Saving America’s Epic Lighthouses

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse; image courtesy Chandra Hari

Please Keep the Nightlights On!

By Ria Nicholas

Lighthouses have guided sailors away from danger and toward safe harbors since before Homer’s mythical monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, terrorized the seas of classical Greece. Today, however, it is the lighthouses themselves that are endangered. Made obsolete by modern GPS technology and radar beacons, many lighthouses have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Simultaneously, the public’s love of lighthouses has grown in inverse proportion to their usefulness. Enter the U.S. Lighthouse Society and a plethora of other organizations dedicated to the restoration and preservation of America’s lighthouses for the enjoyment of future generations.

Lighthouses grace all four of our U.S. coastlines – Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes – and each is as unique as your fingerprints. You, too, can play a part in saving lighthouses from extinction by visiting them, paying admission, or purchasing souvenirs, where applicable.

Boston Light In Massachusetts:

The first lighthouse in what is now the United States was the “Boston Light,” built in Boston Harbor in 1716. Throughout the back-and-forth course of the American Revolution (1775-1783), American Patriots burned the lighthouse – twice – and the British eventually blew it up. However, the United States rebuilt the Light in 1784, one year after the end of the American Revolution, and today it remains the oldest lighthouse still standing in the United States.

Take a 3-Lighthouse Tour, including the Boston Light, America’s oldest lighthouse; image courtesy Abhinaba Basu . Image has been cropped.

Lighthouses were so important to the success of the nation that the 9th Act of Congress created the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) in 1790, placing all lighthouses under federal control. You can get a closer look at Boston Light (as well as Long Island Light and Graves Light) by taking a two-hour boat tour. (For more about Boston itself, see our article “No Passport? No Problem!” and scroll down to the section on “England.”)

If you like lighthouses, too, then read on. Represented here is just a smattering of the roughly 700 lighthouses from around the country – at some of which you can actually spend the night!

Heceta Head Lighthouse In Oregon:

Perched 150 feet above the blue Pacific, the lighthouse and the bluff on which it sits bear the name of Spanish sailor Don Bruno Heceta [ha-SEE-ta], who first made note of the area during his 1775 journey north from what is now Mexico. The lighthouse was built there in 1894 on a landscape laid barren by forest fire – completely different from the lush forested backdrop we see today.

Heceta Head Lighthouse; image courtesy T meltzer

During the 1930s, construction of the Oregon Coast Highway brought an end to the loneliness of the lighthouse. Since 1995, a duplex on the premises, known as “Heceta House,” has operated as a unique B & B, serving a spectacular seven course gourmet breakfast. As you can imagine, the views from Heceta Head are jaw dropping both day and night.

Thomas Point Lighthouse In Maryland (Florida?):

The Thomas Point screw-pile light (top left) was erected on a shoal in the Chesapeake Bay in 1875, replacing an earlier onshore lighthouse. Cast iron ice breakers, clusters of pilings, and piles of rip rap protect it from winter ice flows. Today, the Thomas Point Lighthouse is registered as a National Historic Landmark, and you can book a tour to see the inside of it. But you can’t spend the night there. The closest you can come is to book a stay at Katie’s Light (top right), a comfortable Florida beach-front vacation rental cottage that sleeps up to 6 adults and 2 children. While Katie’s Light isn’t actually a lighthouse, its design is based on the Thomas Point Lighthouse in Maryland. Katies’ Light is located on Florida’s Amelia Island, where you can find another real lighthouse (right), Florida’s oldest and the only one to survive without major rebuilding.

Marblehead Lighthouse In Ohio:

The Marblehead Lighthouse, built in 1821, is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. With Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry’s defeat of the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 (part of the War of 1812), the United States gained possession of large portions of the Great Lakes. In 1819 Congress approved $5,000 for construction of the lighthouse on the shores of Lake Erie to mark the entrance to Sandusky Bay.

The quaint Victorian era Keeper’s Cottage now houses a museum. Construction of a replica of the 1876 U.S. Lifesaving Station was completed in 2016 and features an authentically restored 27-foot Coast Guard rescue boat complete with launching railway.

Execution Rocks Lighthouse In New York:
Execution Rocks Lighthouse, New York; image courtesy Ginger10180

Equidistant from New Rochelle and Port Washington in New York’s Long Island Sound, this lighthouse teeters on its tiny island. Since the 1850s, the lighthouse has guarded Long Island’s splendid mansions and also a macabre secret. According to legend, the British chained prisoners to the island’s rocks during the Revolutionary War and let the high tide do their dirty work. More likely, the island received its disquieting name due to the many shipwrecks it caused. Either way, so-called paranormal activity at the lighthouse earned it a place on the Travel Channel’s show, Ghost Adventures in 2009. If you have the courage to spend the night there, you can! Make arrangements here.

Diamond Head Lighthouse On Oahu, Hawaii:
Image courtesy Arjunkrsen

As in other locations around the globe, large bonfires served as original ‘lighthouses,’ guiding mariners safely to shore. But after two large vessels ran aground off Oahu in 1893 and 1897, plans were made to place lighthouses there. The Diamond Head Lighthouse was constructed of concrete in 1899. When the concrete started to crack, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1917. The 55′ structure stands 147 feet above the island’s spectacular turquoise surf. While the lighthouse isn’t open to the public, it can be seen from Diamond Head Road.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse In Maine:
Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse; image courtesy Chandra Hari

The brick Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was built on its stone foundation in 1858 in what is now Acadia National Park. A fog bell was later added, as was a boat landing in 1894. The lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, partners with a keeper’s house, which appears in its original form. An exterior glimpse of both (the structures serve as a private residence) is accessible via footpath to an observation area that also affords stunning panoramic views of the harbor. From there you can continue along a path that takes you to stairs, which descend along the cliff face. Just note that the ascent back to the top is strenuous.

Dry Tortugas Lighthouses In Florida:

The 1826 lighthouse on Garden Key was insufficient to prevent shipwrecks, and so-called ‘wreckers’ continued to make a good living running rescue operations and salvage missions in the surrounding 80-square-mile smattering of reefs and shoals. So, in 1856, Congress appropriated $35,000 for construction of a second, more powerful lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, also in the Dry Tortugas.

Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key. Image is in the public domain.
Replacement lighthouse at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. Image is in the public domain.

As the name implies, Loggerhead Key is a gathering place for loggerhead sea turtles to come ashore to lay their eggs. The slow-moving, two-hundred to five-hundred pound turtles proved easy to capture and provided “turtle soup” for the keeper’s family and inhabitants at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. A hurricane in 1873 severely damaged both towers, and the lighthouse on Garden Key was replaced. Repairs at the Loggerhead Lighthouse were so effective that plans for replacement were abandoned. All seven keys of the Dry Tortugas and their surrounding reefs now fall within the Dry Tortugas National Park, and the loggerhead turtles that lay their eggs here are protected by law.

Frying Pan Tower In North Carolina:

This decommissioned Coast Guard light station, located 32 miles offshore from Cape Fear and 130-odd feet above the Atlantic swells, was once dubbed the “Most Dangerous Hotel In the World.” Consisting of a modified Texas drilling platform, the 1964 structure replaced the U.S. Coastguard lightships that had been marking the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals, on and off, since 1854.

Image courtesy the Frying Pan Tower

Whether the danger at the Tower is a matter of fact or a question of perception, the Frying Pan does offer three queen and five twin bedrooms for volunteers to stay the night. The Frying Pan Tower Restoration Project can always use a hand with ongoing maintenance and restoration chores aboard the station. But it doesn’t have to be all work. Recreation opportunities abound, including fishing, skeet-shooting with biodegradable clay ‘pigeons,’ playing corn hole, snorkeling or scuba diving the protected reef below, or hitting golf balls made of fish food off the 73′ x 73′ helipad. And the stargazing is said to be amazing! Soon the Tower will add an ecotourism adventure for those who wish to help but not volunteer. Check their site regularly for updates.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse In Alaska:
Eldred Rock Lighthouse; image courtesy Arthur Chapman

Eldred Rock, an islet in Lynn Canal, was named by naturalist Marcus Baker, co-founder of the National Geographic Society, in honor of his wife, Sarah Eldred. The onset of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896 brought about an influx of prospectors and an increase in ship traffic through Alaska’s inside passage to Skagway. As a result, Congress approved $100,000 in 1900 to construct lighthouses in Southeast Alaskan waters. Eldred Rock was the last of twelve lighthouses built here between 1902 and 1906. Never having been rebuilt, the lighthouse is the last octagonal structure of its kind remaining in Alaska. Today, the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association leases the lighthouse from the U.S. Coastguard, with the ultimate goal of establishing a visitor center and maritime museum there. Stay tuned!

Split Rock Lighthouse In Minnesota
Split Rock Lighthouse, bathed in spectacular autumn colors; image courtesy kkmarais

Though Lake Superior serves as a graveyard for some 350 ships, this number represents only a small fraction of the estimated 10,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes region. Never-the-less, one vicious November gale in 1905 disabled or destroyed 29 ships there and claimed 78 lives. This single episode, more than any other, prompted the U.S. Lighthouse Service to erect the Split Rock Lighthouse, a feature which today dramatically anchors a Minnesota State Park. Here the lighthouse clings to a cliff edge on Lake Superior’s North Shore, overlooking what novelist James Oliver Curwood once called “the most dangerous piece of water in the world.” Split Rock provides visitors a variety of trip packages, from leisurely self-guided walkabouts to detailed docent-guided tours. Additionally, the State Park offers camping, hiking, and other outdoor adventure.

Port Isabel Lighthouse In Texas:
Port Isabel Lighthouse; image courtesy Billy D. Wagner

The Texas War for Independence (1835/36) bypassed Point Isabel. But the area gained attention in 1846, when General Zachary Taylor moved his troops here in anticipation of hostilities leading up to the Mexican-American War. Casualties from the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma were brought to Point Isabel, which also served as an American supply depot. As heavy shipping traffic in the region continued, Congress authorized construction of the lighthouse. Built in 1852 out of bricks brought by schooner from New Orleans, the lighthouse and its 16-mile beacon guided ships into the harbor and into the Rio Grande River. By 1905, the Port Isabel Lighthouse was permanently retired. Today, the lighthouse, the surrounding Park, and the replica Keeper’s Cottage Visitor Center are all open to the public for self-guided tours.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse In California:

Built in 1872, the 115-foot tall Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the California coast is one of the tallest lighthouses in America. Its Fresnel [fray-NEL] lens, alone, stands 16 feet tall and weights 2,000 pounds!

Invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1821, Fresnel lenses make use of a series of concentric grooves that act as individual refracting surfaces. These bend the scattered light rays emitted from a relatively moderate source, such as an oil lamp, and concentrate them into powerful beams that are visible from many miles out at sea. The Fresnel lenses revolutionized maritime travel, as the beams either assisted sailors in navigating to safe harbor or warned them of the impending danger of rocks and shoals. While the interior of the lighthouse itself is off limits pending repairs, visitors can stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel on the grounds. From there you may spy seals or even whales as they frolic beyond the surf.

St. Augustine Lighthouse In Florida:

As early as 1586 a Spanish watchtower marked the north end of Anastasia Island, as documented by the 1589 map published by Italian cartographer Giovanni Battista Boazio. The watchtower underwent a series of metamorphoses and bore witness to a host of human dramas, from the 1739 establishment of a nearby community for escaped slaves, to the cession of Florida to Great Britain, then back to Spain, and eventually to the United States.

Several archival references confirm the existence of a lighthouse of sorts on Anastasia Island during the British period (1763-1783). Following the Civil War, rising sea levels encroached on the existing lighthouse, and a ‘new’ St. Augustine Lighthouse was completed in 1874 at its current location. Today, visitors can tour the lighthouse and enjoy a number of interactive and educational displays. (For more about St. Augustine itself, see our article “No Passport? No Problem!” and scroll down to the section on “Spain.”)

Nubble Lighthouse In Maine:

The Nubble (or Cape Neddick) Light, the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S., distinguishes itself as the only one ever to leave Earth’s orbit! That is to say that a digital image of this American classic is, even now, hurtling through interstellar space aboard the Voyager II spacecraft. NASA honored this quintessentially American lighthouse, together with the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and others, to represent Earth and to educate potential aliens about our shared culture.

Cape Neddick Lighthouse; image courtesy Michael Murphy. Image has been cropped.

From the beginning, Nubble Lighthouse has enjoyed great popularity, attracting hoards of tourists. The Light’s first keeper, who served until 1885, supplemented his income by having his son ferry sightseers to the island for a fee.

“Visitors are not allowed to visit the lighthouse at York Nubble between the hours of 6 P.M. and 10 A.M.; but at other times the son of the keeper will row you over and back in his boat for ten cents.”

The Portsmouth Journal

Despite inflation and the fact that several keepers were dismissed, the practice of transporting tourists to the island continued at the same rate for many years. At times 200 to 300 people roamed the grounds, with only the keeper’s wife to serve as docent – and protect the property! Through the years, keepers came and went, but one of the island’s most famous residents was a 20-pound tomcat named Sambo Tonkus. After consuming all of the mice on the island, he was regularly seen swimming back and forth to the mainland to fetch his rodent repast.

Tybee Island Lighthouse In Georgia:
Tybee Island Lighthouse; image courtesy Winkelvi. Image has been cropped.

Tybee Island Lighthouse, the oldest and tallest lighthouse in Georgia, acts as the centerpiece of an entire museum complex. The lighthouse, whose history dates back to 1736, is joined by three keeper’s cottages, a summer kitchen (1812), a military battery (1899), and a raised cottage that showcases Tybee’s 1900s architecture. The summer kitchen houses archaeological finds, while the military battery plays home to the Tybee Island Museum. Here you can learn about the Euchee tribe and the history of Fort Screven. While on the Island, you can also visit the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. Just be aware that ticket purchases and parking for the Marine Science Center are separate from those of the lighthouse. Tybee Island is also just a short trip away from Savannah’s Historic District! (For more about Savannah itself, see our article “No Passport? No Problem!” and scroll down to the section on “France.”)

Southwest Reef Lighthouse In Louisiana:
The Southwest Reef Lighthouse; image courtesy Patrick Feller.

The Southwest Reef Lighthouse stands, rather smugly, on the western bank of the Atchafalaya River in Everett S. Berry Lighthouse Park, Berwick, Louisiana. But it wasn’t always sitting high and dry. The Southwest Reef Lighthouse was originally placed atop four vertical piles screwed into the shoal at the end of Southwest Reef in Atchafalaya Bay in 1856. Its history – with respect to how the lighthouse came about, its contentious role in the Civil War, and the circumstances of its eventual deactivation – parallels that of many other lighthouses around the country.

The Southwest Reef Lighthouse in its original location. Image is in the public domain.

And most lighthouses were built at the ends of narrow points, on islands, or on shoals. Like that of other lighthouses, the location of the Southwest Reef Lighthouse was separate from society. Perhaps we can pause for a moment to try to imagine the life of a lighthouse keeper, especially before the advent of electricity. There was no distraction from telephones, radio, television, or computers. No emails, no text messaging, and no FaceTime – virtual or actual. Even print media were far removed in space and time. The isolation was intense, and the loneliness must have been palpable!

Battery Point Lighthouse In California:

Theophilus Magruder and his friend, James Marshall, arrived in Oregon in 1845 in search of opportunity. The pair soon went their separate ways. In 1848, Marshall went to work building a sawmill in California for John Sutter. While hard at work, he came upon flakes of gold, a discovery that triggered the California Gold Rush. The subsequent mad influx of immigrants pouring into California from land and sea prompted the need for a series of lighthouses along the coast, including the Battery Point Lighthouse, built at Crescent City in 1856. Its first keeper was none other than Theophilus Magruder. He was offered an annual salary of $1,000, but by 1859 that amount was reduced by 40%, prompting Magruder to resign.

Battery Point Lighthouse; image courtesy Anita Ritenour. Image has been cropped.

A little more than 100 years later, in 1964, the keeper and his family were trapped – but safe – in the lighthouse as a tsunami hit the California coast, wreaking havoc on the mainland. Today, tourists may visit the lighthouse and its museum in March through October, but only during low tide, when the island is accessible.

Again, the examples introduced here comprise only a fraction of the nation’s beautiful and intriguing lighthouses. Though they have much in common, each light has its own unique story, and each is worthy of preservation.

If you would like to share any photos of a lighthouse you love, please send them to us, together with the name and location of the lighthouse.

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