Guiding Lights

Posted March 14th, 2012 at 3:10 pm (UTC-4)
11 comments

The Cape Neddick, or what locals call the "Nubble" Light, stands at the entrance to the York River in Maine.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

An artist's depiction of the Alexandria lighthouse. (Emad Victor SHENOUDA, German Wikipedia)

An artist's depiction of the Alexandria lighthouse. (Emad Victor SHENOUDA, German Wikipedia)

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.

The keeper's quarters at the Rose Island Lighthouse off Newport, Rhode Island, which is now a museum and hostel.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The keeper's quarters at the Rose Island Lighthouse off Newport, Rhode Island, which is now a museum and hostel. (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

You can see the foghors at the Split Rock Lighthouse in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

You can see the foghors at the Split Rock Lighthouse in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

 

This is the distinctive West Quoddy Light, off Maine, at the easternmost point of Europe that is closest to Europe.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is the distinctive West Quoddy Light, off Maine, at the easternmost point of Europe that is closest to Europe. (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

An early 20th-Century postcard view of the Boston Light.  (Library of Congress)

An early 20th-Century postcard view of the Boston Light. (Library of Congress)

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.

The United States Light House Service logo.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The United States Light House Service logo. (Wikipedia Commons)

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.

The lightship "Chesapeake" in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

The staircase at Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse on Lake Ontario in New York State. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The staircase at Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse on Lake Ontario in New York State. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A Fresnel lens.  (Wikipedia Commons)

A Fresnel lens. (Wikipedia Commons)

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 the yet-to-be-restored buildings at what's long been proposed as the site for national lighthouse museum. (www.lighthousemuseum.org)

One of the yet-to-be-restored buildings at what's long been proposed as the site for national lighthouse museum. (www.lighthousemuseum.org)

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.

Florida's Jupiter Inlet Light, first lit in 1860, was erected on a prehistoric Indian mound.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Florida's Jupiter Inlet Light, first lit in 1860, was erected on a prehistoric Indian mound. (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.


South Pierhead Lighthouse, known locally as "Big Red," in Holland, Michigan.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

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.

11 Responses to “Guiding Lights”

  1. Linda Dianto says:

    This was a beautifully written and descriptive article about the history of lighthouses and the finale of preservation and education for generations to come… leading to the National Lighthouse Museum. We are rapidly gaining support in opening this Museum and hopefully we will overcome the barriers of bureaucracy and have a museum to showcase lighthouse history shortly!

  2. Really nice article! I have an interactive map of USA lighthouses that travelers can visit. You’ll find it here: http://www.fyddeye.com/find-a-lighthouse

    I’ve also published a lighthouse travel guide called The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Lighthouses. (Fyddeye is pronounced FID-eye) Happy travels!

    Joe

  3. tland says:

    Dear Joe,

    I checked out the site. It’s quite useful for anyone who may have heard of or passed a lighthouse and wants to know more about it. Worth a visit.

    Ted

  4. Wonderful overview of lighthouse history! I should point out a small error — the lighthouse in the first photo is not the Nubble Light. It’s Nobska Point Light in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. They’re similar, but I’m sure of it.

  5. Excellent synopsis of lighthouse history. By our count, there are 771 standing lighthouses in the U.S. that are or were official aids to navigation–all located on our United States Lighthouses Illustrated Map & Guide. The Coast Guard employed many lighthouse keepers after taking over from the Lighthouse Service in 1939. Most light stations were automated and destaffed from the 1950s thru the 1970s.

    Mr. D’Entremont is right. That’s definitely Nobska Point Light MA; not Cape Neddick ME.

  6. tland says:

    Dear Bella,

    Hmm. The evidence is starting to lean against Nubble (Cape Neddick). I still need to do some further checking and, unfortunately, have a thousand more parts to my job. But I assure you, I will correct the record once I’m certain that a mistake has been made.

    Thanks,

    Ted

  7. I’ve posted one of my own photos of Nobska Point Light for comparison: http://lighthouse.cc/NOBSKA.jpg

    The duplex dwelling at Nobska has been returned to a natural cedar shingle look, so your photo has to be several years old. Also, the image appears to be flipped horizontally; I flipped mine so it matches.

  8. Lovely article and a good overview of the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s network. But, you’ve left out the bit about how the supplies got to those stations in the thrashing seas! Hail the lighthouse tenders! Only three tenders built by the USLHS still exist–the Fir, the Maple and our very own Lilac. The only steam-powered lighthouse tender in America, Lilac is moored in Manhattan and is open to the public from May to October: http://www.lilacpreservationproject.org Someday, we hope to bring her out to Pier 1 at Staten Island and call at the old Lighthouse Depot there again. We’re working with Linda Dianto to make it happen.

  9. Lee Snow says:

    The more rustic fence which extends from the picket fence out beyond the lighthouse proper doesn’t deem to exist at Nubble Light from all the pictures I’ve seen. It also looks as if the covered walkway between the Keeper’s quarters and the light seems longer at Nubble than it’s shown here. Must have been some structural differences on the islands in each case but the remainder seems cookie-cutter accurate to me. Same plans, slightly different latitude…

    In honor of beloved Edward Rowe Snow (a distant relative I miss…)

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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