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The Lighthouse Service

7 August 1789 – 1939


Maritime commerce was a vital part of the life-blood of the newly established English colonies in North America. They quickly realized the importance of maintaining safe, well-marked sea lanes. Most of the early markers were lighthouses. During the colonial period, prior to 1789, each colonial government determined the need for a lighthouse in their colony, financed its construction, and oversaw its operation. Boston Light, established in 1716 on Little Brewster Island, was the first North American lighthouse.

On 7 August 1789, the First Congress passed an act for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers. The act provided that the states turn over their lighthouses to the central government. In creating the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, aids to navigation became the responsibility of the Secretary of the Treasury. The administration followed the lead of its counterparts in Europe. It raised funds for the maintenance of aids by levying fees on ships entering American ports. This practice stopped in 1801 when Congress began funding the aids. The Lighthouse Establishment bounced from agency to agency and went through a period of rapid expansion, but the administrators did not keep pace with the technological advances taking place around the world. Fresnel lenses, which were developed in France in 1822, were not used in America until 1852.

In 1852, after several complaints and a formal investigation by military officers of the Lighthouse Establishment, Congress passed legislation to establish a U.S. Lighthouse Board. By appointing experienced, knowledgeable men to the Board, most of whom were the officers who conducted the investigation, Congress attracted others of similar quality to lighthouse duty, both on the board and in district offices. The Lighthouse Board moved quickly in applying new technology, particularly the new Fresnel lenses and screwpile lighthouses. The Board also oversaw the construction of the first lighthouses on the west coast. Keepers became civil service employees in 1896. Over its 58 years of service, the U.S. Lighthouse Board accomplished all it set out to do, and passed on to its successor a first-rate agency, both in terms of personnel and aids to navigation. The Board had presided over an enormous increase in numbers of aids. By 1910 there were 11,713 aids to navigation of all types in the country.

In 1910, Congress, wanting to give a civilian aura to the administration of aids to navigation, discontinued the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses. The new agency was under the control of the Department of Commerce. Legislation referred to it as the Lighthouse Service and that remains its popular name.

The Board had hired a number of civilians and many of these experienced people took over the roles that the military officers had been playing. Though initially called inspectors, the civilian heads of the districts changed their titles to superintendent. Also at this time, the placement of aids to navigation along rivers had become the responsibility of the Lighthouse Service, and many of these aids were tended on a part-time basis by local citizens called lamp lighters and lamp attendants. President Taft selected George R. Putnam to head the new bureau, and he had the title Commissioner of Lighthouses. Putnam did more for the cause of navigational aids and their maintenance than any other individual. He continued the Lighthouse Board’s policy of experimentation. He also convinced Congress to allocate money for Lighthouse Service vessels, and crusaded for his employees. Under Putnam the most important advances in long-range aids took place. The United States led the way with radiobeacon technology.

During World War I, men, vessels and equipment were transferred to the Navy, which quickly discovered the tenders’ usefulness in laying mines, as well as for patrol duty off the Atlantic coast.

During the period following World War I, several technological advances contributed to the automation of lighthouses, rendering human occupancy unnecessary. A device for automatically replacing burned-out electric lamps in lighthouses was developed and placed in several light stations in 1916. A bell alarm warning keepers of fluctuations in the burning efficiency of oil-vapor lamps was developed in 1917. In the same year, the first experimental radiobeacon was installed in a lighthouse. The advent of radiobeacon technology in 1921 made lighthouses “visible” from significantly greater distances. No longer did a mariner have to physically see the lighthouse. The radiobeacon made it possible for vessels equipped with a radio direction finder to take a bearing up to 70 miles from a navigational aid and, once identified, set a course relative to the aid. This new technology permitted a reduction of over 800 employees during Putnam’s 25 years as head of the bureau. The first automatic radiobeacon in the United States began service in 1928. Radiobeacons are still in use today, although most have recently been decommissioned as improved electronic navigational aids have become available.

In 1935, Putnam was followed in the Commissioner’s position by a career Lighthouse Service employee, H. D. King, a former district superintendent. But the new commissioner had but four years to serve. On 7 July 1939, the duties of the Bureau of Lighthouses were amalgamated into the operations of the Coast Guard. Personnel of the former Bureau were given the choice of being brought into the Coast Guard through a military position or remaining as civilian employees. About half chose to remain civilians and about half went the military route.

For a complete list of all U.S. lighthouses see this Link.

Buoy Tenders – The Black Fleet

Lighthouses were not the only concern for the early Lighthouse Bureau. The Act passed on 7 August 1789 also called for The establishment and support of beacons and buoys. This was the beginning of a Federal Aids to Navigation (ATON) system. Buoys had rarely, if ever, been registered in lists of navigational aids for the colonies. The exceptions were the cask buoys in the Delaware River, recorded in 1767, and the spar buoys in Boston Harbor, recorded as early as 1780.

Early buoys varied widely. The Collectors of Customs contracted with local businesses for the establishment and maintenance of aids. These contractors relied on small boats with limited capabilities and built small buoys to the ability of the boat. Spar buoys, made of long poles, and cask buoys were the dominant buoys in coastal waters until the 1840s. Often these buoys were hazardous to inexperienced mariners. Contractors also decided the types of buoys necessary for a given area or harbor. Colors, shapes and sizes varied from port to port. The lack of standardization caused problems for coastal pilots. When asked to comment on buoyage to Congress, they complained bitterly.

Congress began taking steps to correct the problems in 1848. In 1852, buoys were placed under the control of the Lighthouse Board. Spar and cask buoys gave way to can- and nun-shaped riveted iron buoys. These buoys were set according to a nationwide Lateral System: red nuns to the starboard of channels as observed by ships returning to port, and black can buoys to the port. The Board standardized sizes to maximize visibility. The Board categorized these buoy types into three sizes: first-class buoys served primarily at the entrances to harbors. Second-class buoys, which were smaller, marked rivers and secondary harbor approaches. Third-class buoys, the smallest class, marked areas where larger, deeper-draft vessels could not go. This system continues in use even today, except that can buoys are now painted green. Advances came with improved technology. In the 1850s, bells were added to buoys so they could be heard at night. Fog horns followed. In 1875, whistle buoys were added to the inventory. In the 1870s, lights were added. The Lighthouse Board also began printing changes made in aids to navigation as a Notice to Mariners.

The Lighthouse Board also recognized that it needed larger, more maneuverable tenders. The small boats used by earlier contractors could not cope with the changes in design and larger sizes of the new buoys. More accurate placement was also more critical in the age of steam. Sailing tenders were useless for accurate placement because they were difficult to hold steady.

The Lighthouse Board sought steam-propelled tenders. The first of these steam tenders, which had the distinction of being the first built by the Lighthouse Board, was the USLHS Shubrick. Completed in 1857 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the new tender served on the Pacific Coast and demonstrated beyond doubt the advantages of steam over sail. The success of the Shubrick convinced the board to purchase other steam vessels. The Lighthouse Board sought to centralize the work of ship design and repair in Washington, D.C., a decision which also proved to be an important step towards the development of vessels specifically designed for maintaining buoys. At the same time buoy designs improved. Deep-water and coastal buoys were built larger and heavier, with iron replacing wood, as they assumed greater importance as navigational aids. As a result, sea-going and coastal tenders had to be built larger and required additional stability to maintain the heavy buoys. The practice of using buoys to mark dredged channels and interior waterways also increased, making it necessary to decrease the draft and length of river and inland tenders in order to maneuver through shallow waters and turn in narrow channels. Specialization for particular areas ultimately led to vessels of four types: large ocean-going tenders; shallow draft river tenders and barges; small coastal tenders; and harbor launches and tugs.

In 1910 the Lighthouse Board became the Lighthouse Service. During World War I, men, vessels and equipment were transferred to the Navy, which quickly discovered the tenders’ usefulness in laying mines, as well as for patrol duty off the Atlantic coast.

When the war ended, and the vessels were returned to the Lighthouse Service, the Navy proposed sending their old mine-layers to the service to work as tenders. This occurred at the same time the Service was seeking money for new tender construction. The Navy, and several congressmen, believed that the Lighthouse Service could convert the old mine-layers into tenders. The Board, Congress and the Navy reached a compromise: several ex-Navy mine-layers were converted for lighthouse supply service, and the Board got a new building program to update his aging fleet – most still steam-powered, and some with stern- or side-paddle wheels. The new tenders were larger, diesel-powered, screw-propelled, and had a more advanced derrick and boom system.

The largest vessel built for the LHS was the Cedar. Built in 1917, she was 200’ long. She was stationed in Ketchikan, served with the Navy in WWI, returned to Ketchikan and finished her career in Kodiak in 1950. The Lighthouse Service’s basic design for the largest steam tenders underwent relatively few changes from the 1890s until 1939.

In 1935, Congress moved the Lighthouse Service out of the Department of Commerce and incorporated it into the Coast Guard in 1939. This was part of a government-wide reorganization.

For a complete list of Lighthouse Tenders go to this Link.


In 1819, John Pool of Hampton, Va., was awarded a contract for a vessel of “…70 tons burthen, copper-fastened a cabin with four berths, at least …spars, a capstan, belfry, yawl and davits…” In the summer of 1820, he delivered the first “light boat”, which was initially stationed off Willoughby Spit, Va., as an aid to Chesapeake Bay commerce. Storms and heavy seas, however, scourged this exposed position, and the vessel had to be shifted to a safer anchorage off Craney Island, near Norfolk, VA. Within a year, four more lightships appeared, marking dangerous shoals in the Chesapeake. America’s first true “outside” lightship, anchored in the open sea instead of in a bay or inlet, entered service off Sandy Hook, N.J. in 1823.  During the period 1820-1983, 116 lightship stations were established by the United States at one time or another. This figure includes those stations that were renamed and moved to a different position to better serve the same purpose, and those taken over later by Canada. The number of stations existing at any one time peaked in 1909 when 56 lightships were maintained. Responsibility for American lightships rested with the Lighthouse Establishment until 1852, the Lighthouse Board until 1910, the Lighthouse Service until 1939 and the Coast Guard after 1939.

As seamarks, lightships satisfied multiple requirements. They could be moored in shallow water, even near shifting shoals where fixed structures could not be placed. They could just as easily be stationed in deep water many miles from shore, to serve as a landfall or a point of departure for trans-oceanic traffic. And being vessels, they could be readily repositioned to suit changing needs. In these roles, lightships served as day beacons, as light platforms by night, as sound signal stations in times of reduced visibility, and around the clock as transmitters of bearing- and distance-finding electronic signals. Outages or difficulties with any of their systems and equipment could be immediately detected and remedied on the spot by the crew. During their relatively brief era, US lightships evolved into highly sophisticated and efficient aids to navigation.

Initially, lightships were exceedingly poor light platforms; their full body, shoal draft and light displacement combining to cause undue rolling and violent pitching. Such rolling and pitching, in turn, resulted in frequent loss of moorings and breakage or damage to the lanterns.  Certainly by present-day standards, crew accommodations on early lightships would have been judged uninhabitable. In 1891, a visitor to Nantucket Lightship reported on the boredom and discomfort he found there. The weather could toss the vessel about so violently that even veteran sailors became seasick. On calm days, nausea gave way to tedium, for the crew could service the light and make things shipshape within a few hours, leaving the rest of the day for making rattan baskets to sell ashore or for simply whittling away the hours. Seldom did anyone visit the ship’s small library, and even shipboard food was monotonous, wholesome though it was. The most common dish was “scouse,” which impressed the visitor as a “wonderful commingling of salt beef, potatoes and onions.” And, in terms of tours of duty aboard early lightships, crewmembers spent eight months of the year at sea, two four-month stints separated by shore leave.

A visit to Nantucketin the early 1970s would have produced a much different report. Scientific advances in hull design, the use of bilge keels, plus adoption of improved ballasting techniques produced more stable vessels. Not only did new hull designs reduce roll, but diesel engines also helped the captain keep his vessel headed into the wind for even greater stability. Unfortunately for some, however, the smell of diesel fuel was almost as distressing as the motion the engines helped prevent. Over the years, creature comforts were upgraded too. Reading would become a popular pastime on lightships while radio, and later, television, helped to dispel boredom. Cooks produced a variety of meals, and the murderous four-month tour was reduced to approximately 30 days. One change, though, was for the worse, at least as far as crew comfort was concerned. The bleat of modern fog-horns was so loud that anyone venturing on deck without ear protectors risked pain and deafness.

Life aboard the lightships, aside from being viewed as monotonous by many, was exposed to many hazards. Dangers posed by weather and collision were ever-present. Official records contain 237 instances of lightships being blown adrift or dragged off-station in severe weather or moving ice. Five lightships were lost under such conditions, but the majority, despite heavy damage to hull and superstructure on many of these occasions, remained on station unassisted. This attests to a high order of seamanship, and commendations for bravery and outstanding ship handling often resulted.

In 1966, the Coast Guard began investigating the possibility of replacing lightships with Large Navigational Buoys or LNBs.  Far from being a minor navigational aid, these so-called “monster buoys” have hulls up to 40 feet in diameter with a depth of up to 7 ½ feet. The LNB prototype, constructed in 1969, had a steel hull subdivided by six bulkheads. These more cost-effective LNBs, along with “Texas Towers,” huge, permanent platforms, served as the death knell of lightships in the United States.

29 March 1985, saw the final chapter of America’s lightship era come to a close with the decommissioning of Nantucket I. In a farewell message, Coast Guard Commandant ADM James S. Gracey said, “Technology has found a way to replace her with a more cost-effective aid to navigation, but Nantucket I’s sailors can never be replaced.” In many cases lightships were replaced with “Texas Tower” type offshore light platforms, other fixed structures or large navigational monster buoys, all offering considerable savings in manpower and in construction and maintenance costs. The last message sent by the ship read in part, “An important part of Coast Guard history ended today. We must now look somewhere else to find the stuff that sea stories are made of.”

Most of the decommissioned lightships are long gone. Quite a few were sold and served in coastwise and harbor roles. Two provided bonfires at Fourth of July celebrations and several were used as target ships by the Navy. A few were transferred to other countries for use as lightships, some were used as floating clubhouses by various organizations, but the majority ended up in a ship breakers yard. However, 19 lightships still survive, the three oldest built in 1904. Most of these veterans remain afloat, restored for use as museums or exhibits open to the public. Two serve as floating restaurants and one is in use in the charter trade.

Survivors from Five Fathom Lightship #37, which took four men to the bottom with it, told of how their ship foundered off Five Fathom Bank, N.J. after an army of mountainous waves marched across its bulwarks, tore off its ventilators and hatch covers and filled it with water through the resulting deck openings.

There were no survivors, however, when Buffalo Lightship #82, located near Buffalo, N.Y., foundered in a gale that swept across Lake Erie in November 1913, but a message from its dead captain to his wife told it all. Scrawled on a board that washed ashore a few days after the disaster, the message read: “Goodbye, Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. — Williams.” Six months passed before the submerged wreck was located, more than two miles from its assigned station. A diver who penetrated the 63 feet of water that enshrouded Buffalo #82 reported that the storm had apparently parted its cables, battered in its superstructure, then dragged it to destruction. The body of one of the six men lost with it was found a year later, 13 miles from the site of the sinking.

 Cross Rip Lightship #6 left no survivors or messages when it vanished off Massachusetts with all hands on 5 February 1918. Observers on shore reported seeing the helpless lightship torn loose from its moorings by a huge mass of windblown ice and carried away. The aged wooden vessel had no masts, sails or other means of motive power and, not being equipped with a radio, its fate and that of its six-man crew remained a mystery for 15 years. No trace of the ship was found until 1933, when a government dredge working in the Vineyard Sound area sucked up splintered pieces of oak planking and ribs, and a section of a windlass believed to be from the long-lost vessel. The most likely explanation for its loss is that the ice crushed its hull, and the crewmen perished in the winter sea.

In December 1936, a 100-mph gale assailed Swiftsure Lightship #113, anchored in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast. “The wind came shrieking and snarling out of the south,” its skipper recalled, “blowing a hurricane.” The sea, he declared “writhed and steamed like a bowl of boiling milk,” and the sky was “full of innumerable tiny particles of water torn from the crests of the waves until the air was so thick we could barely see half the length of our vessel.” Captain Eric Lindman flinched as waves broke over the pilothouse and the seas forced its way “through every fissure, no matter how small, even squirting in through the keyholes in the outer cabin doors.” Unlike its ill-fated sisters, however, Swiftsure survived the intense 12-hour battering.

A mystery surrounds the loss of Vineyard Sound Lightship #73, which foundered during a 1944 hurricane with the loss of all hands. Its storm-battered wreck was explored by divers a few weeks after it sank, and again 20 years later, yet the actual cause of its loss remains unknown. Residents of Westport, Mass., reported seeing a series of red and white flares streaking across the cloud-filled skies in the general direction of the lightship. After the storm abated somewhat, they struggled down to the beach and scanned the murky horizon, only to discover that Vineyard Sound #73, which had been guarding Sow and Pigs Reef, had vanished from its station.

Storms were certainly not a lightship’s only threat. Man, rather than nature, caused the loss of the Diamond Shoals Lightship #71 in 1918 off Cape Hatteras, N.C. A German submarine, provoked by the lightship’s radio message warning off shipping, surfaced and, after allowing the 12-man crew to abandon ship, sank it with shellfire. The lightship’s sacrifice was not in vain though, for more than 25 Allied ships had received its timely radio warning.

There are 150 documented cases of serious collisions.  Most of these involved sailing vessels, but long tows of multiple barges accounted for a sizable number. Collision damage ranged from superficial to severe, and, in at least one case, the lightship came out unscathed, with the colliding vessel going down nearby. On another occasion when a lightship was struck by a passing vessel, the impact was sufficient to knock the on-watch lightship crew from their feet, and shatter all 16-lamp chimneys in the masthead lanterns.

On 15 May 15 1934, Nantucket Lightship #117 was riding at anchor in 192 feet of water off Nantucket Shoals. Its horn boomed into the fog to warn away the trans-Atlantic shipping that passed nearby. Unseen by sailors aboard Nantucketwas the 47,000-ton British luxury liner Olympic. Steering to the lightship’s radio beacon signal, the ocean liner intended to alter course at the last moment and pass close by Nantucket.  On the bridge of Olympic, someone had miscalculated. The liner, sister ship to Titanic, suddenly materialized out of the fog; its towering bow hung poised like the blade of a guillotine, then severed the lightship in two. Seven of Nantucket’s 11-man crew died in the collision. In response to the tragedy, the British government replaced Nantucketwith a new lightship, one resembling a miniature battleship. Its hull was fashioned from armor plate, enclosing a maze of 43 watertight compartments. Atop its mast was a light visible from almost 50 miles. And, whenever the foghorn would sound, a radio transmitter would automatically broadcast a signal, enabling navigators of oncoming ships to calculate the distance to the lightship. Besides Nantucket, four other lightships were sunk as the result of being rammed. Fog was a factor in many of these collisions, however most occurred under conditions of reasonably good visibility. Vessels attempting to cross the bow of the lightship without making due allowance for current and leeway were found to be the usual cause.

For a complete list of U.S. lightships go to this Link.