Letters from the First District Lighthouse Inspector, 1884 – 1885

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna's application for a lifesaving medal.

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna’s application for a lifesaving medal.

Many lighthouse “letterbooks” were damaged in a fire in the basement of the Department of Commerce in 1921. (This same fire destroyed the 1890 census.) I’ve heard that 40% of the lighthouse records that existed at that time were destroyed. Many surviving volumes were damaged and are too fragile to handle. In order to make them accessible to the general public I have started a digitization project to capture the damaged volumes.

The volume of letters from the first district Inspector to the U.S. Light-House Board, 1884 – 1885, was more than 500 pages–too large to create a PDF for web use so for this volume, I have created an image gallery.

Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse Keeper Marcus Hanna.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Keeper Marcus Hanna. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Most of the letters are routine but I noticed that this volume covers the January 28, 1885, rescue of crew from the shipwrecked schooner Australia (see p. 188).  Cape Elizabeth lighthouse keeper Marcus Hanna went on to receive a gold lifesaving medal for his role in the rescue. On page 418, you find First District Inspector A.S. Crowninshield’s letter:

I have the honor to forward herewith an application from Mr. Marcus A. Hanna, Principal Keeper of Cape Elizabeth Light Station for a medal of honor for rescuing the lives of two persons from the wreck of the Schooner “Australia” on the morning of Jan. 28th ’85: together with sworn statements from several of the eye witnesses of the circumstances, and others.

In referring this application of Mr. Hanna’s to the Board, I would respectfully state, without hesitation, that Mr. Hanna’s exposure to danger on the occasion in question, was made under great peril to himself; and in my opinion, I believe him entitled to the reward he is now seeking.

The wreck of the Australia drew support for a lifesaving station that was established at Cape Elizabeth in 1888. More on Keeper Hanna can be found in Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past.

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine.  Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine. Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Support Needed for More Funding for Maritime Preservation

Tim Runyan of the National Maritime Alliance is asking folks in the lighthouse community to support legislation that will restore funding originally allocated to the maritime heritage community.  This includes historic naval ships, maritime museums, tall ships for sail training, lighthouses, maritime historical societies, education, and preservation organizations.

He has drafted a Letter in support of the Storis Act that you can use as a template for your communication.  He especially needs folks from the following districts to show their support:

  • Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, chair, Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Sen. Angus King, D-ME, member of Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, member of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation
  • Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, member of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation 
  • Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, #2 on Senate Armed Services Committee

Letters can be submitted via the Senator’s Contact tab on their web page. After saving the letter, copy/paste it into your message to the senator.  If there is a drop down tab to indicate what it concerns–put Defense or Armed Services.  Please copy your letter to Tim Runyan at <runyant@ecu.edu>

More Money for Lighthouses


The American Lighthouse Council has created a new website with a blog specifically intended for folks working in lighthouse preservation. In this post, Mike Vogel reports on funding efforts for maritime heritage resources and education.

Originally posted on American Lighthouse Council:

There still is federal money available for lighthouse preservation, but there should be more. There’s an effort now under way in Congress to make that happen, and it could use your support.

First, what’s out there: Under a law passed in the 1990s, a portion of the proceeds from scrapping Navy and Coast Guard ships in the “mothball fleet” is supposed to go to maritime preservation and education. After a first round of $650,000 in grants to 39 projects in 1998, the program went dormant as scrap metal prices tanked and environmental concerns added costs to the scrapping. But that’s improved, and recently $7 million was made available to restart the process.

The program is administered by the National Park Service, which will be using its administrative percent to restart its Maritime Heritage Program, itself a good thing. And NPS has decided to stretch that $7 million pot four years…

View original 368 more words

National Lighthouse Museum Opens on Staten Island

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.

General Depot, Staten Island, New York.  Photo courtesy National Archives

General Lighthouse Depot, Staten Island, New York ca. 1885. The tower in the center was used for experiments in electricity. Photo courtesy National Archives

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.”

A lampist at work in the depot's lamp shop.  All Fresnel lenses were shipped through the depot. Most testing and repairs of lighthouse equipment took place at the depot.  1930 photograph courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

A lampist at work in the depot’s lamp shop. All Fresnel lenses were shipped through the depot. Most testing and repairs of lighthouse equipment took place at the depot. 1930 photograph courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

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.”

Staten Island Depot Buoys & Bells Library of Congress

The General Lighthouse Depot manufactured buoys and bells for the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

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.


Maritime Heritage Grants

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.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse Celebrates 250th Birthday

Documentation drawing completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historic American Building Survey (HABS)

Documentation drawing completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historic American Building Survey (HABS). Click on image to see larger version.

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.

Proposal for new keeper's dwelling at Sandy Hook in 1838. Courtesy National Archives Record Group 26

Proposal for new keeper’s dwelling at Sandy Hook in 1838. (Click on image to see larger version.) Courtesy National Archives Record Group 26

“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.

Photo by Candace Clifford, 2002

Photo by Candace Clifford, 2002

“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.