It has been said that lighthouses, casting a glow over the dark, mysterious sea, are to America what castles are to Europe — treasured landmarks — although there are lighthouses dating to Roman antiquity there, too. In the Western Hemisphere, remains of crude lighthouses built by Central American Mayan people date to the 13th Century.
Alas, history’s most famous lighthouse, constructed by the Greeks on Pharos Island in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, in the Third Century B.C., is a goner. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and what is thought to have been mankind’s tallest structure for centuries, it was damaged over time by a series of earthquakes. Finally, it toppled for good in 1480, shortly before Christopher Columbus set out on his voyage across the Atlantic. An Egyptian sultan pulled some of the heavy stones from its rubble to build a fort on the island.
The Greeks soon applied the island name, “Pharos,” to lighthouses, which were a new concept at the time. This then became the root of words referring to lighthouses in many romance languages. “Faro” in Spanish, for instance, and “phare” in French.
Centuries later, satellite and radio signals have rendered lighthouses obsolete for shippers and sophisticated mariners. But to captains of small boats, a lighthouse is still a valuable and welcoming sight in a storm, and a guide past treacherous rocks, reefs, and shoals, just as it was when hardy keepers maintained the lights.
Who “keeps” them now? Stay tuned.
There is good reason for the old lighthouse saying: There is no such thing as a fat keeper.
These men — and women who often inherited the job when their husbands drowned, died, ran away, or went mad (and many did) — had to haul oil for the lamp up the tower’s twisting stairs in huge cans. Twice a night, often in raging storms, deep fog, and cold mists, they trudged up to the lantern room.
There were wicks to be trimmed and lit — hence lighthouse keepers’ “wickies” nickname — reflectors to be polished, soot to be cleared from lenses, and the fog signal to be maintained.
If you live near a port, you may know all about lighthouses, coastal fog, and foghorns.
As a child in Lakewood, Ohio, a couple of kilometers west of downtown Cleveland, I would lie in bed on foggy nights and listen to the distant foghorn’s low, slow OOOH-guh . . . OOOH-guh, over and over and over again.
The fog seemed to transport that sound; other times, I rarely heard the foghorns’ mournful calls.
Cleveland’s lighthouses were nothing to write home about. They were (and still are) little stumpy things — “bug” lights, I think they call them — out in Lake Erie at the end of stone breakwaters. But those horns packed plenty of power.
Because lighthouses are also important daymarks — visible assurances of “land ho!” as lookouts high in ships’ masts used to cry out — the keeper had to keep them freshly painted in distinctive patterns, as you can see in Carol’s striking photos that accompany this posting.
And there are a dozen more in a special slide show at the end.
When mariners foundered nearby, the lighthouse keeper felt duty-bound to rescue them. Dozens of keepers died trying.
Wood fires illuminated early lighthouses. Arrays of candles arranged in tiers, and coal in brazier pans, were also tried. Then came whale- and fish-oil lamps, which produced a terrible stench. Even worse was colza oil from rapeseed.
“Smelled like cooking cabbage,” Scott Stanton, a boatswain’s mate and one of the keepers at the U.S. Coast Guard’s last staffed station at Boston Light, once told me.
This was also the nation’s first lighthouse, erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1716.
French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel revolutionized lighthouse optics in 1822 with a system that took advantage of the refractive properties of glass.
The Fresnel lens bent a single light source inside a beehive of glass prisms into powerful sheets visible up to 35 km (22 miles) away.
The old U.S. Light House Board, which originally maintained America’s lighthouses — and the better-known U.S. Light House Service that followed in 1910 — designed a different signaling pattern for each and every light.
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about wartime readiness, placed light stations under Coast Guard control.
The move spelled the end of the Light House Service and the staffing of most towers. Instead, Coast Guardsmen would stop by from time to time to check the lights and the structures.
The reason the pros in the lighthouse field like to call them “light stations” is that they are not all classic towers, topped by rotating beacons. Low, squat “screwpile” lights rise only a story or two high on iron pilings. Bug lights sit on many piers besides Cleveland’s. Some light stations are little more than a rotating lantern atop tall girders.
And lightships once moved about some harbors, guiding vessels safely to shore. One, the “Chesapeake,” is now a floating educational classroom, part of Baltimore, Maryland’s, Maritime Museum.
Even the sturdiest of lighthouses could not survive all of the ravages of nature and man. Some have succumbed to relentless erosion, crumbling into the sea or lake with a roar. Ice floes took out others. Before regional and state park services and local historical societies came to the rescue, the Coast Guard rapidly decommissioned lighthouses, leaving them to whatever fate might befall them.
Some collapsed from sheer neglect. Others felt the wrath of pyromaniacs and vandals. In some locations, these miscreants had to be resourceful, for many lights lie far offshore on rocky outcroppings surrounded by thrashing seas.
Only 600 or so U.S. light stations remain, out of the 1,462 that once illuminated the waters.
Among the preserved lighthouses, with their spiral staircases, lantern rooms, and former keepers’ quarters, are many that have morphed into bed-and-breakfast inns, state park attractions, and museums.
During the heyday of the U.S. Light House Service, when light stations ringed America’s shorelines — including what some call our “North Coast” around the edges of the five Great Lakes — Fresnel lenses were brought to a depot on Staten Island, New York, where they were assembled for shipment around the country.
This sprawling facility lies next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal and offers a spectacular view of Manhattan. Abandoned in the 1960s, it was chosen in 1999 as the site for a new national lighthouse museum.
It’s the perfect place for it when you consider the complex of warehouses on the site that were once stocked with spare lenses, oil cans, ladder parts and the like.
One of these buildings has been completely renovated with a museum in mind, and another is spruced up on the outside and awaits only some stabilization to be usable.
Yet there’s no museum to be found. The museum board holds impressive fundraising events, including maritime storytelling and boat tours past Greater New York’s various lighthouses. And it has plenty ready to exhibit, just no permits to do so.
How come? Linda Dianto, the board’s chairperson, chalks it up to New York City’s legendary bureaucracy. A developer has been chosen to fix up the rest of the site for condos and stores, but slow economic times have stalled that effort, too. So it all sits as lonely as a remote light sentinel, waiting for the approvals to be untangled.
Each lighthouse that remains on America’s perimeter is its own historical curiosity. Many towers’ austere beauty, keepers’ journal entries — even fanciful tales of hauntings — have inspired books and poems, paintings, collectable ceramic miniatures, license plates, postage stamps — and blogs!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow beat me to writing about lighthouses by about 165 years. I’ll excerpt his poem, “The Lighthouse,” for you:
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o’er taken mariner to save.
And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
Or not so forevermore or inextinguishably. Many of these magnificent, inspiring structures that survive remain endangered, but people’s affection for beacons of the night shines undimmed.
Now enjoy the slide show of more of Carol M. Highsmith’s photos of U.S. lighthouses. If you place your cursor over each image, caption information will appear.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
A goner. A slang way of saying that something has disappeared and is gone.
Brazier. A movable pan or stand for holding hot coals. The term was a precursor to the more familiar “barbecue grill,” although the fire from braziers’ coals was also often used for light as well as heat.
Miscreant. A person who behaves extremely badly or breaks the law.