Lighthouses once made the way safer for ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean into East Coast ports. By 1900, the United States had nearly 1,000 of these picturesque beacons.
Since then, the installation of satellite-based navigation systems on ships has replaced the lighthouse as a primary navigational aid. Now automated lighthouses function mostly as backups for marine navigation, while many other lighthouses have ceased to operate and exist solely to beautify landscapes and remind us of the past.
Starting up north, the Cape Neddick Light Station, aka Nubble Light, stands on a rocky nub of Nubble Island on the southern tip of Maine. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Nubble Light’s conical tower, lined with brick and sheathed with cast iron, is 41 feet tall, but appears much taller. It sits about 88 feet above sea level on a steep rocky islet. Four-inch brass replicas of the lighthouse adorn the stanchions of the walkway railing around its lantern room.
Prior to the Nubble’s construction in the early 1880s, the area had frequent shipwrecks, which gave rise to a local legend that a phantom ship haunts the seas around the cape.
Although the lighthouse is closed to the public, the town’s Sohier Park offers magnificent views of it. Sit on a bench here and enjoy the view then walk through the visitor’s center and gift shop. Twice per year, for Christmas in July, and for the actual Christmas season in December, Nubble Light’s rope lighting is illuminated.
Massachusetts’ Boston Light overlooks the sea from Little Brewster Island, casting a light beam 27 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s oldest lighthouse is also the oldest continually used. The first structure was built in 1716, the current one, in 1783.
Tours of Boston Harbor include this National Historic Landmark. The original structure was a circular, slightly tapered tower of rubblestone about 60 feet high, its light provided by candles. Also constructed were a keeper’s house, barn, and a wharf.
Following its Revolutionary War era destruction, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1783. This time, it was constructed of mortared rubblestone, 75 feet high, with four fish oil lamps illuminating it.
To accommodate the installation of a second-order revolving Fresnel lens in 1859, the tower was raised to 89 feet. In the 1900s, Boston Light and its Fresnel lens were electrified, freeing the keepers from having to wind it by hand every four hours.
In 1989, when the Coast Guard prepared to automate the light and remove personnel from Little Brewster, the U.S. Senate passed a law requiring that Boston Light be permanently staffed. As a result of the same law, the island was opened to the public in 1999. The light was automated in 1998, and remains “on,” ending the necessity for the keeper to climb the stairs twice a day.
Moving south to Rhode Island you will find Pomham Rocks Lighthouse on a half-acre rock island off the shoreline of East Providence, in upper Narragansett Bay.
Designed in a French Empire mansard style, the lighthouse has seven rooms and a 42-foot tower. Its light was first lit on Dec. 1, 1871, with a sixth-order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1974, sold to a private family and then acquired by ExxonMobil, which donated it to the American Lighthouse Foundation in 2010.
After more than three decades of darkness, Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was relit in 2006. Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse is hosting tours this summer, the public’s first opportunity to visit the fully restored local landmark. The only way to get to the lighthouse is aboard the Lady Pomham II, a 26-foot launch with a canopy.
Pomham Rocks’ lantern room affords a panoramic view of the bay. Visitors can explore the interior museum, which has displays of lighthouse equipment from the last 150 years, including the antique fourth-order Fresnel lens that lit the structure nearly 100 years ago. In addition, storyboards highlight all five lighthouses that once guided ships to the port. Volunteer docents answer questions, and the lighthouse has a gift shop.
New York’s first lighthouse, Montauk Point Lighthouse, is still active, making it the country’s fourth oldest operating lighthouse. Located at the tip of eastern Long Island, the lighthouse provides 360-degree views of Block Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and points west. The light, which flashes every five seconds, can be seen from a distance of 19 nautical miles.
Commissioned by President George Washington and authorized by the Second Congress, it was built in 1796 by John McComb, who also built Gracie Mansion and two other lighthouses that are still standing: in Eaton’s Neck, Long Island, and Cape Henry, Virginia. Montauk Point became a National Historic Landmark in 2012.
Constructed of sandstone blocks from Connecticut, the lighthouse’s walls range in thickness from 6 feet at the base to 3 feet at the top. In 1860, 30 feet were added to its height and a new lantern room was built. The height of the tower is 110.6 feet, there are 137 iron steps to the top. Its Fresnel lens served in the tower from 1903 until 1987, and is now on view in the lighthouse museum.
The lighthouse was tended by civilian keepers until 1939, when the Coast Guard took over. The Montauk Historical Society leased the property from the Coast Guard in 1987, and bought it in 1996. The Coast Guard is still responsible for maintaining the aids to navigation.
North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, Old Baldy, is the second of three lighthouses built on Bald Head Island since the 19th century to help guide ships past the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals that extend nearly 30 miles from Cape Fear into the Atlantic Ocean.
A large, barren sand dune once marked the island’s southwestern point where the Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic. Before lighthouses, mariners would use this sand dune as a navigational aid when searching for the Cape Fear River. A “head” is a high point of land and “bald” described its bareness.
Increasing maritime traffic into the growing port of Wilmington necessitated the construction of a harbor light to distinguish the mouth of the river. After the federal government assumed responsibility for constructing a lighthouse on the island, nearly 60,000 bricks and a wrought-iron lantern completed the lighthouse in 1793.
A 1764 hurricane opened a second inlet into the river north of the island, endangering the lighthouse; it was torn down in 1813. The octagonal 110-foot walls of a new lighthouse combined recycled bricks from the original lighthouse with newly pressed bricks, all covered with stucco for added protection. The original lighthouse’s lantern, fueled by whale oil lamps that used parabolic reflectors to cast light onto the horizon, was also reused in the new structure, but was replaced with a Fresnel lens in 1852.
The Old Baldy Lighthouse and Smith Island Museum of History offers a self-guided tour. Visitors may climb its 108 stairs, with five landings, to reach the top of the lighthouse, which overlooks the Cape Fear River estuary.
Bald Head Island is only accessible by boat, The Bald Head Island passenger ferry, in Southport, North Carolina, makes trips to and from the island daily. The lighthouse is a five-minute walk from the ferry landing.
Tybee Island Lighthouse, Georgia’s oldest (1736) and tallest (145 feet) lighthouse, is situated on a preserved, 3-acre site on the northeast end of Tybee Island, about 30 minutes east of Savannah. The lighthouse has guided ships entering the Savannah River for 286 years.
One of seven remaining Colonial-era lighthouse towers, it has been rebuilt multiple times. During the Civil War (1861), Confederate troops set fire to the tower to prevent Union troops from using it to guide their ships into port. The wooden stairs and the tower’s top 40 feet were destroyed. Post-war, it was rebuilt atop the intact lower 60 feet.
The fireproof existing lighthouse has 178 steps to the top, which boasts outstanding ocean views, and a First Order Fresnel lens.
All of the lighthouse’s support structures have survived, including three Lightkeepers’ cottages, and the 1899 Endicott Period Battery, which was built as part of Fort Screven during the Spanish-American War (1899), and now houses the Tybee Island Museum, which has exhibits on area history.
Originally known as the Dry Tortugas Light, the 157-foot-tall Loggerhead Key Lighthouse is located in the Florida Keys – on Loggerhead Key, a 49-acre island where its namesake loggerhead turtles nest. It is farther from the mainland than any other lighthouse.
Dry Tortugas Light was built in 1857 as a result of numerous issues Fort Jefferson’s Garden Key Lighthouse had with helping vessels navigate through the treacherous 80 square miles of reefs, shoals and islands known as the Dry Tortugas. The new light was taller, brighter, and equipped with a more modern optical lens than the Garden Key.
The lighthouse has a stone foundation and a conical brick tower, with walls that are 6 feet thick at the base tapering to 4 feet thick at the top. When originally constructed, the walls were a natural, yellowish-red brick color. Later, it was painted black on the upper part and white below.
The original lens was a first-order Fresnel lens. In addition to the tower, the light station included a brick two-story dwelling with Greek Revival features, a brick two-story kitchen (still in existence) and oil house, wash house, outhouses and cisterns.
Electrified in 1931, Loggerhead Key became the country’s most powerful lighthouse. The U.S. Lighthouse Service maintained Loggerhead Light through World War II, when lighthouse duty transferred to the Coast Guard, which left the island once the light was fully automated in 1987. In 2015, it was decommissioned; although still operational, no one is admitted inside.The site is open to the public during the day. There is no public transportation to the island; access is limited to private vessels or kayaks/canoes brought to the park via the Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry. The island has quiet, empty beaches, and great snorkeling, but its deep open water with strong currents make the experience advisable only for those with expertise.
by Ellyn Wexler