Monday, February 6, 2017

The Lighthouse Board

Lighthouses transferred to the Federal Government (1789-1820)

During the colonial period, the government of each colony built and managed lighthouses in their colony. Twelve existing lighthouses and newly constructed facilities were under the control of the individual states throughout the period of confederation. On August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed the ninth act of the United States Congress, which required states to turn over their existing, proposed, under construction, and proposed, to the federal government. The act created the US Lighthouse Establishment in the Department of Treasury. 

Initially, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton reviewed contracts and the appointment of keepers before sending these documents to President Washington for his signature. In 1792, Hamilton turned over the administration of aids to navigation to the Commissioner of Revenue until Albert Gallatin became Secretary of the Treasury. Gallatin managed lighthouses for nearly all of his two terms in office when this responsibility went back to the Commissioner of Revenue. The commissioner retained this duty until the government abolished the office in 1820. At that time, the Secretary of the Treasury assigned the lighthouse responsibilities to Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. The collector of customs administered lighthouses on the local level.

Lighthouses under the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury (1820-1852)

Stephen Pleasonton
Pleasonton administered the US Lighthouse Establishment for thirty-two years. During this time, the number of lighthouses and lightships grew dramatically. In 1822, there were seventy lighthouses in the country. By 1842, the number had increased to 256 lighthouses and 30 light vessels. Ten years later that number had increased to 331 lighthouses and 42 lightships. However, there was little technical progress during his administration. Once Pleasonton had adopted a way of operation or a technical development, he resisted changes or innovations. For example, when he assumed his new responsibilities, the Argand lamp and parabolic reflector system lit lighthouses. When French scientist Augustin Fresnel invented a lens in 1822, which produced a light infinitely superior to the system used in American lighthouses, Pleasonton resisted testing the new lens until forced to do so by Congress in the 1840s. When After the highly successful test, Pleasonton refused to adopt the lens. This rejection resulted in the responsibility for aids to navigation to be assigned to the US Light-House Board. 

During Pleasonton's administration, shippers, navigators, chambers of commerce, and navigation experts attacked bible complained of the poor quality of America's lighthouses, especially the lights.

In 1837, Congress questioned the need for funding a large number of new lighthouses and appointed a board of navy commissioners to examine the necessity of proposed lighthouses. After careful study, the commissioners recommended dropping thirty-one of the proposed lighthouses.

In the following year, Congress divided the country into eight districts and assigned a naval officer to each district to examine the condition of current lighthouses and sites selected for new ones. The officers found that the condition of lighthouses ranged from good to terrible. They reported faulty construction, inadequate lighting system, and poor placement. In 1838, Congress increased the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in selecting the sites, constructing, and lighting lighthouses.

In 1851, after increasing complaints about the country's system of navigation aids, Congress ordered an extensive investigation of the navigation system and appointed a panel of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists to study the situation.

The Congressional investigation took more than four years to effect a change in the administration of navigation aids along the American coasts. During that time, congressional appointee, Lt. Jenkins of the US Coast Survey conducted interviews with pilots and mariners, researched domestic and foreign studies, and participated in hearings on existing navigational aids administration. On March 3, 1851, Congress passed "An Act Making Appropriations for Light House, Light Boats, Buoys, &c." Section 8 of the act stated:
The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized and required to cause a board to be convened at as early a day as may be practical after the passage of that act to be comprised of two officers of the Navy of high rank, two officers of Engineers of the Army, and such civil officers of scientific attainments as may be under the orders or at the disposition of the Treasury Department, and a junior officer of the Navy to act as Secretary to said board, whose duty it shall be under instructions from the Treasury Department to inquire into the condition of the Lighthouse Establishment of the United States, and make a general detailed report and programme to guide legislation in extending and improving our present system of construction, illumination, inspection, and superintendence.

The Lighthouse Board resulted from this mandate, and its original members consisted of William B. Shubrick, and Samuel F. Du Pont, U.S. Navy; James Kearney, U.S. Topographical Engineers; civilian academics Alexander Dallas Bache, Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey and Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; and Lt. Thornton Jenkins, US Navy, who acted as Secretary.

The US Lighthouse Board (1852-1910)

US Light House Service Seal
The appointment of these experienced, knowledgeable men to the Board attracted others of similar quality to lighthouse duty, both on the board and in district offices. Congress organized the country into twelve lighthouse districts. Each district had an inspector (a naval officer) responsible for building the lighthouses and seeing that they remained in good operating condition. After a few years, the inspectors became overloaded with work and an engineer (an army officer) was appointed to each district to direct construction and maintenance of lighthouses. 

The Lighthouse Board quickly applied new technology, particularly in purchasing and installing new Fresnel lenses and constructing screw pile foundation lighthouses. The Board managed construction of the first lighthouses on the west coast. It was a difficult period for the Lighthouse Board, but it methodically went about getting its program started and underway. By the time of the Civil War, all lighthouses had Fresnel lenses. 

In the 1850s, the Board prescribed color schemes for the buoys, as well as range lights and day markers; and the buoy system was standardized. Classification systems were also developed to mark the nation's waterways. The board introduced iron buoys to replace the more expensive copper-clad wooden buoys. The Lighthouse Board also began printing changes made in aids to navigation as a Notice to Mariners.

Beavertail Whitehouse
Several advances in the technology of fog signals were made during the 1850s. In 1851, the Board installed an experimental air fog whistle and reed horn at Beavertail Lighthouse at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. A horse-operated treadmill and later by an internal combustion steam engine powered this sound signal. Around 1851, the Board introduced mechanically rung fog bells. The strokes of the fog signals were timed deliberately to afford each signal a unique sound characteristic. The bell signal was gradually replaced by three variations of that instrument. The first was an ordinary locomotive whistle, enlarged and modified and blown by steam from a high-pressured tubular boiler.

Famous members of the US Corps of Engineers helped build lighthouses including

  • Richard Delafield (class of 1818, brigadier general and chief of engineers US Army)
  • Hartman Bache (class of 1818, colonel Corps of Engineers US Army)
  • Andrew A. Humphreys (class of 1831, major general US Volunteers)
  • George W. Cullum (class of 1833, brigadier general US Volunteers)
  • George G. Meade (class of 1835, major general US Army)
  • Henry Benham (class of 1837, brigadier general US Volunteers)
  • Jeremy Gilmer (class of 1839, major general Confederate States Army)
  • Horatio Wright (class of 1841, major general US Volunteers)
  • Amiel Whipple (class of 1841, major general US Volunteers)
  • John Newton (class of 1842, brigadier general US Volunteers)
  • John Pope (class of 1842, major general US Volunteers)  
  • William Franklin (class of 1843, major general US Volunteers)
  • William F. Smith (class of 1845, major general US Volunteers)  
  • Alfred Gibbs (class of 1846, brigadier general US Volunteers)  
  • James St. C. Morton (class of 1851, brigadier general US Volunteers)
  • Orlando Poe (class of 1856, brigadier general US Volunteers)    

Sources: United States Lighthouse Board <>,
Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy <>, United States Lighthouse Society <> ,and Cullum Register

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