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Light Station Components
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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.

Light tower

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 the roof.


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.

Keeper's dwelling

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.

Oil house

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 bell.

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 Service.

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 privies.

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 tanks.

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 Rock, Minnesota.

Lighthouse Depot

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 system.

Miscellaneous Structures

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)

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Last Modified: Tues, Dec 11 2001 2:56:48 pm EDT

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