US Lighthouse Service History
The following article on the United States Lighthouse Service appeared in the August 21, 1915 issue of Scientific American. The details therein should interest both lighthouse enthusiasts and historians, and this rare piece of history runs as follows:
THE UNITED STATES LIGHTHOUSE SERVICE
It Never Ends, Either by Night or Day, Summer or Winter
THE work of safeguarding navigation on the coasts of the United States is a far greater and more complex problem than most people appreciate, for there is a multitude of complex conditions to be met, each one varying with the peculiarities of its location. The territory to be covered is also unusually great, as it includes not only the entire ocean fronts of the country, both on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but of Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, portions of the West Indies and the Great Lakes as well: and the service never ends either by night or day, summer or winter.
The important and indispensable work is performed by the U. S. Lighthouse Service, and we are indebted for the following notes and illustrations to an article by George R. Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses, in the Engineering News.
The Lighthouse Service comprises a force of 5,600 mean, on whom devolves the duty of maintaining over 14,000 aids to navigation of various kinds, including lighthouses, light ships, light-beacons and buoys of various descriptions, together with many fog signals: and an important incidental duty is that of protecting the shores in the neighborhood of stations from damage to erosion that might endanger the structures.
The desirable distribution of lights and other aids along a coast depends on its maritime development and its physical characteristics, and is influenced by the prevailing meteorological conditions. Thus the North Atlantic coast has a large foreign and coasting trade, and the shores are intricate and in part rugged, and along the coast the main lights are, with few exceptions, placed at such intervals that their arcs of visibility overlap. On portions of the coast of simple contour, and with smaller traffic, there are unlighted stretches between the lights which stand on the projecting capes.
Thimble shoal lighthouse,
partly in section to show interior arrangement"
The design and construction of lighthouses varies with their location and the surrounding conditions, no two being exactly alike: but the most interesting classes are those which are located on some submerged shoal in the open sea, for here great ingenuity is required not only to produce a structure that can be relied on to meet the special and peculiar conditions that prevail in that locality, but usually great engineering skill is necessary in the work of building in exposed positions. One of the most recent lights of this latter kind is that under construction at Thimble Shoal, in Chesapeake Bay, which is shown partly in section in one of the illustrations [above]. This consists of a cone-shaped foundation section, 42 feet in diameter at the base and 30 feet at the top, which is sunk 12 feet 9 inches into the sand. Upon this is erected the body of the shaft that rises 20 feet above the water, where it spreads out to a diameter of 38 feet at the deck, the outward curve tending to break and turn back the waves during a storm. The greater part of this lower section of the structure is filled with concrete, and it supports a three story cast-iron dwelling upon the roof of which is located the helical bar lantern, whose focal plane is 55 feet above the high water. A fog signal apparatus is installed in the basement, consisting of a trumpet furnished with air by kerosene engines and compressors.
"New light vessel of improved and powerful design
being built for service on the American coasts"
Next to the lighthouse, the lightship is one of the most picturesque objects seen along our coasts, and one of the accompanying illustrations [above] shows the character of the most recent vessels built for use on the Atlantic coast. This vessel is 92 feet on the water-line, 25 feet beam, and has a draft of 11 feet 4 inches. It is built of steel and incombustible materials throughout, and has five watertight bulkheads. It is self-propelled, being provided with an internal-combustion, oil burning engine of 200 horse-power, and has an oil vapor or gas light 50 feet above the water, located on a tubular mast thorough which access to the light can be safely had in any weather. The fog signal is a siren using compressed air, and a submarine bell is also fitted. Fifty-two light vessels are maintained, and that there may be no interruption of the service, there are fourteen relief ships, so that if anything happens to a ship or station another can be quickly sent to take its place. All of these vessels are very strongly built to enable them to withstand the severe service they are required to perform, and have flush decks for increased safety.
Only one light, that at Navesink, N. J. is equipped with electric light, for which current is generated at the station, but there are thirty minor stations where electric lights, either incandescent or arc, are used, which obtain current from outside sources. In most of the coast lights oil-vapor lamps are used having mantles of either 35 or 55 millimeters diameter, and arranged either singly or in groups, giving light intensities of from 600 to 2,500 candles. These lamps are not only very powerful and reliable, but are much more economical than the old oil-wick lamps, as they require but from 0.6 to 0.88 gallon per candle-power per year, as against 4.8 to 7.6 gallons for the old oil lights. The increased illuminating efficiency is about eight times.
Beacons, both fixed and floating, are numerous, and depend on either gas or electricity for their lights, and these are especially valuable to inaccessible places where attendance is difficult. These, however, are only put in stations of subordinate importance. The majority of such beacons use gas, and are provided with tanks of sufficient capacity for storing a supply of acetylene gas for about five months.
Fog signals are of particular value in many places, and these are distributed along the coast, according to conditions prevailing: thus, on the coast of Maine there is an average of 1,057 hours of fog during the year, while on the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts the average is only 180 hours. There are 328 fog signals from Cape Lookout northward out of a total of 567 maintained by the service. There are 127 fog signals on the American shores of the Great Lakes and 83 on the Northern Pacific and Alaska shores, while in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, where fog is rare, no signals of this kind are required.
The principal for signals used are air sirens, steam whistles, reed horns, bells controlled by clockwork, and submarine bells operated by compressed air, all of which are valued by sailors.
U. S. Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam's notes were apparently the source for the claim that “there are thirty minor stations where electric lights, either incandescent or arc, are used.” This is a very curious statement that would not likely have been manufactured by the writer of the above article. However, we know of no lighthouses, let alone minor stations other than the Statue of Liberty, that employed arc lights except the Navesink and Fire Island lighthouses. The Navesink light was burning in 1915, but the Fire Island light had apparently gone out sometime in 1896, and Lady Liberty lost her status in 1902 when she was discontinued as an aid to navigation. All three had their own power plants. So where were the “minor stations” using “outside sources” to fire up their arc lights in 1915?
If anyone knows, please don't hesitate to email Larry Brian Radka, the editor and publisher of The Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting, at LarryBrianRadka@hotmail.com so he can publish their locations here.
This page was last modified on Tuesday, December 06, 2016