Prior to the advent of the Lighthouse Board, contractors bid
on lighthouse construction projects advertised in local newspapers. The advertisements included
building specifications to guide the successful bidder. The local collector of customs, who also
served as the superintendent of lighthouses for his region and was a political appointee, reviewed the bids, rejected the bids
he felt could not satisfactorily complete the work, and informed the fifth auditor of the
Treasury Department of his selection. The reasons for rejecting a contractor’s bid varied, for
example, the contractor would not be able to make bond, he was too inexperienced as a builder, or
he had done faulty work in the past. While the final approval of a contractor was decided in
Washington, D.C., the superintendent’s recommendation was generally accepted. The superintendent
then approved the formal contract, including the building specifications, and construction soon began.
The local superintendent supervised the contractor throughout the building process.
John McComb, Jr., Alexander Parris, and Francis A. Gibbons successfully erected several lighthouses
under the direction of the Treasury Department and their local superintendent of lighthouses.
Three of the lighthouses that architect-builder John McComb built in the 1790s—Old Cape Henry
Lighthouse (1792) at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Montauk Point Lighthouse (1796)
on the tip of Long Island, New York, and Eatons Neck (1799) also on Long Island, New York—remain standing today. Alexander Parris, noted architect-engineer, built numerous waveswept
lighthouses in the mid-nineteenth century off the coast of Maine. Mount Desert Rock (1847), Libby
Island (1848), Monhegan Island (1851), Matinicus Rock (1857), and Saddleback Ledge (1839) were all
constructed of local granite and are still standing. Parris likely built Whitehead Lighthouse in 1848,
as well. Francis A. Gibbons’ early lighthouses were constructed in locations not particularly suited for such and thus were eventually
rebuilt. Before building Bodie Island Lighthouse (1848) in North
Carolina, fifth auditor Stephen Pleasonton directed the collector of customs to use piles for the
foundation if the site was muddy. Gibbons observed a quicksand-like substance at the site and the
collector of customs suggested he solve the problem by laying a foundation of bricks. The
foundation did not last long and Bodie Island Lighthouse had to be replaced in 1859. Gibbons also erected
Egmont Key Lighthouse (1848) in Florida. However, after two sequential hurricanes eroded the sand and
undermined the tower, it had to be replaced in 1858. In the early 1850s, Gibbons partnered with
Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore to build the first eight lighthouses on the west coast.
Crayon portrait of Alexander Parris by W.E. Chickering, ca. 1887. Courtesy of The Bostonian Society. For further information on Parris and the lighthouses he constructed see www.parrisproject.org
The Lighthouse Board subsumed all duties related to aids to navigation in 1852, initially erecting many
lighthouses with their own crews. Soon, however, the country was divided into twelve lighthouse districts
with an inspector (a naval officer) assigned to each district. The inspector was tasked with building
lighthouses and seeing that they remained in good working order. After the 1870s, the majority of new lighthouses were generally erected by contract under the close supervision of
the district inspector. A specific project was issued for bid only after the plans
and specifications, which were much more extensive and detailed than those previously prepared under the
fifth auditor, were completed and approved. The lighthouses constructed under the direction of the Lighthouse Board
surpassed in longevity those erected during the first part of the nineteenth century, as the Board’s
primary concern was quality over economy.
After a few years, the inspectors became overloaded with work and an engineer (an army officer) was appointed to each district to oversee the construction and maintenance of lights. Army officers assigned included
George G. Meade, Hartman Bache, and Orlando M.
Poe. Meade, who later achieved fame as the commander of union troops at the battle of
Gettysburg, partnered with Bache to build the Brandywine Shoal screwpile lighthouse in the
Delaware Bay in 1850. Meade subsequently constructed the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse (1852), the first
of several tall lighthouses built on Florida’s reefs, followed by the Sombrero Key (1858) and Sand Key(1853) lighthouses in surrounding areas. In addition to supervising the construction of Abescon
Lighthouse (1857) in New Jersey, surveying and recommending the replacement of the Barnegat Lighthouse(1857) in New Jersey with a first-order tower, designing the Jupiter (1860) and Seahorse Key
lighthouses (1854) in Florida, he also invented a five-wick, first-order, hydraulic lamp used in
Fresnel lenses. Distinguished engineer of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers Hartman Bache
built Pungoteague River Lighthouse (1854), the second screwpile lighthouse in the United States, in
Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse was destroyed by an ice flow in February of 1856.
| Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B13-1467A
Following a successful military career as chief engineer under General W. T. Sherman during the
Civil War, Orlando M. Poe assumed the position of engineer secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse
Board and was charged with supervising building projects in the upper Great Lakes. Accountable for
all aspects of lighthouse construction in the area, Poe was largely responsible for the design of
several tall, conical lighthouse towers that gently tapered from bottom to top. The towers featured
graceful embellishments in the form of masonry gallery support corbels and arch-topped windows.
Exemplified by the towers at Presque Isle (1871) and Grosse Point (1873), Poe was
responsible for the construction of a number of such towers throughout the Great Lakes region,
including Big Sable (1867), Au Sable Point (1874), Little Point Sable (1874), Outer Island (1874), and
Spectacle Reef (1874).
Brig. Gen Orlando M. Poe
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B813-1953A
Essay by Karmen Bisher, National Conference of State Historic
Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) contractor, working for the NPS Maritime Heritage Program.