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The Lighthouse News and History Magazine

Important Dates in United States Lighthouse History

1716 - First lighthouse built in the United States was Boston Lighthouse built on Little Brewster Island. This lighthouse was destroyed during the Revolutionary War and was rebuilt in 1783 and still stands today.

1719 - First Fog Signal was a cannon placed near Boston Lighthouse. When there was fog, the cannon would be constantly fired to warn ships away from the rocky ledges.

1789 - The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created and operated under the Department of the Treasury. This was the Ninth Law as well as the first Public Works Act passed by Congress on August 7 of that year. Because of this, every August 7th is National Lighthouse Day. This law also passed ownership and responsibility of all lighthouses to the federal government. Prior to that the lighthouses were built and owned by the individual states or territories.

1791 - The first lighthouse completed under the ownership of the federal government was completed at Portland Head Light in Maine. Construction had been actually started and funded by the State of Massachusetts.

1792 - Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia, became the first lighthouse built and completed by the Federal Government.

1793 - First Lightship approved by President George Washington; it would be used on the Delaware River.

1818 - First lighthouses on the Great Lakes were established at Buffalo, NY on Lake Erie and Presque Isle, PA, also on Lake Erie.

1820 - First use of bells as a fog signal device was at West Quoddy Head Light in Maine.

1822 - The French physicist, Augustin Fresnel, beginning this year, "revolutionized lighthouse practice by developing a built-up annular lens comprised of a central spherical lens surrounded by rings of glass prisms, the central portions of which refract and the outer portions both reflect and refract in the desired direction the light from a single lamp placed at the central focus (inside the middle of the light)."

1831 - First lighthouse in the United States to operate using natural gas was the lighthouse at Barcelona (Portland Harbor), NY on the south shore of Lake Erie.

1837 - The first lightship on the Great Lakes began operation. It was stationed at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan.

1840 - The first Lighthouse Tender of the U.S. Lighthouse Service started service. It was the former U.S. Revenue Service Cutter RUSH. Prior to this date other government vessels and private vessels were used to maintain buoys and supply lighthouses. This practice continued until the Lighthouse Service had enough ships to perform the job on their own.

1841 - The first Fresnel lens used in a United States lighthouse was imported from France and installed in Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey.

1844 - Long Island Head Lighthouse in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts became the first cast iron lighthouse to be built in the United States. It stood until 1880 when it was replaced by a new cast iron tower.

1850 - First screw-pile lighthouse was constructed in the United States at Brandywine Shoal.

First iron lighthouse in the United States was built in a position directly exposed to the sweep of the ocean was completed at Minot's Ledge, MA. It was destroyed in a storm the following year, killing two of its keepers.

1852 - The Lighthouse Board was created to oversee all of the lighthouses in the United States.

1854 - First lighthouse on the Pacific coast was completed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

1860 - The first stone lighthouse built in the ocean in the United States is completed at Minot's Ledge, MA. Construction started in 1855 and it took five years to complete. It was one of the great engineering building accomplishments of its time.

1869 - First steam-powered fog signals in the United States were installed at Maine lighthouses at West Quoddy Head and Cape Elizabeth.

First Flag - The first use of the U.S. Lighthouse Service flag was a red, white and blue pennant with a lighthouse.

1871 - Duxbury Pier Light became the first caisson lighthouse built in the United States.

1877 - Kerosene became the primary fuel used to power the lighthouses. Prior to that various illuminants were used such as sperm oil, colza or rapeseed oil, and lard oil.

1884 - First uniforms were introduced for male lighthouse keepers as well as for masters, mates and engineers of lightships and tenders. The wearing of both dress and fatigue uniforms was mandatory. Female lighthouse keepers were not required to wear a uniform.

1884 - The first use of electricity for lighthouse purposes was at the Hell Gate Lighthouse at the Hell Gate Passage, East River, Long Island Sound, New York. It was discontinued the same year because it was too bright.

1886 - The Statue of Liberty was second lighthouse to utilize electricity to become the first "permanently" electrified lighthouse in the United States.

1898 - All seacoast lighthouses were turned off for the first time in history as a precaution during the Spanish-American War.

The first use of electricity to light a Fresnel lens at a lighthouse in the United States took place on June 30, 1898 at the Navesink Light Station in Highlands, New Jersey.

First wireless message sent from ship to shore was from the San Francisco Lightship.

1903 - On July 1, 1903 the United States Light-House Board under the Department of the Treasury was terminated and transferred to the newly created United States Bureau of Lighthouses to be operated under the Department of Commerce.

1904 - First ship with radio communications was the Nantucket Lightship. It was the first U.S. vessel to so be equipped.

1910 - Name Change. An act of Congress abolished the Lighthouse Board and created the Bureau of Lighthouses to be in charge of all lighthouses, thus changing its operating name from the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) to the United States Lighthouse Service (USHLS). Under the new law the first Commissioner of Lighthouses, George R. Putnam, took office.

1916 - First powerboats for lighthouses were designed, built and tested at Great Lakes lighthouses.

1917 - World War I saw the transfer of most lighthouse tenders, lightships and primary lighthouses to War Department and U.S. Navy until the end of the war.

An Act of Congress appropriated $300,000 to install telephones and telephone lines to all Coast Guard Stations and the most important lighthouses.

1918 - First American lightship sunk by an enemy was the Diamond Shoals Lightship off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. All crewmembers survived.

1926 - The Lighthouse Airways Division was established by U.S. Lighthouse Service; its work covering the examination of airways and landing fields and the erection of aids to air navigation. Instead of have beams of light that pointed out to sea, towers were built with beams of light pointed into the sky.

1928 - First radio beacon in the United States, automatic in operation, was completed and put into commission at Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia.

1933 - The U.S. Lighthouse Service Airways Division was transferred to Department of Commerce and put under the control of the Assistant Secretary for Aeronautics.

1934 - Lightship sunk - The Lightship No. 117, Nantucket, occupying the Nantucket Shoals Station in a dense fog, was struck by the HMS OLYMPIC (sister ship of the TITANIC) and cut in two and sunk almost immediately with the loss of seven crewmembers.

1936 - "Most decentralized branch of government", so stated a report which indicated that less than one percent of the approximate 5000 total employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service were located away from the seat of government in Washington D.C.

1937 - Trucks replacing tenders - With the ever-improving road system in the United States, the Lighthouse Service started using motor trucks to supply some lighthouses and other easy to reach shoreline aids to navigation.

1939 - (July, 1) The United States Lighthouse Service is abolished and merged into the United States Coast Guard. This was the first time in the history of the United States Government that a military branch took over another branch of the government. At that time there were 5,355 employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, consisting of 4,119 full-time and 1,156 part-time employees, which included 1,170 light-keepers and assistants, 56 light attendants, 1,195 officers and crews of lightships and tenders; 113 Bureau officers, engineers and draftsmen as well as district superintendents, technical assistants, 226 clerks, messengers, janitors, office laborers, 157 Depot keepers and assistants, including watchmen and laborers and 482 field-force employees in construction and repair work. There were 30,000 aids to navigation, which included lightships and lighthouses, 64 Lighthouse Service Tenders, hundreds of other types of crafts, numerous trucks, automobiles and trailers, 30 lighthouse depots, and 17 district offices.

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