Category Archives: Fresnel Lenses

Modern Day Lighthouse Keeper Thomas A. Tag

I have the pleasure of working with Tom Tag in my new part-time position as the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s new historian. As most of you know, Tom is the “goto guy” for everything technical in the lighthouse community. He’s written numerous articles for The Keeper’s Log on lenses, lamps, fog signals, illuminants, etc. He’s inventoried surviving lenses and lamps in the U.S. He and his wife Phyllis have created a database of all the lighthouse keepers serving in the Great Lakes. The amount of work he has performed on behalf of lighthouses and lighthouse history over the past 20-plus years is truly amazing!

Tom shared with me that he was born in Chicago but grew up in Laporte, Indiana. At age 14, he would bike to nearby Michigan City and swim off the pier at the Michigan City Pierhead Light. He and his wife Phyllis enjoyed walking out to that same lighthouse when they lived in Michigan City early in their marriage. After retiring from a career in managing computer programmers, Tom was looking for something different to do with his time. On a vacation in Charleston, South Carolina, he noticed how popular lighthouse items were in the gift shops. He then decided he would “corner the market on lighthouse information” and it appears that’s what he’s been doing ever since. He initially focused on the Great Lakes. Later, after joining the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Wayne Wheeler encouraged Tom to write an article for the “Clockwork” section of The Keeper’s Log. He started with “American-Made Lenses” and went from there to publish over 14 articles on lighthouse technology. Tom is now the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Technical Advisor and serves on their Board of Directors.

Tom Tag (on left) accepting his Ross Holland Award from American Lighthouse Council President Don Terras in 2011. (Click on photo to see citation.)

Tom Tag (on left) accepting his Ross Holland Award from American Lighthouse Council President Don Terras in 2011. (Click on photo to see citation.)

I’ve had an introduction to the digital archives that Tom has created for the U.S. Lighthouse Society and it is truly awesome. Most of it is based on Tom’s own collection and the resources collected by the Society but there is also research donated by lighthouse enthusiasts and other historians. I plan to help Tom in his work to expand the Archives and make it accessible to U.S. Lighthouse Society members.

You may have visited the Society’s new website. Most of the history sections found at were written or put together by Tom. If you haven’t already, you should check out the photos, architectural drawings, and Light Lists that the Society has made available online– Plans are to grow this online repository and I hope to do a new blog for the Society that highlights our progress.

The U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Archives contain a lot of architectural drawings not currently available on their website. I discovered that the Society funded the digitizing of the microfilm collection of lighthouse plans that served as my “course of last resort” when researching lighthouse plans at the Cartographic Section in Archives II. (The microfilm collection includes many plans, albeit not of the greatest copy quality, not found in the main RG 26 lighthouse collection.) The Society is also digitizing the 43 binders containing the letter-sized copies of plans in the main collection.

The creation of this incredible digital repository of lighthouse records would have never happened without the guidance and dedication of Tom Tag. So it is with great pleasure that I include Tom Tag in my list of “Modern Day Lighthouse Keepers”!

~ Submitted by Candace Clifford, July 8, 2016


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.


Fire Island Lighthouse Lens

lens before disassembly

The Fire Island Lighthouse lens before disassembly at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. NPS photo by Candace Clifford, 2000

In 2000 I had the pleasure of documenting the disassembly of a first-order Fresnel lens at the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of an exhibition gallery renovation conducted by C. Erickson and Sons, Inc. The lens had been on display since 1933 when it was lent to the Institute by the Department of Commerce whose Bureau of Lighthouses oversaw lighthouses at that time.  The lens had once served Fire Island Lighthouse on Long Island.

Fire Island Light Station was established in 1826-27; a second tower was built in 1858 and a first-order Fresnel lens installed. First-order lenses are the largest of seven orders of Fresnel lenses. They were used at coastal lights that needed to be visible to mariners from great distances. Fire Island was seen by traffic sailing into New York Harbor.

According to a Notice to Mariners dated July 3, 1858, the light was first displayed from the new first-order lens on November 1, 1858. Its characteristic was “a brilliant flash once every minute. . . . The new light should be seen in ordinary states of atmosphere, from the deck of a vessel 15 feet above the water, from 21 to 23 nautical miles.” The new lens created a much brighter light than the reflector system it replaced. The lens revolved around the light source by means of a rotation mechanism powered by weights which would be wound up by the keeper on a regular schedule.


Each lens component was carefully packed into crates for longterm storage.

A campaign by steamboat companies and marine-insurance companies was launched in 1908 to increase the intensity of the light. Their petition stated,

That it is of the greatest importance to the safety, and the uninterrupted course, of navigation that the light on Fire Island should be of a character equal to that of the best lights in existence elsewhere; That the present light on Fire Island has not been changed for many years, is not a modern light, and is not of such power as should be provided in this important position.

The U.S. Light-House Board recommended that Fire Island be equipped with a “modern high power illuminating apparatus” in its 1908 annual report, but no immediate action was taken. In 1929, the Office of the Superintendent of Lighthouses noted that “…the present apparatus is an obsolete type and beyond economical repair; it has been giving trouble for several years and has now reached the point where replacement is necessary.” In June 1933, the old first-order lens was transferred to the Franklin Institute and the Fresnel lens from the discontinued Shinnecock Bay Light Station replaced it. Because it could rotate more rapidly, the Shinnecock lens produced a flash at more frequent intervals and thus was of more use to mariners.


The lens in its new exhibit building at Fire Island Light Station. Copyright Candace Clifford, 2012

Museum records at the Franklin Institute, indicate that the Fire Island Lighthouse lens was first displayed on the ground floor of the Franklin Institute on June 10, 1933. The parts not used were stored at the Lafayette School (this probably included the spider and the weights) on November 10, 1943. The vapor lamp was placed in the lighting exhibit in 1964 and is now part of the Electricity Gallery.

According to an article in The Institute News (August 1938)

When the lens now to be seen on the ground floor was in active service, it was operated by the accurate clockwork which still runs it, except that a tiny electric motor has been substituted for the elaborate system of weights which ran down a tube through the middle of the lighthouse, around which a spiral staircase ran. These weights required rewinding every four hours.

The article also describes the installation:

The great lens, weighing between four and five tons, was brought to the Institute in pieces in 1933. It was first assembled in sections in the old Franklin Institute’s workshop, so that it might be checked up. It was then again disassembled, and brought to the new museum for its final assembly. When it was put together, it was found that there had been a miscalculation in the height of the ceiling, and that there was five-eighths of an inch less than had been anticipated. The result is that, at the present time, there is just about one-quarter of an inch clearance at the top of the huge lens.


A clockwork mechanism and chariot wheel system once rotated the lens. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2012

It took nearly a week for lampists Joe Cocking, Nick Johnston, Jim Woodward, Jim Dunlap and Tony Farr and to disassemble and pack the lens components.  Lighthouse Preservation Consultant Cullen Chambers assisted. NPS conservator Gretchen Voeks inspected every panel for damage and documented needed repairs.  All the panels were carefully packed into crates for a long-time storage.  We felt some regret at seeing such a beautiful artifact disappearing from view.  So years later I was thrilled to learn that the lens was returning to Fire Island.  In 2012 I visited Fire Island and had the chance to admire the lens once again in its new exhibit building next to the lighthouse.

Although the lighthouse grounds received much damage from last year’s Hurricane Sandy, apparently the lens came through unharmed.  For more about Fire Island Lighthouse, visit their website.


The new lens exhibit building is the first building you encounter when walking to the lighthouse. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2012