>Lighthouses: A Bit of History


Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon Coast

“To a sailor, a lighthouse means you’re home.
They symbolize a sentinel. It’s always there.”
— Gene Hullette

There are thousands of lighthouse collectors and enthusiastics around the Globe, however did you know that the first one was built in Egypt way back in 280 B.C.? I certainly had no idea! Since I grew up within an hour of the gorgeous California coastline I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, nature and lighthouses. I enjoy lighthouses because of their history, their architectural splendor (or lack thereof) and mainly their location; which is normally situated high atop beautiful vistas of the sea.

Perhaps the most famous lighthouse in history is the Lighthouse of Alexandria (aka Pharos of Alexandria), built on the island of Pharos in Hellenistic Egypt in 280 B.C. With a height variously estimated between 383 to 440 feet it was among the tallest man-made structures on Earth for many centuries, and was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by classical writers. It was slowly destroyed in stages by invaders and earthquakes, being totally ruined in the 1300s.

Rendition of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

It appears that the oldest existing lighthouse in the world is considered to be La Coruna Lighthouse; which is also known as the Tower of Hercules and located in Spain. Records indicate it was built in 200 A.D.; it was renovated and altered in 1682 and again in 1778. It is the only Roman lighthouse in working order.

La Corona Lighthouse (aka Tower of Hercules)

In a lighthouse, the source of light is called the “lamp” (whether electric or fueled by oil) and the concentration of the light is by the “lens” or “optic”. Originally lit by open fires and later candles then whale oil was used with solid wicks as the source of light until a parabolic reflector system was introduced around 1810. Although the Fresnel lens was invented in 1822, it wasn’t used in this country until the 1850s. Colza oil (pressed from wild cabbages) replaced whale oil in the early 1850s, but our farmers’ lack of interest in growing this caused the service to switch to lard oil in the mid 1850s. Kerosene started replacing lard oil in the 1870s and the service was finally totally converted by the late 1880s. Electricity started to replace kerosene around the turn of the century. All U. S. lighthouses had Fresnel lenses by 1860. The most powerful optic produces a light seen 25 miles at sea. Although aircraft have reported “picking up” a light at 40 or 50 miles.
The lens from the Cuckolds Lighthouse in ME

An interesting fact is that the first U.S. authorized Public Works project was the construction of the Cape Henry light in the Chesapeake Bay, in 1792 (today, a newer structure stands nearby, so there are actually two lighthouses at Cape Henry). Most of the lighthouses constructed during this era were harbor lights, with very few coastal lights being constructed. By 1820, the United States had a total of 55 harbor and coastal lights. This included two on the Great Lakes, with the rest on the east coast.

The new and old Cape Henry lighthouses stand guard…

Lighthouse Keepers have normally been thought of as male, but by 1852, there were 30 female lighthouse keepers. Kate Walker, a widow, whose husband had been the keeper of the light at Robbins Reef in New York Harbor, rescued more than 50 fishers in distress over the years. In addition to maintaining the lighthouse, she raised two sons, rowing them a mile each day to Staten Island to attend school.  A United States Coast Guard Coastal Buoy Tender is named after her and it is rumored that the folk song, “Lighthouse Keeper” by Neptune’s Car is based on her.  What an amazing woman!
Katherine “Katie” Walker – American Lighthouse Keeper

Lighthouse Fun Facts:
  • Tallest U.S. lighthouse – Cape Hatteras, NC (191 ft.)
  • First Colonial Lighthouse – Boston, MA (1716)
  • Oldest U.S. Lighthouse in Service – Sandy Hook, NJ (1764)
  • First American West Coast Lighthouse – Alcatraz Lighthouse (1854)
  • First Great Lakes Lighthouses – Erie, PA & Buffalo, NY (1818)
  • First Lighthouse Built Entirely by the Federal Government – Montauk Point, NY (1797)
  • Most Expensive Lighthouse (Adjusted) – St. George’s Reef, CA (1891)
  • First U.S. Lighthouse to Use Electricity – Statue of Liberty (1886)
  • Oldest Known Lighthouse Keeper – Henry Hall, 94 – Eddystone, Great Britain
  • Highest U.S. Lighthouse (above sea level) – Cape Mendocino, CA (515 ft.)
  • Newest Seaside Lighthouse – Charleston, SC (1962)
  • Weight of Diamond Shoals Lightship’s Anchor & Chain – 14 tons

More Lighthouse Articles!
Five Favorite West Coast Lighthouses
Vacation in a Lighthouse
Beacon of History in South Carolina
A Favorite Escape: North Head Lighthouse


About marierhoades

Beach bum, wife, mother, lover of dogs & cats. Editor of Sally Lee by the Sea, http://nauticalcottageblog.com, a beach cottage design & lifestyle website.
This entry was posted in history, lighthouses, Nautical, Travel, travel and leisure. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to >Lighthouses: A Bit of History

  1. >I've always loved lighthouses as well but loving sailing I would be dead without lighthouses or harbor lights. They are the only way to find your way when bad weather comes up….well probably not anymore with GPS. Thanks for all the information.Hugs,Bill

  2. lockofire says:

    >Well for starters, I love the music; it makes me want to read a book on the beach. The new site is beautiful, nicely detailed and very you 🙂 Well Done!E

  3. Jane says:

    >fell in love with this site! such fond memories of going to st. augistine beach fla on vacations with my children and always going to their lighthouse. forgot to mention, i love lighthouses and what they symbolize to me. jane

  4. Sally Lee™ says:

    >Thanks for the wonderful compliments, friends!

  5. michelle says:

    >I just love lighthouses! Great facts, lots of things that I didn't know! Thank you sharing!

  6. Folky1 says:

    >Great article. Definitely learned some new things. Very honored that you mentioned my song "Lighthouse Keeper" in your article. I've applied for a songwriting grant to help me pay for my stay as Keeper for a Week at the Rose Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island. I'm hoping that inspiration will hit me while I'm there and there will be more lighthouse songs to come. All the best, Holly of Neptune's Car

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