U.S. Lighthouse Board

The United States Lighthouse Board of 1852

In 1852 Congress created a nine-member Lighthouse Board, and a new era in American lighthouse construction began. The next few decades’ American lighthouse history began with the construction of brick towers of increasing height.  By 1859, nine brick towers over 160 feet had been built and six more were constructed in the years following the Civil War. These new towers were conical in shape, except for one in South Carolina. They replaced towers that had not topped 100 feet in height.

What allowed for this 60-foot height increase a coastal tower?  Most likely it was a combination of trust in improved engineering and confidence in sound mathematical calculations that the existing technology could support another sixty feet. The new Fresnel lens was also introduced at this time, which worked best at higher heights.

These fifteen towers were built along the Atlantic Coast, from New York to Florida. The tallest of these towers Cape Hatteras, at 193 feet, is also the tallest lighthouse ever constructed in the United States.  Most interestingly, all but one of the fifteen towers built during this period remain standing-although erosion is threatening several of these.

[Excerpt from United States Coast Guard©  http://www.uscg.mil/]

The newly formed Lighthouse Board stressed the importance of the written instructions in an 1852 report, “Inspectors and light-keepers should be provided with printed instructions, in the form of manuals of instruction to guide them in the policing of the establishments.”

An 1885 Annual Report stated, “that uniforming of the personnel of the service, some 1,600 in number, will aid in maintaining its discipline, increase its efficiency, raise its tone, and add to its esprit de corps.”

The Appointment of Keepers was restricted to “persons between the ages of 18 and 50, who can read, write, and keep accounts, are able to do the requisite manual labor, to pull and sail a boat, and have enough mechanical ability to make necessary minor repairs about the premises, and keep them painted, whitewashed, and in order.”

  • Keepers underwent a three-month probationary period before their full appointment was issued by the Secretary of Treasury.

  • Keepers could be transferred between stations and districts. Young men with some sea experience were preferred as assistants at the larger stations, while retired sea captains or mates with families were frequently selected for stations with only one keeper.

  • Keepers were allowed to select their assistants.

  • Keepers were encouraged to cultivate the land associated with onshore stations and were forbidden to engage in any business that interfered with their presence at the station or with the proper and timely performance of their duties.

  • Keepers were not allowed to take in boarders.

  • Keepers were not given pensions or compensation for injury.

  • Keepers were issued uniforms in 1883 consisting of a coat, vest, trousers, and a cap in a dark indigo blue color. A regulation apron was to be worn during inside cleaning and a brown working suit for outdoor work.

  • In 1867, an Act of Congress fixed the average annual salary of a lighthouse keeper at $600.

Inspectors were tasked with the following responsibilities:

  • Inspectors visited the stations in their districts quarterly and reported on repairs needed to the tower and buildings; needed renovations and improvements;

  • They checked the condition of the station, lantern, illuminating apparatus, and related equipment.

  • Comparisons were made of the interval of flashes and eclipses and their duration, with the intervals given in the Light List.

  • The inspector was responsible for making sure the keeper understood the printed instructions for operating all equipment and other attendant duties.

  • The inspector also reviewed the keeper’s journal and records relating to expenditures, shipwrecks, and vessels passing.

  • The inspector assessed the “attention of the keeper to his duties, and his ability to perform them well.”

Engineers performed the following tasks:

  • Engineers superintended the “construction and renovation of the fixed aids to navigation in their respective districts.”

  • The engineer or the inspector was responsible for acquiring information on the ownership of any potential site and reporting these details to the Board along with information about the topography of the site and the potential light’s relationship with other lights and the water or hazard it was marking.

  • Engineers were instructed to inspect all materials and supplies to make sure they were in conformance with contracts. When a tower was nearing completion, the engineer notified the superintendent of lights so that he could nominate the authorized number of keepers.

  • Both inspectors and engineers had authority to dismiss a keeper or other employee found in a state of intoxication.

Superintendents of Lights were charged with paying salaries and dispersing other funds, and the nomination of new light-keepers.

The 1875

Travel Library

Travel Library

Annual Report reported that it was time to provide keepers with reading matter. “By so doing, keepers will be made happier and more contented with their lot, and less desirous of absenting themselves from their post.”  In 1876 portable libraries were first introduced in the Light-House Establishment with a selection of reading materials. These libraries were “books of  good standard appropriate to the families who would use them ” are were contained in a portable wooden case, each with a printed listing of the contents posted inside the door. By 1884, 380 libraries were being circulated amongst the stations.


[Excerpt from National Park Service©  http://www.nps.gov/history/maritime/keep/keep19th.htm]

[Library Info http://www.michiganlights.com/lhlibrary.htm]

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