Digest>Archives> May 2010

Lightships once came in all colors

By Jim Claflin


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We recently received an interesting question from Kim G., of Bald Head Island, NC. She noted that the Frying Pan Shoals lightship had a hull painted yellow in color, and wondered if any other lightships were similarly painted?

Looking in the “bible” of lightships (Willard Flint’s Lightships of the U.S. Government. U.S. Coast Guard. 1989. 500+ pages), I find that light vessel on the Frying Pan Shoals station was indeed painted yellow from 1854-1940, and after 1940 she was painted red.

Prior to the 1850s, lightship development in this country lagged far behind European nations. Vessels were poorly rigged and illuminating apparatus was limited to multiple wick sperm oil lamps of poor visibility. To distinguish the vessels as lightships, round “daymarks” were positioned at the mastheads to aid in spotting the vessels. However, no specifications existed regarding color or markings to identify the vessel and its location for mariners who needed to verify their position.

Many of the early lightships were painted black, which provided little or no visibility to mariners, particularly at night or in fog. In addition, it was nearly impossible to distinguish vessels from other lightship stations in the area.

Following the establishment of the Light House Board in the 1850s, station names began to be painted on the hull sides to aid in recognition, and by 1867 vessel numbers began to appear on the sides as well. At about the same time too, we begin to see a variety of hull colors, in many cases selected to provide the best contrast against shoreline features, or to contrast with merchant vessels.

Although there would be a few vessels with multicolored checks or stripes, the predominant colors used in the 1800s were red, black, gray and yellow. One station vessel was known to be green. Gradually, red and black would become the predominant colors in the early 1900s.

Looking through Willard Flint’s book, a few of the early colors used included:

Great Round Shoal (MA) red 1890-1891, lead color 1892-1923, black 1923-1932

Stonehorse Shoal (MA) green 1852- , black with white band 1889-1916

Cape Lookout Shoals (NC) yellow with red ends 1905-1933

Neuse River (NC) lead color 1854-1862

Nine Foot Shoal (NC) White 1854-1859

Brant Island Shoal (NC) Straw color 1854-1863

Harbor Island (NC) red color 1854-1867

Okracoke (NC) yellow color 1854-1859

Brunswick (GA) yellow 1907-1929

Galveston (TX) “sandy yellow” 1849-1870, stray 1870-1906

Swiftsure Bank (WA) yellow 1909-1940

Lake Huron (MI) straw with white band 1893 - ?

Grays reef (MI) red with white band 1891-1923

In 1940, the Coast Guard adopted a standard color scheme for all lightships – red hull with white lettering, white superstructure, and buff-colored stack, masts, lantern galleries and ventilators. By 1941, all lightships in the United States, except Ambrose and Lake Huron, would use this standard color scheme. (During World War II, some offshore lightships were painted using the subdued Navy color scheme.) Ambrose was changed from black to red in 1945, but Huron would retain its black hull until the station was discontinued in 1970.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects? Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the May 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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