The oversight and administration of lighthouses and other aids to navigation in the United States have fallen under several different government agencies and offices in the nearly three centuries since that first light tower was built in Boston Harbor back in 1716. For the majority of those many years, the lighthouse system, taken under federal jurisdiction by act of Congress in 1789, resided in the Treasury Department of the United States. From 1789 through 1903, the lighthouses of our nation were under the Treasury Department. From 1903 until 1913 they were a part of the Department of Commerce and Labor. That cabinet department was split into two separate agencies in 1913, the lighthouse system being assigned to the Department of Commerce. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard, then an agency of the Treasury Department, took over control of our lighthouses, returning them once again to the government department of which they were a part for so many prior years. Today the Coast Guard, still responsible for many lighthouses, is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.
The two sets of letters seen in the heading of this article, U.S.L.H.E. and U.S.L.H.S. are must-know terms for any lighthouse historian, yet they are often used incorrectly. They should not be considered interchangeable.
U. S. L.H. E. – United States Light-House Establishment
This was the first official name of our American lighthouse agency. That 9th Act of Congress back in 1789 that took the then twelve existing lighthouses that had been constructed by the various colonies under the jurisdiction of the brand new federal government was entitled “An act for the establishment and support of light-houses . . .” A letter from federal Commissioner of Revenue Tenche Coxe to a Mr. Habersham, Collector of Customs at Savannah, Georgia, dated October 6, 1795, states: “It appears that in March 1790 the late Secretary of the Treasury in the course of necessary duty reported to the President that no information concerning the Light House Establishment was received from Georgia.” The agency was known and referred to as the “Light-House Establishment” right from the beginning, and that would continue to be its official name right up until 1910, when the Bureau of Lighthouses was created within the Dept. of Commerce and Labor. Many light-towers, other station buildings, and many pieces of lighthouse related equipment built/made in this era carry the letters “USLHE.”
A commonly misunderstood aspect of the “Establishment” that continues to be perpetuated in many lighthouse articles and publications stems from the creation, in the mid-1800s, of the “Light-House Board.” From 1820 until 1852, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasonton was the singular head of the lighthouse system. Officially the “Fifth Auditor of the Treasury,” Pleasonton was assigned the “care and superintendence of the lighthouse establishment” by the Secretary of the Treasury. He was also referred to by the title “General Superintendent of Lights.” By 1850, Pleasonton’s administration of the lighthouses had come under fire by a number of critics, Congress among them, and his tenure came to an end in 1852. In that year, the single administrator (Pleasonton) was replaced by a “Board” of eight military engineers and distinguished scientists of the day, under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, who was the ninth member of the “Light-House Board.”
The Light-House Board did not replace the Light-House Establishment, although you will read many articles that will tell you this is the case. The by-now greatly expanded system, with lights and fog signals from Northern Maine to the Gulf of Mexico as well as many on the Great Lakes in the interior of our nation, was still officially named the Light-House Establishment. The Light-House Board was simply the “board of directors” of the Establishment, just as Stephen Pleasonton had been its single administrator for the decades preceding. William Shubrick was the first Chairman of that board, and many distinguished and accomplished military engineers and civilian scientists served on the Board during the 58 years that it existed. The agency itself, which the Board administered, remained the “Light-House Establishment.”
U. S. L. H. S. - United States Lighthouse Service
It is important to understand that there was never any agency “officially” named the “Lighthouse Service”, in spite of the frequent use of the term. In 1910, as noted above, the “Bureau of Lighthouses” was created within the Department of Commerce and Labor. (In 1913, this Bureau would be assigned to the then newly created and separate Department of Commerce.) In spoken reference, as well as in agency correspondence, the term “lighthouse service” was perhaps more commonly used than was “Bureau of Lighthouses,” but this was never an officially designated name. Many structures and lighthouse implements from the “Bureau” era carry the letters “USLHS.” With the creation of the “Bureau,” the word “Establishment” began to be used less frequently, although it can be found in official documents well after 1910. The term “Service” was used more and more frequently, if unofficially, and this term continued to be used post-1939 when the Coast Guard took over lighthouse jurisdiction. As is noted below, however, the term “lighthouse service” was also being used well before 1910.
Confusing Issues - This whole situation is confused by several factors, one as simple as the use or non-use of the hyphen (-) in the spelling of the word “Lighthouse.” Earlier references are to “light-houses” and to the “Light-House Establishment.” It is unclear when the use of the hyphen was dropped, or became optional, as more modern spellings omit it, but the “Lighthouse Establishment” is the same agency as the “Light-House Establishment.”
Perhaps the most confusing part of the issue, as any research into the use of the terms “Establishment” versus “Service” will show, is that both terms were used almost from the beginning. Both terms can often be found in the same document, and often in the same sentence. An example is found in the 1902 “Instructions To Keepers, Chapter V Paragraph 191, which states: “No person employed in, or in any way connected with, the Light-House Service, will be permitted to supply provisions or rations for the officers or crews of Light-vessels or any Light-House Establishment vessel, or of any vessel employed in the Light-House Service by charter or otherwise.”
A second example from this same document, Chapter II Paragraph 121, states: “Whenever an officer of the Light-House Establishment or a member of the Light-House Board is afloat in a vessel of the Light-House Establishment, the light-house flag shall be shown at the mainmast head. . . . . Light-vessels shall display colors and light-house flag to all passing vessels of war and vessels of the Light-House Service.” Note that 1902 is eight years before the creation of the Bureau of Lighthouses.
An 1896 letter to the Board from the Office of Engineer, 1st and 2nd Lighthouse Districts, is on “Light-House Establishment” stationery, yet in discussing employee qualifications, the writer recommended that Senior Superintendents should have had “long experience in the Light-House Service.”
A review of many other documents finds the term “Light House Service” in correspondence as far back as the late 1790s. Another letter from Tenche Coxe, this one dated September 26, 1795, also to Mr. Habersham, Collector of Customs in Savannah, states: “I am sorry to observe that such delay has not occurred in any instance in the Light House Service.” Note this is the same Tenche Coxe who wrote the letter to Mr. Habersham that is referenced above about that same time in which he referred to the “Light House Establishment.” Confusion was apparently common right from the earliest days.
Conversely, the term “Lighthouse Establishment” is found in official correspondence several years after the creation of the Bureau of Lighthouses. The letterhead of a 1919 letter from the Secretary of the Dept. of Commerce, requesting appropriations for lighthouses for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1920, says: “Department of Commerce Lighthouse Establishment.” Perhaps they were just thriftily using up old stationery?
Summary - If one chooses to be officially correct, he should use the term “Establishment” in referring to the system from 1789 until the creation of the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910. From there on, the term “Service” is the most appropriate.
References: Quotes from letters are taken from a Thomas Tag article regarding the Tybee Island, GA, lighthouse in the November, 2011 (Volume XXVIII Number 1, 2011) issue of The Keeper’s Log.
This story appeared in the
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