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The U.S. Lighthouse Service
7 August 1789 – 1939


Maritime commerce was a vital part of the life-blood of the newly established English colonies in North America. They quickly realized the importance of maintaining safe, well-marked sea lanes. Most of the early markers were lighthouses. During the colonial period, prior to 1789, each colonial government determined the need for a lighthouse in their colony, financed its construction, and oversaw its operation. Boston Light, established in 1716 on Little Brewster Island, was the first North American lighthouse.

On 7 August 1789, the First Congress passed an act for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers. The act provided that the states turn over their lighthouses to the central government. In creating the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, aids to navigation became the responsibility of the Secretary of the Treasury. The administration followed the lead of its counterparts in Europe. It raised funds for the maintenance of aids by levying fees on ships entering American ports. This practice stopped in 1801 when Congress began funding the aids. The Lighthouse Establishment bounced from agency to agency and went through a period of rapid expansion, but the administrators did not keep pace with the technological advances taking place around the world. Fresnel lenses, which were developed in France in 1822, were not used in America until 1852.

In 1852, after several complaints and a formal investigation by military officers of the Lighthouse Establishment, Congress passed legislation to establish a U.S. Lighthouse Board. By appointing experienced, knowledgeable men to the Board, most of whom were the officers who conducted the investigation, Congress attracted others of similar quality to lighthouse duty, both on the board and in district offices. The Lighthouse Board moved quickly in applying new technology, particularly the new Fresnel lenses and screwpile lighthouses. The Board also oversaw the construction of the first lighthouses on the west coast. Keepers became civil service employees in 1896. Over its 58 years of service, the U.S. Lighthouse Board accomplished all it set out to do, and passed on to its successor a first-rate agency, both in terms of personnel and aids to navigation. The Board had presided over an enormous increase in numbers of aids. By 1910 there were 11,713 aids to navigation of all types in the country.

In 1910, Congress, wanting to give a civilian aura to the administration of aids to navigation, discontinued the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses. The new agency was under the control of the Department of Commerce. Legislation referred to it as the Lighthouse Service and that remains its popular name.

The Board had hired a number of civilians and many of these experienced people took over the roles that the military officers had been playing. Though initially called inspectors, the civilian heads of the districts changed their titles to superintendent. Also at this time, the placement of aids to navigation along rivers had become the responsibility of the Lighthouse Service, and many of these aids were tended on a part-time basis by local citizens called lamp lighters and lamp attendants. President Taft selected George R. Putnam to head the new bureau, and he had the title Commissioner of Lighthouses. Putnam did more for the cause of navigational aids and their maintenance than any other individual. He continued the Lighthouse Board's policy of experimentation. He also convinced Congress to allocate money for Lighthouse Service vessels, and crusaded for his employees. Under Putnam the most important advances in long-range aids took place. The United States led the way with radiobeacon technology.

During World War I, men, vessels and equipment were transferred to the Navy, which quickly discovered the tenders' usefulness in laying mines, as well as for patrol duty off the Atlantic coast.

During the period following World War I, several technological advances contributed to the automation of lighthouses, rendering human occupancy unnecessary. A device for automatically replacing burned-out electric lamps in lighthouses was developed and placed in several light stations in 1916. A bell alarm warning keepers of fluctuations in the burning efficiency of oil-vapor lamps was developed in 1917. In the same year, the first experimental radiobeacon was installed in a lighthouse. The advent of radiobeacon technology in 1921 made lighthouses "visible" from significantly greater distances. No longer did a mariner have to physically see the lighthouse. The radiobeacon made it possible for vessels equipped with a radio direction finder to take a bearing up to 70 miles from a navigational aid and, once identified, set a course relative to the aid. This new technology permitted a reduction of over 800 employees during Putnam's 25 years as head of the bureau. The first automatic radiobeacon in the United States began service in 1928. Radiobeacons are still in use today, although most have recently been decommissioned as improved electronic navigational aids have become available.

In 1935, Putnam was followed in the Commissioner's position by a career Lighthouse Service employee, H. D. King, a former district superintendent. But the new commissioner had but four years to serve. On 7 July 1939, the duties of the Bureau of Lighthouses were amalgamated into the operations of the Coast Guard. Personnel of the former Bureau were given the choice of being brought into the Coast Guard through a military position or remaining as civilian employees. About half chose to remain civilians and about half went the military route.

For a complete list of all U.S. lighthouses see this Link.

Buoy Tenders – The Black Fleet

Lighthouses were not the only concern for the early Lighthouse Bureau. The Act passed on 7 August 1789 also called for The establishment and support of beacons and buoys. This was the beginning of a Federal Aids to Navigation (ATON) system. Buoys had rarely, if ever, been registered in lists of navigational aids for the colonies. The exceptions were the cask buoys in the Delaware River, recorded in 1767, and the spar buoys in Boston Harbor, recorded as early as 1780.

Early buoys varied widely. The Collectors of Customs contracted with local businesses for the establishment and maintenance of aids. These contractors relied on small boats with limited capabilities and built small buoys to the ability of the boat. Spar buoys, made of long poles, and cask buoys were the dominant buoys in coastal waters until the 1840s. Often these buoys were hazardous to inexperienced mariners. Contractors also decided the types of buoys necessary for a given area or harbor. Colors, shapes and sizes varied from port to port. The lack of standardization caused problems for coastal pilots. When asked to comment on buoyage to Congress, they complained bitterly.

Congress began taking steps to correct the problems in 1848. In 1852, buoys were placed under the control of the Lighthouse Board. Spar and cask buoys gave way to can- and nun-shaped riveted iron buoys. These buoys were set according to a nationwide Lateral System: red nuns to the starboard of channels as observed by ships returning to port, and black can buoys to the port. The Board standardized sizes to maximize visibility. The Board categorized these buoy types into three sizes: first-class buoys served primarily at the entrances to harbors. Second-class buoys, which were smaller, marked rivers and secondary harbor approaches. Third-class buoys, the smallest class, marked areas where larger, deeper-draft vessels could not go. This system continues in use even today, except that can buoys are now painted green. Advances came with improved technology. In the 1850s, bells were added to buoys so they could be heard at night. Fog horns followed. In 1875, whistle buoys were added to the inventory. In the 1870s, lights were added. The Lighthouse Board also began printing changes made in aids to navigation as a Notice to Mariners.

The Lighthouse Board also recognized that it needed larger, more maneuverable tenders. The small boats used by earlier contractors could not cope with the changes in design and larger sizes of the new buoys. More accurate placement was also more critical in the age of steam. Sailing tenders were useless for accurate placement because they were difficult to hold steady.

The Lighthouse Board sought steam-propelled tenders. The first of these steam tenders, which had the distinction of being the first built by the Lighthouse Board, was the USLHS Shubrick. Completed in 1857 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the new tender served on the Pacific Coast and demonstrated beyond doubt the advantages of steam over sail. The success of the Shubrick convinced the board to purchase other steam 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.

In 1910 the Lighthouse Board became the Lighthouse Service. During World War I, men, vessels and equipment were transferred to the Navy, which quickly discovered the tenders' usefulness in laying mines, as well as for patrol duty off the Atlantic coast.

When the war ended, and the vessels were returned to the Lighthouse Service, the Navy proposed sending their old mine-layers to the service to work as tenders. This occurred at the same time the Service was seeking money for new tender construction. The Navy, and several congressmen, believed that the Lighthouse Service could convert the old mine-layers into tenders. The Board, Congress and the Navy reached a compromise: several ex-Navy mine-layers were converted for lighthouse supply service, and the Board got a new building program to update his aging fleet - most still steam-powered, and some with stern- or side-paddle wheels. The new tenders were larger, diesel-powered, screw-propelled, and had a more advanced derrick and boom system.

The largest vessel built for the LHS was the Cedar. Built in 1917, she was 200’ long. She was stationed in Ketchikan, served with the Navy in WWI, returned to Ketchikan and finished her career in Kodiak in 1950. The Lighthouse Service’s basic design for the largest steam tenders underwent relatively few changes from the 1890s until 1939.

In 1935, Congress moved the Lighthouse Service out of the Department of Commerce and incorporated it into the Coast Guard in 1939. This was part of a government-wide reorganization.

For a complete list of Lighthouse Tenders go to this Link.


For an overview of lightships go to this Link.