The National Maritime Initiative adheres to the U.S. Lighthouse
Service's 1915 definition of a lighthouse as being a light station
where a resident keeper(s) was employed. The term "light
station" refers to the tower as well as any supporting structures.
Light stations initially consisted of the light tower, a dwelling,
a garden site, a place to store oil, and maybe a chicken house
and shelter for a milk cow. The increased complexity of operation,
with the introduction of the more sophisticated Fresnel lens and
fog signal in the 1850s, particularly the steam-operated ones,
brought about a need for more personnel, which in turn required
additional housing and other support buildings such as fog signal
buildings, workshops, cisterns and water catchment basins, storage
buildings, garages, radio buildings, boathouses and tramways,
among others. By the 1920s and 1930s, however, the majority of
light stations had electric service, reducing the number of staff
necessary to operate the station. As ancillary buildings at many
stations, especially shore stations, were rendered useless, the
makeup of the light station began to change. In the 1960s, the
automation of many light stations led to the surplusing or demolition
of many obsolete, yet historic, buildings.
The tower served principally as a support for the a lantern which
housed the light. The lantern was typically a round, square, octagonal,
or decagonal-shaped cast-iron enclosure surrounded by an exterior
stone or cast iron gallery with railing. Access to the lantern
at the top of the tower was via stone, wood, or cast iron stairs
which either wind around a central column or spiral along the
interior sides of the tower walls (a few had straight sets of
stairs which ran from landings around the tower interior). Windows
in the tower were positioned to provide daylight onto the stairs.
For taller towers, landings were provided at regular intervals.
The top landing ended at the watch room where the keeper on duty
ensured the optic was functioning properly. The lantern room above
was usually reached via a ladder.
The most recognizable lighthouse type is the stand-alone tower such as
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Lighthouses of this type come in many shapes including conical, square,
octagonal, cylindrical, and even one triangular. Lighthouse towers may
also be attached or integral to the keepers dwelling, and in a few cases,
fog signal buildings. Attached towers are connected to a keepers quarters
as a separate structure, often by a hyphen; whereas integral towers are
those structurally built into the structure with the tower extending through
In the early days, lanterns were made of thin copper frames that held
small panes of glass. The glass framing extended from the gallery deck
to above the lighting equipment it held. A copper dome topped by a ventilator
served as the roof of the lantern. Its design has given it the appearance
of a bird cage, and in more recent years it has been known by that name.
In addition to using small panes of glass that were of poor quality, these
lanterns were generally not of adequate size to hold Fresnel lenses. Consequently,
when the Fresnel lens was introduced in the 1850s, most of the old style
lanterns were replaced with new lanterns designed to hold the larger and
heavier Fresnel lenses. Today only a few of the old-style lanterns survive
on lighthouses, including Prudence
Island Lighthouse in Portsmouth, Rhode Island; Baileys Harbor Lighthouse,
Lake Michigan; and Selkirk
Lighthouse in Pulaski, New York.
There were four sizes of lanterns created to accommodate the seven
standard sizes or orders of Fresnel lenses--a separate design
for the first-, second-, and third-orders, and one design for
the fourth- through sixth-order lenses. Made of cast iron plate,
they were six-, eight-, and ten-sided lanterns, although round
and square lanterns were sometimes used for range lights. They
had large panes of glass, one pane to a side for the smaller lanterns,
and as many as three panes (one over the other) per side for the
two largest size lanterns. One of the metal panels was hinged
to serve as a doorway providing access to the gallery or walkway
on the exterior of the lantern.
In the late 19th century the helical bar lantern was introduced.
Rather than having vertical astragals, they had diagonal ones.
On the larger lanterns the astragals crossed. The lighthouse officials
believed these type of lanterns gave off a brighter light when
housing rotating lenses because the light beam was only partially
blocked at any one time by the diagonal astragals versus a split
second total eclipse of the light beam by vertical astragals.
Second in importance to the light tower, dwellings for light keepers
and their families were generally in the early days simple, 1
½-story wooden or stone structures. Since lighthouses had
only one keeper, there was only one dwelling. After 1852 with
the coming of the Fresnel lens and the Lighthouse Board, more
keepers began to be assigned to light stations, and, of course,
it became necessary to have more living accommodations. Keeper's
quarters could be single, double, triple, or even quadruple dwellings;
they reflected the prevailing architectural styles, adaptations
to geographical conditions, or regional tastes. Complaints by
keepers concerning lack of privacy for their families finally
persuaded the Lighthouse Board not to build tri-plex housing.
By 1913 the U.S. Lighthouse Service stressed that "recent
practice favors detached houses, insuring greater privacy, and
giving better opportunity for yards and gardens."
For all practical purposes, prior to 1852 there were two types
of land-based lighthouses--either a detached dwelling or an integral
dwelling with the light tower rising out of the roof. The early
integral towers had the tower supported by the roof system. As
time went, the lighting apparatus grew heavier, particularly with
the advent of the Fresnel lens, and the tower was supported from
the foundation of the keeper's dwelling. In colder climates, such
as New England and the Great Lakes, the light tower often was
either attached to the dwelling or an enclosed passageway was
built between the two structures.
During the early days oil was often stored in the lighthouse. As late
at the early 1850s, plans for the first west coast lighthouses called
for the oil storage area to be in the basement. Some lighthouse towers
were constructed with attached oil room and workroom structures which
were generally one-story, constructed of masonry, had gable roofs, and
were modest in detailing; examples include Pensacola,
Pigeon Point, and
Yaquina Head Lighthouses.
By 1890, all except a few lighthouses in the United States were
using kerosene. The volatile nature of kerosene necessitated the
construction of separate oil houses, which were usually built
of fireproof materials such as brick, stone, iron plate and concrete.
Congress issued a series of small appropriations for the construction
of separate fireproof oil houses at each lighthouse station. Installation
of these structures began in 1888 and completed about 1918. The
1902 Instructions to Light-Keepers stated: "All mineral
oil belonging to the Light House Service shall be kept in an oil
house or a room by itself. The oil house shall be visited daily
to detect loss by leakage or otherwise, and every precaution taken
for the safe keeping of the oil."
Though they varied in size, lighthouses with smaller lenses had
relatively small oil houses and those stations with the large
lenses had relatively larger oil houses. Constructed of stone,
brick, cast iron, and concrete, oil houses were small, simple,
and functional, usually with a gabled or a pyramid roof. When
oil was no longer required, the structures were used for other
storage purposes, often paint storage.
Fog signal building
Fog signals were developed to assist mariners when fog obscured
the light. Fog signals included bells, cannons, sirens, horns,
and trumpets, and were usually housed in separate buildings, which
were either attached to the light tower or free-standing. The
equipment for large coastal stations was provided in duplicate
to guard against breakdowns which might cause an interruption
in fog signal operation.
Light stations began to get a little more complex with the introduction
of a fog signals. The first fog signal was a cannon placed at Boston Harbor
light in 1719. In the 1820s a bell fog signal was apparently introduced
at West Quoddy Head
Lighthouse in Maine. Subsequently other fog bell signals were added
around New England and down to Chesapeake Bay; south of the bay fog occurs
much less frequently.
In the very early days, fog bells were rung by striking the bell
by hand; the bell installed at Pooles Island Lighthouse, Maryland,
in the mid-1820s was operated by mechanical means, using a clockwork
system. A tower on which the fog bell hung was built near the
shore. A rope ran from a striker to the top of the tower where
weights were attached. As those weights slowly fell they would
activate the striker so that it struck the bell periodically.
When the weights hit bottom after 45 minutes, sometimes an hour
and a half, the keeper cranked the weights back to the top to
start the process over again. Later, Daboll, Stevens, and Gamewell
invented clockworks which were advertised as good for 10,000 blows
of the fog bell with one winding. With a rapid characteristic,
i.e., a blow every 10 seconds, a day could pass between windings;
with a characteristic of a blow every 30 seconds, four days could
pass before another winding. In time electricity was applied to
fog signals which eased the burden of tending them. In the 1920s
a device that turned the bell on automatically came into use.
It was a hygroscope measuring moisture in the air that activated
The earliest fog signal structures were wooden bell towers, later
designs included iron construction. The towers were usually a
tapering square shape topped by a pyramidal metal roof. The tower
structure was often exposed except for the enclosed upper level
area which protected the bell-striking mechanism. These towers
were built in exposed marine environments and subjected to heavy
vibrations from the striking of the bell. They had to be replaced
frequently and few survive. For the most part, the ones that survive
are metronome in shape.
On stations built offshore such as caisson and screwpile structures,
the fog bell was usually mounted outside the top half-story of
the dwelling (just below the lantern) and struck by machinery
mounted on the inside. The striker hammer passed through a hole
in the wall. In screwpile lighthouses the weights which drove
the striking machinery were usually suspended by wire down through
a wooden square shaft and/or in a closet. In many caisson lighthouses
the weights were suspended by wire through a central hollow structural
support column. The weights were usually suspended through the
first level deck of a screwpile lighthouse or to the cellar level
of a caisson lighthouse. When electric fog signal horns began
to replace the fog bells, the new devices were often mounted on
the deck of the lantern gallery, or in the case of a caisson lighthouse
on the deck of the lower gallery, or in the case of a crib lighthouse
on the crib foundation platform.
During the latter half of the 19th century the Lighthouse Board
experimented with various types of fog signals, including whistles,
trumpets, and sirens. At first whistles were not successful; mainly,
the board later determined, because the tests were run on too
small a steam whistle. Some years later it ran more tests, this
time with the largest railroad steam whistle. The tests were successful
and the steam whistle was installed at a number of light stations.
These fog signals continued in service into the 20th century.
A modified version of this signal continues in use, but operated
by compressed air, not steam.
Daboll's trumpet was also experimented with, but it too apparently
was not successful for it was not put into general use. This fog
signal had a reed which was vibrated by compressed air and the
sound came out of a large trumpet, one order measuring 17 feet
long and 38 inches across the opening. The siren fog signal was
first used in 1868 and was most successful.
Another fog signal used until recently, the diaphone, a Canadian development,
gives off a two-tone sound that was made popular in the heyday of radio
by a Lifebuoy soap advertisement. It was available in several sizes and
used a single tone, two tone, and chime signal. These fog signals with
their steam or compressed air apparatuses, switchboards, work benches,
storage cupboards, generators, engines, air and water tanks, pumps, tools,
and signal equipment occupied near barn-like buildings. The sound equipment
was usually attached to the water side of the building. Built of masonry
or wood, these structures were usually plain and highly functional, with
the interiors being mostly open space until filled with concrete machinery
mounts, tools, and equipment. Some fog signal buildings were built integral
to the light tower. The Cape Arago Light Station
and the octolateral brick stucco fog signal at Coquille
River Light Station, Oregon, are examples. In a few cases, a fog signal
station was established without a light.
Today fog signals, for the most part, are intended to aid small
vessels and boats that do not have the advanced electronic gear
such as radio direction finders, radar, sonar, and satellite guidance.
As a result, the fog signal is being down-sized. The only fog
signal the Coast Guard operates today are electronic horns: the
ELG300 and ELG 500 which have a three to five mile range and the
FA 232 has as ¼ to one mile range.
About 200 radiobeacons located mostly at lighthouses, and formerly
on lightships, were located on all ocean coasts and the Great
Lakes. Commissioner George R. Putnam during his administration
of aids to navigation put the evolving use of the radio as one
of his proudest accomplishments; he considered the radiobeacon
the definitive guidance during fog for vessels that could afford
radio direction finders. A vessel could search out a signal from
a radiobeacon and determine his position in relation to that station.
This system is considered short range, effective between 10 and
175 miles. The equipment at the station consisted of antennas
and transmitters and occupied space on the grounds and in a building.
With the advent of new and better technology, the Coast Guard
has taken all of their radiobeacons out of service.
Many onshore stations had separate frame or masonry storehouses
were provisions, spare parts, and other items could be stored.
Offshore stations made use of nearly every available space for
storage. Caisson light stations used the cellars for storage of
oil, coal, wood, provisions, and other items. Screwpile light
stations usually had a wooden secondary landing built into the
spider-like foundation below the first-level of the cottage. Here
fuel, live animals, and other items could be stored. In times
of storms, however, these areas were vulnerable to water damage.
For all offshore stations, closets, the watchroom, and the eaves
under the upper half-story were used to store all kinds of materials.
Boat and boathouse
In the early days the light keeper who tended an offshore lighthouse
could justify a boat to go back and forth to the mainland. But
if a keeper was responsible for a light on the mainland, he would
have to have strong justification, no matter how isolated the
lighthouse may be, to be successful in obtaining a locally-made
boat from the government. These boats usually had a sail and could
be rowed. At the lighthouse, these boats were pulled ashore when
not in use and left in the open.
The Lighthouse Board was more generous in size and number of boats,
partly because of increase in personnel. The Board also began
providing boathouses to shelter the boats. The boathouses were
simple gabled-roofed sheds with iron rails on which to pull the
boat into the shed. Such structures became more important as technology
advanced and the engine-powered boat came into use. These early
boats were rather cranky and the engine would often stop running
at inopportune times. Boats were supplied to offshore lighthouses
such as the screwpile, caisson, waveswept, and crib types as well
as the Florida reef lights. Occasionally, isolated shore light
stations without road access received boats so keepers could travel
to nearby towns. Two boats were usually assigned to each offshore
station and they hung suspended from davits on opposite sides
of the station, the keeper could maintain a lee for safer leaving
and arriving, regardless of wind conditions. Protection from the
weather was supplied by canvas covers.
There were several reasons for justifying two boats at an offshore
light station, and one of them was the increase in rescues of
fishers and boaters in trouble, and in some sections of the country,
pilots of planes forced down in nearby waters. The engine-powered
boats, which appeared soon after the turn of the century, could
get to an accident quicker. One cannot but be impressed with the
number of rescues by keepers that were recorded in the Lighthouse
Service Bulletin, the internal newsletter of the Lighthouse
Barn and garage
Some of the light stations received government-built barns where
horses and perhaps a cow could be sheltered. With the coming of
the automobile, light stations began to include garages. These
structures were simple, standard garage structures with up to
three bays. Many barns were converted to garages including Pensacola
Light Station, Florida, and Montauk Point Light Station, New York.
The resourcefulness of lighthouse personnel is illustrated by
the 1950s conversion of a garage into living quarters at Cove
Point Light Station, Maryland. The garage had been moved and remodeled
into a dwelling.
The necessary house for shore stations were generally no different than
any other privy. Usually they were simple wooden frame structures, but
on occasion they could be fancy, following the style of the dwelling.
Currituck Light Station
had one that was of Queen Anne design to match the keeper's quarters.
Some were made of brick, a material not used for privately constructed
For offshore stations, the privy was usually constructed so it
cantilevered over the lower exterior gallery rail. The privy hole
dropped directly into the water. They were small, accommodating
only one user at a time. Those at screwpile lighthouses were made
of wood, while the ones at caisson lighthouses were made of iron
plate. On the latter, the privy was sometimes used as part of
the electrical grounding system. A metal cable ran from the lightning
rod down the roof of the lantern, then from the roof of the dwelling
to the top of the privy which was attached to the iron- plated
caisson tube. With more stringent environmental laws and newer
technology, indoor plumbing came to land-based light stations.
By the 1970s offshore light stations began to convert interior
spaces for restrooms. Holding tanks and electric commodes were
used. The former privy was sometimes converted for storage or
paint locker. With the erection of the Texas tower type lighthouses
indoor plumbing became standard.
Water collection system
All lighthouses needed water. Some stations used wells. At other stations
water was piped in from nearby springs. Often, water collection systems
provided water for drinking, washing, and for steam-powered fog signals.
Rain water was often collected from the roof of light station structures
channeling the water from gutters and downspouts to pipes going to the
water reservoirs. Rain water was usually not collected immediately; rather,
the rain was allowed to fall for a while uncollected so the roof would
be washed. Periodically the roofs were cleaned by manual means. At other
light stations, particularly in drier regions such as California, water
was not only caught by roof runoff but by large catch basins connected
to storage cisterns and tanks were used to trap the rainwater. These catch
basins were generally constructed of brick, later covered with cement
or made only of cement. The Old
Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego still has the remains of its old
brick-lined underground cistern which held 10,000 gallons. Its 2800 square-foot
catch-basin was attached to it. Other examples of existing catch-basins
are found at Point
Reyes, San Luis
Obispo and East
Brothers Light Stations, all in California.
Where the underground water level was too high, a light station may have
wooden water storage tanks aboveground. The water system for the Anacapa
Island Light Station off southern California consists of a 30,000-square-foot
concrete rain catchment basin and two round 50,000-gallon redwood tanks
housed in a specially built water tank building. As the average rainfall
is only eight inches providing only 18,000 gallons of water a year, lighthouse
tenders supplied the additional water which was pumped into the storage
At offshore stations such as screwpile and caisson stations the gutters
and downspouts were attached to a water collection system inside the structure.
In screwpile structures the system was connected to water tanks, usually
one in each of three or four rooms of the first-floor of the cottage.
The tanks were made either of cypress or metal. A spigot at the base of
each tank was positioned over a metal funnel cut into the floor so that
any dripping or overflow could be controlled without flooding the cottage
floors. These funnels are still intact in the Thomas
Point Shoals Light Station, Maryland.
In the caisson light stations the cisterns were constructed into
the concrete fill of the caisson cylinder just below the cellar
level. There were usually two cisterns for each caisson light
station. Like, the screwpile structures, the cisterns were connected
to the downspouts. A hand pump in the kitchen, connected to the
cellar cistern provided water to the kitchen sink. In times of
drought buoy tenders would provide freshwater to top off the cisterns
and other station water storage tanks.
A number of light stations had tramway tracks running from landings to
the light station. The tramways were principally used to unload supplies
and equipment from the lighthouse tender. A few of the tracks survive
at a number of light stations, including Point
Reyes, California, and Split
From the beginning of the service, lighthouses had to be supplied
with oil, wicks, extra chimneys for lamps, glass panes for the
lantern and other equipment and materials such as brushes, brooms,
oil containers, lucernes, clocks, dust pans, feather dusters,
cleaning liquids and solids, paint, wick trimmersall required
to keep these aids to navigation in operation. Fresnel lenses
were more complex and with their installation came a substantial
increase in required tools and equipment. As the lighthouse service
grew, the number of lighthouse depots increased. A tender assigned
to each district inspector supplied the light stations, placed
and replaced lightships, and positioned and replaced buoys and
daymarks. In addition an inspector would arrive by a tender for
his white glove inspection of the light station.
Lighthouse depots came into use in the midst of the Civil War
with one per district. At the general depot on Staten Island,
oil and lamps and other equipment were tested and often developed.
All depots purchased supplies, including oil, and dispersed them
to the districts. Those supplies destined for the east and Gulf
coasts went largely by water, while those going to the Great Lakes
and the west coast districts went largely by rail. Surviving examples
of lighthouse depots include Staten Island Depot, New York (the
first and general depot for the service); Detroit Depot, Michigan;
and St. Josephs Depot, Michigan.
Some light stations also were used as buoy depots. Point Lookout
Light Station, Maryland, became a buoy depot in 1883. Extant structures
from the depot include a former coal shed (1884) used to resupply
tenders, a buoy repair shed (1883), and remnants of the wharf
piles and the concrete shore apron of the former rail delivery
Other typical station outbuildings might include piers, smokehouses,
wood and coal sheds, and carpenters and blacksmiths workshops.
Relatively newer station buildings exist at some light stations
such as signal/radiobeacon/generator buildings.
Sources: Excerpted from draft National Register of Historic
Places Multiple Property Documentation form for "Light Stations
of the United States;" George R. Putnam, Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States
(Boston and New York: Houghlin Mifflin Co., 1917); and Ross Holland,
America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History (New York:
Dover Publications, 1981 reprint)