Ships today have navigational and communications aids that were almost unthinkable even 50 years ago, much less in the 1700s. Back then (and ever since) lighthouses signaled mariners as they approached land. Over the centuries, the beacons from lighthouses in the United States and around the world have saved thousands of sailors from catastrophe. Even with their 21st century equipment, many ships still rely on lighthouse beacons to guide them to safety and away from danger.  

The Stannard Rock Light was completed in 1883. The lighthouse is located on a reef that was the most serious hazard to navigation on Lake Superior. The exposed “crib” of the Stannard Rock Light is rated as one of the top 10 engineering feats in the United States. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

What is a lighthouse? According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, a lighthouse is “a structure (such as a tower) with a powerful light that gives a continuous or intermittent signal to navigators.” Another definition adds that a lighthouse beacon is used “to warn or guide ships at sea.”

Congressional action 

The 1st United States Congress met from March 4, 1789, to March 4, 1791, during the first two years of George Washington’s presidency. The nation officially began operations under the new government established by the 1787 Constitution.

On August 7, 1789, the 1st Congress approved an Act establishing and supporting lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers. Those first Members of Congress understood how important navigational aids and infrastructure were to the economy of the new nation. Trade with other nations was dependent on ships being able to sail safely to and from the United States.

(Illustration: U.S. Lighthouse Society)

National Lighthouse Day 1989

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Act and the commissioning of the first federal lighthouse, Congress passed a resolution which designated August 7, 1989 as National Lighthouse Day. Although the resolution was in effect only for 1989, each year since has been celebrated as National Lighthouse Day. At many lighthouses around the nation lighthouse preservation groups offer the public “fun/learning activities to enjoy – including tours, cruises and presentations that pay special tribute to America’s lighthouses.” A key preservation group is the American Lighthouse Foundation, which “is leading the way in saving our nation’s lighthouses and their rich heritage.”

U.S. Rep. William J. Hughes of New Jersey was the sponsor of the resolution in the House of Representatives. On July 26, 1989, he stated, in part, “National Lighthouse Day… will provide some long overdue recognition for the important role which lighthouses played in the history of our country, and the values of safety, heroism and American ingenuity which they represent. At the same time, I am hopeful that it will encourage communities and citizens groups around the country to rededicate themselves to the protection and restoration of these historic structures.

The lighthouse complex at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. (Photo: U.S. Lighthouse Society)

“The contributions they made to our society, from protecting our coasts to guiding our sailors, should continue to be appreciated and remembered.”

According to a recent post by the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics, “There was a time when a beacon of light from a lighthouse could be found across nearly all of America’s shorelines. On National Lighthouse Day, observed annually on August 7, we honor those beacons, which have symbolized safety and security for ships and boats at sea for hundreds of years. The lights not only marked dangerous coastlines and hazardous shoals, but also reefs, which provided safe entry to the harbors.”

America’s lighthouses

There are over 700 functioning lighthouses in the United States. All of them are now automated – except one. The Boston Light is the oldest lighthouse in the nation (built in 1716). Because of its heritage, Congress declared that it remain a staffed station; it is the only official lighthouse with a keeper. 

According to information on the U.S. Lighthouse Society website, the U.S. Coast Guard, “in its role as custodian has automated… light stations in this country and, in the process, has eliminated the need for operating personnel. Sterile, rotating aero-beacons on monopoles have replaced many proud coastal ladies of former years with their sweeping towers of brick and Victorian gingerbread.”

This is a historical photo of the Long Point Light Station in Provincetown, MA. (Photo: American Lighthouse Foundation)

The Society’s website also states that “Many of the light stations considered no longer functional have been transferred to various states, counties or nonprofit groups and are now serving as museums, bed-and-breakfast inns or youth hostels.”

A patch from the U.S. Light House Service (Image: National Park Service)

However, many light stations around the country are still occupied. While not official keepers, Coast Guard families or other caretakers live in them to maintain and protect these historical structures. 

Back when lighthouses were manned by keepers, it was an equal opportunity position. In fact, one of the first U.S. government jobs available to women in the 19th century was lighthouse keeping! According to the Lighthouse Society there were at least 80 women keepers. 

As the opportunity arises, take the time to visit a lighthouse and celebrate National Lighthouse Day tomorrow. You’ll enjoy the walk back into time! And if you want more information about lighthouses, visit the websites highlighted above.

The Beavertail lighthouse complex in Rhode Island.
(Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office)