By Pam Teel
Lighthouses seem to dot our coastal landscape, but did you know that the first known lighthouse built was The Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt, a 400-foot tower built about 280 B.C.? A wood fire was kept burning on the top of the tower. The Lighthouse of Alexandria became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The lighthouse was damaged by several earthquakes and eventually became an abandoned ruin. In 1994, some of the remains of the lighthouse were discovered by French archaeologists in Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor. Before this, the light from volcanoes acted as a guide for sailors. The first lighthouse in Britain was built by the Romans at Dover in A.D. 43.
Lighthouses continued to be built to the plans of the Pharos until the 12th century, and then oil lamps and candles inside lanterns began to be substituted for the fires. Shortly thereafter, lighthouses suffered a decline, which lasted until the great expansion of overseas trade and shipping, which began in the 16th century. This led to a revival with many lighthouses being built around the coast of Europe.
A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses and to serve as a navigational aid for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways.
Lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, reefs, rocks and safe entries to harbors; they also assist in aerial navigation. Once widely used, the number of operational lighthouses has declined due to the expense of maintenance and use of electronic navigational systems.
The first American lighthouse was constructed on Little Brewster Island off of Boston, Mass in 1716 – The lighthouse was destroyed during the Revolutionary War and was rebuilt in 1783 and still stands today. 1719 – First Fog Signal was a cannon placed near Boston Lighthouse. When there was fog, the cannon would be constantly fired to warn ships away from the rocky ledges.
In the year 1716, Electricity was introduced by Britain in 1862 when electric carbon arc lamps were installed at Dungeness lighthouse on the coast of Kent but his source of light did not come into general use until the 1920’s when high powered filament lamps were employed. A small but powerful high pressure electric arc lamp containing a gas called xenon was installed at Dungeness in 1961. Mercury arc lamps provide the power for one of the most modern lighthouses in the U.S. on Oak Island, North Carolina.
- 1789 – The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created and operated under the Department of the Treasury. This was the Ninth Law as well as the first Public Works Act passed by Congress on August 7 of that year. Because of this, every August 7th is National Lighthouse Day. This law also passed own- ership and responsibility of all lighthouses to the federal government. Prior to that the lighthouses were built and owned by the individual states or territories.
- 1791 – The first lighthouse completed under the ownership of the federal government was completed at Portland Head Light in Maine. Construction had been actually started and funded by the State of Massachusetts.
- 1792 – Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia, became the first lighthouse built and completed by the Federal Government.
- 1793 – First Lightship approved by President George Washington; it would be used on the Delaware River.
- 1818 – First lighthouses on the Great Lakes were established at Buffalo, NY on Lake Erie and Presque Isle, PA, also on Lake Erie.
- 1820 – First use of bells as a fog signal device was at West Quoddy Head Light in Maine.
- 1822 – The French physicist, Augustin Fresnel, beginning this year, “revolutionized lighthouse practice by developing a built-up annular lens comprised of a central spherical lens surrounded by rings of glass prisms, the central portions of which refract and the outer portions both reflect and refract in the desired direction the light from a single lamp placed at the central focus (inside the middle of the light).”
- 1831 – First lighthouse in the United States to operate using natural gas was the lighthouse at Barcelona (Portland Harbor), NY on the south shore of Lake Erie.
- 1841 – The Fresnel lens was imported from France and installed in Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey. The first use of electricity to light a Fresnel lens at a lighthouse in the United States took place on June 30, 1898 at the Navesink Light Station in Highlands.
- 1850 – First screw-pile lighthouse was constructed in the United States at Bran- dywine Shoal.
- 1854 – First lighthouse on the Pacific coast was completed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
- First iron lighthouse in the United States was built in a position directly exposed to the sweep of the ocean was completed at Minot’s Ledge, MA. It was destroyed in a storm the following year, killing two of its keepers.
- 1860 – The first stone lighthouse built in the ocean in the United States is completed at Minot’s Ledge, MA. Construction started in 1855 and it took five years to complete. It was one of the great engineering building accomplishments of its time.
- 1869 – First steam-powered fog signals in the United States were installed at Maine lighthouses at West Quoddy Head and Cape Elizabeth.
- 1871 – Duxbury Pier Light became the first caisson lighthouse built in the United States.
- 1877 – Kerosene became the primary fuel used to power the lighthouses. Prior to that, various illuminants were used such as sperm oil, colza, rape- seed oil and lard oil.
- 1886 – The first use of electricity for lighthouse purposes in the United States was used by placing an arc of light in the Statue of Liberty in New York. It was officially lighted on December 27, 1886.Lighthouses still continue to fascinate the general public though they are all now automated and don’t need a lighthouse keeper to tend to them any- more. Some that have been decommissioned have been put up on auction like Minot’s Ledge in Massachusetts. This historic lighthouse was up for sale in 2014. It sits in the middle of the ocean on a pile of rocks. Built in 1855, the 5-million-pound lighthouse is made from 1,079 blocks of Quincy granite and sits atop 25 feet of ledge. It is accessible only by boat and ladder.Joseph Totten, the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers, designed the light, which cost $300,000 to build. Those who purchased it got a deal at $222,000.