Reorganizing Lighthouse Command: From Colonial Times To Today
As America grew and faced new challenges, command of lighthouses changed repeatedly in recognition of their importance in maritime safety, economic and population growth and national defense. Here is the chronology of the changes in command.
The very first lighthouse in the British Colonies – and the New World – was Boston Light, built in 1716 on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Other Colonies also built and operated lighthouses as aids to navigation and commerce.
Merchants in New York City promoted the idea of a lighthouse at Sandy Hook, in New Jersey, because the narrow channel there was the gateway to New York Harbor. A 103-foot-tall rubble stone tower was built in 1764 at Sandy Hook, financed by two lotteries authorized by the Provincial Congress of New York and a tax on ships entering the Port of New York.
By the start of the American Revolution in 1775, there were 11 lighthouses along the East Coast. And the opposing armies fought to control them and thus the shipping lanes.
By March of 1776, amid fears of a British invasion of New York City, the Congress of New York ordered Major William Malcolm and his troops to extinguish the beacon and remove the lens from Sandy Hook. They succeeded.
But by June, the British troops were in control of the tower at Sandy Hook and rigged a replacement lens to project a beacon to British ships. U.S. sailors under the command of Captain John Conover attempted to extinguish the light by bombarding the tower.
Lucky for posterity, Sandy Hook survived the bombardment although the damage from direct hits by cannonballs is evidenced today in the exterior stone walls.
Boston Light did not survive the Revolution. The same month as the Sandy Hook battle, British troops blew up Boston Light.
Of the 11 lighthouses dating from Colonial times, Sandy Hook is the only one that survives, making it the oldest lighthouse in America.
Lighthouse Establishment, 1789-1852
After American Independence, Sandy Hook Lighthouse became the object of disagreement between New York and New Jersey. New York, which authorized the lotteries that funded construction, claimed ownership and the right to collect fees from ships guided by the lighthouse into the Port of New York. New Jersey responded by imposing a monthly tax on the lighthouse.
President George Washington realized the defensive as well as economic importance of lighthouses to the new nation and the pre-eminent importance of Sandy Hook. Not only did America’s lighthouses provide navigational aid to the nation’s young Navy, but also guided merchants ships carrying cargo and passengers.
To improve their efficiency and better coordinate their operation, President Washington moved to put all U.S. lighthouses under federal control. This occurred with the passage August 7, 1789 of the ninth act of Congress, creating the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment as part of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, also became the first Superintendent of Lighthouses.
U.S. Light-House Board, 1852-1910
On October 9, 1852, the Lighthouse Establishment was replaced within the Department of Treasury by the newly launched U.S. Light-House Board.
In recognition of their military importance and the increasing technology needed in the operation of lighthouses, the board was composed of three Navy officers, three from the Army Corps of Engineers and two “civilians of high scientific attainments …”
U.S. Lighthouse Service, 1910-1939
On July 1, 1910, the Light-House Board was dissolved by Act of Congress and authority passed to the newly created Bureau of Lighthouses, better known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service, under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department.
Transfer of the authority for all U.S. lighthouses from the Treasury Department to the Commerce Department was an acknowledgement of the importance of lighthouses in the expanding nation’s economic growth.
As the nation rapidly grew in geography and population, so too did the number of lighthouses along the expanding coastlines as well as inland waterways.
U.S. Coast Guard, 1939-Present
With war threatening in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential order that dissolved the U.S. Lighthouse Service and transferred command of some 30,000 aids to navigation (lighthouses, lightships, range lights, etc.) to the U.S. Coast Guard July 1, 1939.
Once America entered the war, the Coast Guard extinguished all beacon at U.S. lighthouses so as not to give direction to enemy ships.
After the war, the beacons were relit. Some, including Sea Girt, were changed to automatic lights, requiring no personnel. Other lighthouses continued to be staffed and manually operated.
In recent decades as technological advances provided navigational alternatives, the U.S. Coast Guard has decommissioned many of the lighthouses under its command, including:
- Sea Girt Lighthouse – Sold to the Borough of Sea Girt in 1956 for $11,000. Used for more than 20 years as the children’s library and community center. The all-volunteer, non-profit Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee formed in 1981 to “save our lighthouse” and in August of that year signed a lease with the Borough to take charge of the lighthouse. The committee conducts guided tours of the lighthouse.
- Navesink Twin Lights – Decommissioned in 1949, sold in 1962 to the State of New Jersey, which also owns the decommissioned Barnegat Lighthouse and Cape May Lighthouse. The three historic sites house exhibits and are open for tours.
Since it flashed its first beacon in 1764, Sandy Hook Lighthouse survived bombardment, two World Wars, hurricanes and Nor’easters. It was first equipped with a seven-foot-tall lantern illuminated by 48 oil-burning lamps. In 1889, Sandy Hook became the first U.S. lighthouse whose lens was illuminated by electric incandescent lamps. By 1962, the lantern was automated.
In 1964, on its 200th anniversary of service, Sandy Hook was declared a National Historic Landmark. In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred command to the National Park Service. Sandy Hook remains in service, the oldest American lighthouse still on active duty. The tower is equipped with a 3rd order Fresnel lens, illuminated by a 1,000 watt bulb, projecting a beacon 19 miles to sea.
Only a few other lights in New Jersey are still operational. Nationally, the Coast Guard now commands fewer than a thousand lights. And all but one is automated. The lone manned lighthouse is the “new” Boston Light, built in 1783 on the very site of the first Boston Light that was destroyed by the British.
Meanwhile, the federal government currently is offering a dozen lighthouses for sale.