational aids across the nation’s states and territories.

This 1898 map shows districts the Lighthouse Establishment used to organize and oversee navigational aids. Congress originally established 8 districts in 1838, and carried out inspections in each district in response to complaints over Stephen Pleasonton's leadership.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


1910-1939: The Lighthouse Service at the Department of Commerce

George R. Putnam served as Commissioner of Lighthouses, heading the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Lighthouses for 25 years.
~ Photo Source: Library of Congress

Congress transferred the Lighthouse Establishment and Board to the newly-created Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. Several years later, in 1910, Congress removed the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses, also known as the Lighthouse Service, as a civilian organization to oversee all navigational aids.

President William Howard Taft named George R. Putnam as the Commissioner of Lighthouses to head up the Service in 1910. During Putnam’s 25 years in this role, the Lighthouse Service added a significant number of navigational aids, including buoys and lights. Putnam ensured that lighthouses and navigational aids had updated technology to ease the work of lighthouse keepers and make the seas safer. The Service installed devices to automatically replace burned out lamps, developed battery-powered buoys, and placed automatic radio beacons in lighthouses. The Service also extended retirement and health benefits to tireless lighthouse keepers who often lived in remote and dangerous locations and risked their own safety to help others. By 1935, the end of Putnam’s oversight of the Service, the United States’ shipping safety record was second only to the Netherlands thanks to the Department’s capable management of the nation’s beacons.

 

Katie Walker

Katie Walker, keeper of Robbins Reef Lighthouse for 35 years.
~ Photo Source: United States Coast Guard

LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS

Typically, each lighthouse had one keeper who lived at or nearby the lighthouse with their spouses and children and sometimes supplemented their income with other jobs. In the 19th century, keepers had to light the beacon at sundown and trim its wick in the middle of the night to keep it burning until the morning. During the latter half of the 19th century, Fresnel lenses, fog signals, and new types of light fuel required additional light station buildings and increased maintenance. Assistants were hired to help the keeper with these tasks. Improvements between 1910 and the 1930s, however, automated many lighthouse processes, reducing the number of personnel required to staff lighthouses.

Though most lighthouse keepers’ daily tasks were repetitive and mundane, they were sometimes called upon to rescue sailors in distress in treacherous weather. One keeper, Katie Walker, tended the Robbins Reef Light Station near Manhattan from 1894 to 1919. Walker—who stood only 4 feet, 10 inches tall—rescued around 50 people during her time as a lighthouse keeper. Over the decades, many men and women received medals, gifts, or the distinction of having a lighthouse or buoy named after them for brave rescues they carried out as keepers.

 

SHOWCASING THE LIGHTHOUSE SERVICE

Throughout the early decades of the 20th century the Lighthouse Service showcased its accomplishments in navigational aid technology at fairs in the U.S. and abroad. Huge, multifaceted lighthouse lenses and signal devices were showcased at exhibitions in San Francisco, Honolulu, Chicago, New York City, and even at the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville, Spain in 1929.

The nation’s navigational aids under the Department of Commerce guided countless foreign and domestic travelers, merchants, fishermen, and even aviators to safety across the nation’s rivers, lakes, and ocean coastlines.

A Bureau of Lighthouses exhibit at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Fransisco.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration

1939-Present: The U.S. Coast Guard Steps In

The year 1939 marked the 150th anniversary of the first U.S. federal lighthouse organization—the Lighthouse Establishment. The U.S. Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service and its 29,000 navigational aids that same year. Since then, the Coast Guard has continued to oversee American lighthouses, updating and modernizing them. By 1990, all the nation’s lighthouses were automated and did not require a keeper, with one exception. The Boston Harbor Island lighthouse—the longest continually operational lighthouse in the U.S., dating back to 1716—remains staffed to this day in commemoration of the many men and women who tended the nation’s lighthouses for over 150 years. The Coast Guard has overseen the transfer of many inactive lighthouses to local organizations which preserve them as historic sites, continue to tell their stories, and give the lighthouses new lives as spaces for tourism and leisure.

A poster celebrating the 150th Anniversary of U.S. lighthouses in 1939.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration

A letter from Alexander Hamilton about lighthouse keeper compensation. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton oversaw Lighthouse Establishment business.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


The St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida was completed in 1874, and replaced an older lighthouse which rising sea levels had encroached on.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Big Sable Lighthouse on Lake Michigan, completed in 1867, is one of several in the Great Lakes region designed by Orlando M. Poe, an engineer for the Lighthouse Board.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Completed in 1848, the Biloxi Lighthouse was one of the many lights authorized under Stephen Pleasonton. The cast iron tower has withstood the many hurricanes that have battered the Mississippi coastline since the lighthouse's construction.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Like many lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the Cleveland Light, shown here in 1948, had to contend with strong winds and chilling temperatures.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


The Alcatraz Island Light Station in California—first lit in 1854—was the nation's first lighthouse on the Pacific coast.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


A lighthouse keeper and his family at their residence at the Sullivan Island Light Station in South Carolina.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Plans for a lighthouse keeper's house in Kalaupapa , Hawaii.
~ Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Samuel Amalu worked at several Hawaiian lighthouses during his decades as a lighthouse keeper, helping countless national and international vessels navigate around the islands.
~ Photo Source: United States Coast Guard


The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse near Annapolis, Maryland, is the only intact screwpile-type lighthouse in the U.S., and is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Today, visitors can tour the historic structure.
~ Photo Source: United States Coast Guard

Digital Exhibits researched and developed in coordination with History Associates Incorporated

Digital Exhibits researched and developed in coordination with History Associates Incorporated