Fun Fact Friday: A Showcase of American Lighthouses

Dotted along coastlines worldwide, lighthouses serve as a beacon of hope and indicator of land to those traveling long distances by sea. In the United States, up to 1,500 lighthouses have operated since the nation’s colonial history, and several have become points of national interest and tourist attractions. Read on to learn more about American lighthouses, and to see some of our favorites still in operation today!


Where did lighthouses come from?

Although we typically picture lighthouses as a tower encasing an augmented lamp light, the earliest lighthouses were simple fires set atop large hilltops. These fires were meant to indicate the entrance to a port, and provide an aid to early mariners. Although their technology was simple, ancient lighthouses could be complex architectural structures, the most notable of which may be the Pharos of Alexandria, also known as the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This lighthouse is believed to have been over 300 feet tall.
Since then, however, the purpose and scope of lighthouses has broadened widely. Today, lighthouses help to denote dangerous coastlines, hazardous marine areas, and safe harbor points. This expanded role stemmed from the importance of lighthouses during the Colonial Era, when transatlantic trade became far more common. Developments in engineering also aided these early-modern lighthouses, as it allowed the structures to be built taller, shine more powerful lights, and be resilient against elements like the ocean.

Los Angeles Harbor Light, also known as Angel’s Gate.
Los Angeles Harbor Light, also known as Angel’s Gate. Reprinted from Lighthouses of Greater Los Angeles by Rose Castro-Bran courtesy of Kim Castro-Bran (The History Press, 2015).

In the United States, lighthouses became vital structures in aiding with commerce, and protecting against the sometimes dangerous Atlantic coastline. The presence of lighthouses in the United States only grew as the country expanded past the Great Lakes and to the West Coast. It’s believed that there have been as many as 1,500 lighthouses built in the US, but no more than approximately 850 of these lights would have been in operation at one. Although lighthouses are not used as widely in modern America, they continue to operate in small numbers, and also figure prominently as popular tourist attractions.

Our Favorite Fun Facts about Lighthouses

Did you know Michigan has as many as 130 lighthouses? It’s true! Here’s a few other interesting lighthouse trivia facts:
  • The Earliest Lighthouse Tragedy: America’s first lighthouse was built on Brewster Island near Boston, Massachusetts in 1716. Unfortunately, the lighthouse’s first keeper died in an accidental drowning along with his wife and daughter while they were attempting to return to the island. The lighthouse itself was later destroyed during the American Revolution, and the current Boston Light was built in its place.

A rendition of the 1716 Boston Light lighthouse on Little Brewster Island.
A rendition of the 1716 Boston Light lighthouse on Little Brewster Island. Reprinted from Boston Light by Sally R. Snowman and James G. Thomson courtesy of the National Archives (pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 2016).
 
  • America’s Oldest Lighthouse: Although the lighthouse on Brewster Island was the first built in the country, the oldest standing lighthouse in the United States is in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Built in 1764, the lighthouse has been in continuous operation since its construction during the late 18th century.
 
  • The Tallest North American Lighthouse: The US is also home to the tallest lighthouse in North America, which is located at Cape Hatteras, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse has a distinctive black and white striped pattern, and stands at 210 feet tall. The lighthouse is also attached to the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea, which offers history on the Outer Banks and its lighthouse.
 
  • The Boston Light Keeper: Although the grand majority of US lighthouses had been automated by 2000, the Boston Light is still manner 24-hours a day, seven days a week by the United States Coast Guard. The lighthouse is part of the Coast Guard’s auxiliary services, and mostly employs volunteers who give historical tours of the site. The light itself has been automated since 1998.
 
  • America’s Only Triangular Lighthouse: Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse is the country’s only three-sided lighthouse. It is also the newest lighthouse in the US, having been completed in 1962. The Sullivan’s Island light, which replaced the nonoperational Morris Island lighthouse, is also the only American lighthouse to have air conditioning or an elevator.

A Gallery of Iconic American Lighthouses

Although there are hundreds of lighthouses we could showcase, we’ve collected some of our favorites to inspire your next trip to a national lighthouse!

The Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse in Charleston, SC, with its distinctive triangular shape.
The Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse in Charleston, SC, with its distinctive triangular shape. Reprinted from A History of South Carolina Lighthouses by John Hairr courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office (pg. 99, The History Press, 2014).

Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in Massachusetts.
Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in Massachusetts. Reprinted from Wave-Swept Lighthouses of New England by Jeremy D’Entremont courtesy of the author (pg. 37, Arcadia Publishing, 2018).

Boon Island Lighthouse near Southern Maine.
Boon Island Lighthouse near Southern Maine. Reprinted from Wave-Swept Lighthouses of New England by Jeremy D’Entremont courtesy of the author (pg. 107, Arcadia Publishing, 2018).

Presque Isle Lighthouse in Michigan.
Presque Isle Lighthouse in Michigan. Reprinted from Lighthouses of Eastern Michigan by Wil and Pat O’Connell courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University (pg. 47, Arcadia Publishing, 2013).

North’s Head Lighthouse in Washington.
North’s Head Lighthouse in Washington. Reprinted from Lighthouses and Lifesaving on Washington’s Outer Coast by William S. Hanable courtesy of the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum (pg. 37, Arcadia Publishing, 2008).

To see more popular American lighthouses, check out the books below.

Have you ever visited a historic lighthouse? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
 
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