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Lighthouse Tenders of the United States
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[photo] with link to larger image.
Lighthouse Tender SHUBRICK
Photo courtesy of the USCG Historian's office
Prior to the formation of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, contractors constructed and employed sailing vessels to provide maintenance for existing navigational aids. The lighthouse establishment acquired its first sailing vessel and tender, RUSH, in 1840. Many of the early tenders were centerboard schooners constructed along the Gulf Coast specifically for lighthouse work. Similar vessels were also built for use by the Revenue Marine. However, the Lighthouse Board realized the need for larger and more maneuverable, steam-propelled tenders to better care for the growing number of aids to navigation. The first steam tender constructed by the Lighthouse Board, the SHUBRICK, was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1857. For serving on the long Pacific Coast, the SHUBRICK, a side-wheeled wooden vessel, clearly demonstrated the advantages of steam over sail and secured the purchase of additional steam tenders. Most of the early steam tenders were also equipped with sails.

At the close of the Civil War, the Lighthouse Board’s fleet of sailing tenders had been almost completely diminished by capture or taken over by federal military and naval authorities. The Navy Department helped remedy the situation by transferring to the Lighthouse Board six small steamers that had been bought from the merchant service during the war. The Lighthouse Board preserved the same flower names retained by the Navy for four of the six vessels—HELIOTROPE, CACTUS, IRIS, and GERANIUM. The tradition of naming tenders for plants continued until recently.

With the advent of steam propelled 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.

The Lighthouse Board’s basic design for the largest steam tenders underwent relatively few changes from the 1890s until its successor, the Lighthouse Service (formed in 1910) was merged with the United States Coast Guard in 1939. Between 1892 and 1939, thirty-three of these vessels were built, most of which ranged in length from 164 to 174 feet.

[photo] with link to larger image. JUNIPER, c.1962
Photo courtesy of USCG Historian's Office

The U.S. Coast Guard improved tender deign to make tenders more versatile to fulfill more roles. While the Lighthouse Board and the Lighthouse Service constructed the majority of its tenders to service specific geographic areas, some standardized features were prevalent in the larger tenders. The Coast Guard accepted a tender design based on the 177-foot JUNIPER and modified it for optimal performance. As the country stood on the brink of World War II, the Coast Guard needed tenders that could perform the traditional tasks, as well as national defense-related tasks. The final design of newer tenders resulted in a large class of 180-foot long, highly versatile, single-screw vessels capable of tending aids to navigation, conducting search and rescue operations, towing, carrying cargo, escorting convoys, fighting fires, conducting weather patrols, and limited icebreaking.

During wartime, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy and adopted the Navy vessel classification system. Subsequently all tenders (sea-going, coastal, inland, and river or construction) were grouped as under the same classification of “WAGL.” The “W” indicated a vessel was a Coast Guard vessel; the “AG” stood for Miscellaneous Auxiliaries; and the “L” identified the vessel as a lighthouse tender. By 1965, the tender classification system was further divided according to area of operations and capabilities, hence sea-going tenders were designated “WLB,” coastal tenders as “WLM,” inland tenders as “WLI,” and inland construction tenders as “WLIC.”

Most sea-going tenders after World War II were 180-feet long and capable of lifting 20 tons. They were equipped for long voyages and had icebreaking bows. Coastal tenders measured from 133 to 175 feet, lifted 10 tons, and maintained a high level of maneuverability. Inland tenders were divided into two classes: large, measuring 100 to 131 feet, and small, measuring 65 to 91 feet. Like coastal tenders, inland tenders featured 10-ton capacity booms and often pile drivers, which allowed them to serve as both construction and repair vessels. River tenders were also divided into large classes, measuring 104 to 115 feet, and small classes, measuring 65 to 75 feet. These flat-bottomed, shallow-draft vessels also were equipped with a 10-ton boom.

In the early 1990's the U.S. Coast Guard began a program to replace the aging fleet of ocean-going and coastal buoy tenders. The Juniper-class sea-going tenders are 225-feet long and are equipped with state-of-the-art electronic navigation and positioning equipment. The Keeper-class coastal tenders are 175 feet in length and are the first Coast Guard cutters equipped with Z-Drive propulsion units instead of the standard propeller configuration. These 14 tenders were named for some the the lighthouse service's more famous light keeper's including Ida Lewis, Katherine Walker, and Marcus Hanna.

To learn more about the history of tenders, see the following links & web pages:

National Register of Historic Places nomination. LILAC, United States Lighthouse Tender.

Maritime National Historic Landmarks: Large Vessels - USCG FIR (Lighthouse Tender)

U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office – A History of Buoys and Tenders by Amy K. Marshall

U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office – U.S. Coast Guard Sea-going & Coastal Buoy Tenders, 1939-2000: A Historic Image Gallery

U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office – U.S. Coast Guard River, Inland & Construction Tenders, 1939-2000: A Historic Image Gallery

A number of other publicatiosn on tenders are also available on the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office web site by clicking on "Lighthouses" or "Cutters & Craft"

Various publications on tenders and cutters include:

Canney, Donald L. U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995).

Peterson, Douglas, USCG (Ret). United States Lighthouse Service Tenders, 1840-1939. (Annapolis and Trappe: Eastwind Publishing, 2000).

Scheina, Robert L. U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft, 1946-1990 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1990).

Scheina, Robert L. U.S Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982.

Essay and resources compiled by Karmen Bisher, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) contractor, working for the NPS Maritime Heritage Program.

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Last Modified: Mon, July 18 2005 3:36:00 pm EDT

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