Lighthouses at the Start of World War II

Scott Prices’s recent post “Pearl Harbor: 5 things you didn’t know about the Coast Guard that day” starting me thinking about what I had in my research files about lighthouses around the beginning of World War II.

Makapuu logbook

The log for the Makapuu Lighthouse, on Oahu not far from Honolulu, shows that watches were increased in the week after the Pearl Harbor attack.

As you all know, the U.S. Coast Guard became part of the U.S. Navy during the war.  On December 12, 1941, a confidential memorandum from U.S. Coast Guard Commandant R.R. Waesche discussed “Coast Guard National Defense Functions”:

While all reports received at Headquarters and the Navy Department have shown that the duties performed by Coast Guard officers and men have been very satisfactory, and in many cases deserving of commendation, I believe it desirable to call attention of our Senior Officers and to Captains of the Port, the following matters:

In addition to the duties being performed by Coast Guard officers and men at sea, there are two National Defense functions of paramount importance now being performed by the Coast Guard organization. I refer to the blacking out of aids to navigation on short notice, and the prevention of sabotage in our ports. . . . No organized plan of sabotage has as yet broken out in our seaports, but it is to be expected any time that such an organized effort may occur.

Senior Coast Guard Officers of the Naval District are also directly responsible to see that adequate and efficient plans are made for quickly extinguishing navigation lights. Some plans received at Headquarters require from two to three hours to black out a harbor. I believe by this time that this period has been greatly reduced.  Among the various measures that may be taken to accomplish the general purpose are the following:

a) Replacing lighted aids with unlighted aids for the duration of the war.

b) Reducing the candle power of various lighted aids to navigation.

c) Removal of all radio beacon buoys.

d) Taking measures to prevent lighted aids to navigation from being seen from the air while still visible from a surface vessel.

e) The feasibility of withdrawing lightships from their stations and replacing them if necessary, with other types of aids to navigation

f) The elimination of radio beacons either on lightships or on shore stations.

g) Limitation or elimination of fog signals

h) Elimination or limitation of lighted aids to navigation.

(Source: National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 82C)

This memo found in National Archives, RG 26, Entry 82c, indicates that an incident such as the Pearl Harbor attack was not unanticipated.

This memo found in National Archives, RG 26, Entry 82c, indicates that an incident such as the Pearl Harbor attack was not unanticipated.

It is interesting to note that a memo regarding “Coastal Lookouts at lighthouse stations, etc.” dated December 5, 1941, was issued before the attack. It begins:

In two districts the matter of establishing coastal lookouts at light stations to be manned by Coast Guard personnel has been considered and is being approved. These are located at prominent salients along the coast where continuous watches from lifeboat stations are not available. In some cases, at least, such lookouts would be provided with search light facilities for signaling or for challenging and communication with passing ships. . . .

(Source: National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 82C)

Makapuu Point Lighthouse. National Archives photo

Makapuu Point Lighthouse. National Archives photo

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 <>

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

Both education and preservation projects are eligible. Approximately $1,700,000 is available for 2014. Note the deadline for applications is September 23rd.