Most of us know of Pleasonton’s role as administrator of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment from 1820 to 1852. Here is a piece that describes his role in saving important documents during the War of 1812. See Prologue: Pieces of History » The burning of Washington.
The National Lighthouse Museum will open in the old General Lighthouse Depot, Staten Island, on August 7, 2014, the 225th anniversary of George Washington signing the act that created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in 1789. A full weekend of events is planned as part of the celebration.
The General Lighthouse Depot was once the central hub of the lighthouse system. According to the 1867 Annual Report of the U.S. Light-House Board, “Previous to the establishment of this depot the reserve material for the light-house service was stored in the several districts, involving the necessity for a multiplication of storage, buildings, mechanics, workmen, supplies of all kinds, apparatus, etc., and it frequently happened that articles were purchased for use in one district when there was an excess of the same in other districts. To reduce to the minimum the supply of the service and consequent expense, it was evident that there must be one storehouse, one workshop, one oil vault, etc., gathered together at one spot and called a depot, from which all needed supplies and apparatus could be issued as they might be wanted, upon requisition from the inspectors or engineers of the several districts, approved at the office of the Lighthouse Board. For the convenience of purchase and shipment, it was just as evident that this depot must be at or in the immediate vicinity of New York city.”
According to the National Register nomination prepared by Larry E. Gobrecht, Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau, in 1981, the “Office Building and United States Light-House Depot complex are historically significant for the role they played in the development of lighthouse technology in the United States. The Light-House Depot conducted experiments that led to the improvement of lighthouse equipment and set national standards for the operation of lighthouses. The depot also served as a supply center. All of the structures in the complex—the office building (Old Administration Building), the warehouses the former laboratory and the stone retaining wall (which provided access to oil vaults)—served important functions in the complex. The office building (Old Administration Building) is also architecturally significant. It is an excellent example of a small-scale government building in the French Second Empire style. Designed by Alfred B. Mullet and built in 1868-71, it is the only example of his work surviving in New York City.”
The museum will initially open an Education Resource Center in Building # 11. According to their press release, the museum’s goal is “to promote and support historical, educational, cultural, recreational and related activities at the site, while maintaining the navigational significance and maritime heritage of lighthouses throughout the world.” Visit their website for more information.
Tim Runyan, chair of the National Maritime Alliance, announced that monies are now available for the second round of maritime heritage grants. (The first round funded about 39 projects for about $650,000 in 1998.) The National Park Service will make the formal announcement on Monday but meanwhile you can access more information at http://www.nps.gov/maritime/grants/intro.htm
Both education and preservation projects are eligible. Approximately $1,700,000 is available for 2014. Note the deadline for applications is September 23rd.
On June, 14, 2014, the Gateway National Recreation Area celebrated the 250th birthday of a National Historic Landmark. According to park historian Tom Hoffman, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was lit for first time on June 11, 1864. “. . . it was one of only eleven lighthouses built in the thirteen colonies during the colonial era, but, as the years went by, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse literally stood ‘the test of time’ to outlast all of its contemporaries to become the oldest standing and oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.” Hoffman provided me with an article on the 250th anniversary of the light and I will share some of his history here.
“Sandy Hook’s strategic geographic location at the entrance into lower New York Harbor made it a prime location for a lighthouse to help guides sailing ships safely around its tip and into the harbor. . . . The catalyst that created the movement to build a lighthouse at Sandy Hook occurred during the winter of 1761. During the first three months of that year the merchants of New York lost 20,000 pounds due to shipwrecks which threatened their material wealth and financial resources. Due to their financial losses, forty-three merchants in New York banded together and, on March 13, 1761, sent a ‘Memorial’ (a petition of facts) to New York Lieutenant Governor Caldwallader Colden, President of His Majesty’s Royal Council of New York.
“The merchants urged Colden to recommend to the New York Royal Assembly that a lighthouse be erected at the north end of Sandy Hook, along with a house to shelter Sandy Hook Pilots (who, for a fee, safely guided ships into the harbor), the stationing of some whaleboats at Sandy Hook to transport the pilots out to approaching ships, and a small duty (tax) on the tonnage of ships entering the Port of New York.
” . . . the Provincial Congress of the Colony of New York soon passed an Act on May 19, 1761, ‘for raising the Sum of 3,000 pounds to be employed for and towards purchasing so much of Sandy-Hook as shall be necessary, and thereon to erect a proper Light House.’
“. . . the merchants turned to Mr. Isaac Conro, a mason, builder, and seller of building materials in New York City, to build the lighthouse. Since the deed was signed May 10, 1762, Conro probably had his labor force of blacksmiths, coppersmiths, artificers, and laborers, along with four oxen, one horse, two carts, and two boats at Sandy Hook building the stone lighthouse tower during the late spring and summer of 1762. . . . by the end of 1762 more money was needed to finish building the lighthouse. Given that the 1761 lottery raised 3,000 pounds, about half of that amount had to pay winning ticket holders, leaving the other half to buy the four acres of land and build the lighthouse and adjoining keeper’s house. Since the four acres cost 750 pounds this left only 750 pounds for lighthouse and keeper’s house construction. Since addition funds were needed to complete the lighthouse the Colony of New York passed another act on December 11, 1762. The lottery was drawn in New York on June 14, 1763, and raised 3,000 pounds to complete the lighthouse.
“The June 18, 1764, edition of the New York Mercury Newspaper announced the lighting of the ‘New York Lighthouse’ as Sandy Hook for the first time on Monday, June 11, 1764:
‘On Monday Evening last the New York Lighthouse erected at Sandy Hook was lighted for the first time. The House is of an Octagonal Figure, having eight equal sides; the diameter at the Base is 29 Feet and at the top of the Wall 15 Feet. The lanthorn [lantern house] is 7 Feet High: the circumference 33 Feet. The whole construction of the Lanthorn is Iron; the top covered with copper. There are 48 Oil Blazes. The building from the surface is Nine Stories; the whole from the Bottom to Top 103 feet. This structure was undertaken by Mr. Issac Conro of this City, and was carried on with all the Expedition that the Difficulty attending to and from on the Occasion could possibly admit of, and is judged to be masterly finished.’
“The reference to ’48 Oil Blazes’ indicated that either brass or copper ‘spider lamps’, each containing a number of wicks in each lamp, and using whale oil, were employed to light the lighthouse. To pay for the upkeep, maintenance and operation of the lighthouse a three-pence per ton duty was imposed on ships using the channel into New York Harbor. The operating costs of the lighthouse during the first two years of operation averaged 419 pounds per year, while the duty tax levied on ship tonnage averaged 451 pounds per year, making for a modest profit when it came to maintaining and operating the lighthouse.
The lighthouse went on to guide many a ship in and out of New York Harbor after it was completed. On June 11, 1964, the 200th anniversary of the lighting of Sandy Hook Lighthouse for the first time, the nation bestowed a great honor on the lighthouse by designating it a National Historic Landmark. At some time during 1960 and 1964 Sandy Hook Lighthouse was automated with a timer switch. Even this was replaced in 1989 when the U.S. Coast Guard decided to keep the light on 24/7, since a modern day, commercially made 1,000 watt electric light bulb is rated to stay on continuously for one year, and they have been found by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Teams (ANT) to stay on up to one and a half years.
“In 1995, the U.S. Coast Guard officially transferred ownership of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower to the National Park Service, but still retained ownership of the 3rd Order Fresnel Lens (installed in 1857) and modern lighting system to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation.
“In 1998 Congress appropriated $800,000 to totally renovate the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower both inside and out from top to bottom. . . . The old keeper’s house currently serves as the park’s visitor center and is open every day 9 am to 5 pm. Free ranger and park volunteer lighthouse tours are presented every ½ hour, with the first going up at 1 pm, and the last tour going up at 4:30 pm. Children must be 48-inches tall to climb the lighthouse.
Many thanks to Tom Hoffman for sharing his article.
As you may know there’s a big push afloat to have August 7th designated “National Lighthouse Day.” In 2013, August 7th, the day the lighthouse service was established, was recognized in a congressional bill. But it was just for that year. Now the effort is to have the date recognized in perpetuity.
August 7, 2014, is the 225th anniversary of the first act of Congress that made the administration of lighthouses the responsibility of the new federal government. It also marks the 75th anniversary of the transfer of lighthouses to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. And it will also be the opening day of the new National Lighthouse Museum Educational Center on Staten Island.
There is now a facebook page devoted to this effort. It provides suggestions on how to contact your congressional representatives to support this designation. You can also show your support by “liking” this page if you have a facebook account.
In honor of Women’s History Month I thought it would be a appropriate to share the list of female lighthouse keepers I assembled for our book Women Who Kept the Lights. I did a major overhaul of this appendix for the latest edition, making sure that I only included the 142 women who had served as principal keepers for at least a year. Many women served as temporary keepers for a few months after a spouse’s death while the Lighthouse Service searched for a replacement. Early on we decided that the many women who served as assistant keepers, paid and unpaid, to their keeper husbands or fathers were too numerous to track.
Most family members knew how to care for the light, filling in when the keeper was away fetching supplies, fishing, or otherwise occupied. It was at these “family stations” that women generally received appointments. Coastal stations, with multiple keepers caring for first order lenses or fog signals requiring machinists, did not have women serving as head keepers. Instead they were generally found at stations with a single keeper, tending lights marking harbors, rivers, or smaller bodies of water. Large numbers of female keepers served around the Chesapeake Bay, on the Great Lakes, or along the Gulf of Mexico. Some female keepers tended a fog bell but none were required to maintain a steam fog signal.
Scott Price at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office, Washington, D.C., has also been tracking female keepers. His web page lists not only principal keepers but also includes assistant keepers and other female employees of the Lighthouse Service. Scott also recently wrote an interesting blog article “Harriet Colfax & the Women of the Lighthouse Service” and devotes a web page to the 175-foot Coastal Keeper-Class Buoy Tenders named for women keepers.
Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Sandra MacLean Clunies have produced a unique book based on the genealogical research they did for the Bodie Island Keeper Descendants Reunion that took place at Bodie Island Light Station last October. Published by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, the book features short essays on the keepers with lots of photos of them and their families. The reunion attendees must have been delighted to learn so much about their ancestors. There may still be copies available for purchase through the Society. Email Diana Chappell –diandmanda at aol.com — for more information.
Record Group 26 in the National Archives includes only a few sources for letters from keepers. You can sometimes find them as attachments to letters written by custom collectors and district inspectors and engineers to their superiors in Washington. A few letters from keepers also survive in field records. The letter pictured above is part of the “K Series letters” in Entry 3 (NC-63) “Records of Fifth Light-House District (Baltimore), 1851-1912.” Keeper Gallop is writing his supervisor, the 5th district inspector. Note the inspector’s notation at the bottom left that he has written the U.S. Light-House Board.