Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2012

Long Lost Christiana Lighthouse Had Two Distinctions: First and Oldest

By Timothy Harrison


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Delaware’s Christiana Lighthouse had a lovely, ...

Just as Delaware’s Christiana Lighthouse itself has been all but forgotten in the pages of time, so have the two separate distinctions that made this ghost light historically important.

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The Bellevue Rear Range Lighthouse as it appeared ...

Christiana Lighthouse has the distinction of having had the oldest lighthouse keeper in American history. Anthony Christy was an amazing 97 years old when he was appointed on September 22, 1853 by President Franklin Pierce as the keeper of Christiana Lighthouse. He was still on duty as the lighthouse keeper when he died at the age of 105.

Also, nearly forgotten in the pages of time is the fact that the 1835 lighthouse was the first, as part of a government experiment to save money, to use gas as its source of fuel to light the beacon in the lantern.

Just as the rising cost of oil is a major concern today, it was also a concern in the mid 1800s. As a result, in 1843, the Light-House Establishment chose the Christiana Lighthouse to carry out an experiment “to ascertain the expediency of using gas, instead of oil,” in America’s lighthouses. The following year, gas-making machinery was brought to the Christiana Lighthouse and installed in a new brick building that was erected at the site.

The gas was produced using a mixture of rosin, coal, coke, clay, muslin, and soap from a process developed by Benjamin F. Coston, who was the director of the U.S. Navy’s scientific laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Interestingly, the keeper of the lighthouse at the time, Benjamin A. Crozier, a former shoemaker, had no experience of any kind in producing rosin gas. Apparently he took instruction well and no accidents or explosions occurred at the lighthouse. It was also reported that the light in the tower burned brighter than ever before when it was switched to gas.

In an effort to improve navigation into the Christiana River, the government, in 1884, also installed a gas beacon on the pier at the end of the jetty at the mouth of the river. Over time, this structure was improved and changed, and finally become a bell tower with a light on the top of the roof.

Benjamin Coston, the man who invented the gas process, resigned from the Navy 1847 and went on to become president of the Boston Gas Company where he perfected and manufactured the Sylvic Gas Light. Unfortunately, Coston suffered from the effects of his constant inhalation of the chemical gases used in his Navy experiments, a direct cause that led to his death in November of 1848. However, his accomplishments with gas lighting were hailed as a major success in both home and commercial lighting.

The Christiana Lighthouse continued in operation until March 15, 1909, when it was replaced by the much taller Bellevue Rear Range Lighthouse that had been constructed in close proximity to the Christiana Lighthouse, but 100 yards out into Delaware River.

Although a light no longer beamed from the tower of the Christiana Lighthouse, it remained in use as living quarters for the keeper of the Bellevue Rear Range Lighthouse, until a new concrete structure was built for the keeper. However, by the mid 1930s, the keepers were removed from the Bellevue Rear Range Lighthouse when it was automated.

Although the government tried the gas-making process at other Delaware lighthouses such as Reedy Island and Cohansey lights, and at Egg Island Light in New Jersey, it was eventually decided against the further development of gas for lighthouses. Interestingly, these three lighthouses, as well as the Christiana Lighthouse, with its memorable place in history, no longer stand, existing now only in the dusty pages of time.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 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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