Category Archives: Lighthouse administration

Instructions to Light Keepers

Circulars for lighthouse keepers were issued initially through local customs collectors who served as superintendents of lights in their districts. Most instructions concerned tracking the amount of oil used in lighting their lamps. The oil was a very valuable commodity. In 1835 Stephen Pleasonton, who oversaw lighthouses within the Treasury Department from 1820 to 1852, issued the following instructions. His clerk copied them into a volume recording outgoing correspondence now part of the National Archives collection under Record Group 26 Entry 18.



After the U.S. Light-House Board took over the administration of the lighthouses in 1852, the lighthouse service became much more organized and professional, resulting in detailed, multi-paged instructions. The Instructions were updated and expanded almost every decade.

The U.S. Lighthouse Society has digitized many of the Instructions to Light Keepers publications and is making them available on their website as downloadable books. You will notice other useful publications on the same page.

Note that the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association reprinted the 1905 Instructions. It is for sale on their website.

Submitted by Candace Clifford, November 15, 2016


U.S. Coast Guard Celebrates 225th Birthday

Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price celebrated the U.S. Coast Guard birthday doing research at the National Archives.  Photo by Candace Clifford

Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price celebrated the U.S. Coast Guard birthday doing research at the National Archives. Photo by Candace Clifford

According to Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price, the U.S. Coast Guard considers August 4th, the date the U.S. Revenue Marine Service was created in 1790, as their official birthday not the January 28 date when their name was changed in 1915 (see Scott’s January 28 blog).

The U.S. Coast Guard acquired its new name when the federal government combined the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Originally called the U.S. Revenue Marine Service, this early “U.S. navy” was “tasked with coastal surveys and exploration, saving life and property at sea, defending United States territorial waters, enforcing customs (tariff) and smuggling laws, and collecting the customs duties from international trade and shipping to fund the federal government” (source: United States Coast Guard Leaders and Missions, 1790 to Present by Thomas P. Ostrom and John J. Galluzo, pp. 7-8). A fleet of revenue cutters was constructed to enable performance of these duties. The Revenue Marine Service also aided the early lighthouse service in setting up and servicing buoys, choosing sites for lighthouses, and reporting on the efficiency of the lights and other aids to navigation.

The U.S. Post Office issued this stamp today to commemorate the U.S. Coast Guard. It features the USCG training ship EAGLE

The U.S. Post Office issued this stamp today to commemorate the U.S. Coast Guard. It features the USCG training ship EAGLE and a rescue aircraft. (Photo courtesy of the USPS)

The U.S. Coast Guard mission has expanded greatly in the past 100 years. In addition to lifesaving, enforcing maritime law, and national defense, it oversees aids to navigation, protects the marine environment, supports scientific research at sea, keeps ship channels free of ice, responds to oil spills and other marine disasters, ensures port security, and combats terrorism.

As many of you know, Bob Browning retired as the U.S. Coast Guard Historian earlier this year. Scott is now acting historian. Having been with the office 22 years, Scott has acquired an in-depth knowledge of Coast Guard history and has helped countless researchers (including myself) with a multitude of topics. In his new role as acting historian, Scott is very interested in exploring ways to increase the office’s outreach, promote inter-agency cooperation, and “show the flag” to make the Coast Guard Historian’s Office a more visible entity. He is responsible for the extensive website devoted to Coast Guard history. The site is an invaluable resource for researchers and I regularly visit it for information (and photos) on lighthouses, lifesaving stations, vessels, and other U.S. Coast Guard assets. To reach an even broader audience, Scott has recently started using a twitter account. 

So I am including Scott Price in my “Modern Day Lighthouse Keeper” category for his work in promoting U.S. Coast Guard history and making their records accessible to both researchers and the general public.

Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

While working in my digital research library, I recently revisited several letters written by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. As you know, the Secretary of Treasury oversaw lighthouses in the early years of the new republic, with frequent oversight from President Washington.

These letters were written to Benjamin Lincoln, the first customs collector in Boston, who, as the letters indicate, became the first superintendent of lighthouses for the state of Massachusetts. Copied from Record Group 26 during a 2001 visit to the Boston Regional Branch of the National Archives, the first letter is dated March 10, 1790, and the second July 14, 1790. In the March 10th communication Hamilton described Lincoln’s new duties as “keeping in good repair the Light houses, beacons, buoys and public piers in your State, and for the furnishing of same with necessary supplies.”

The letter also instructed Lincoln to confirm the appointments of four keepers who were already keeping the lights at Boston Harbor, Cape Ann, “Plumb” Island, and Nantucket. Hamilton mentioned the “widow of the late General Warren” as keeping the lights at Plymouth. I believe he was actually referring to Hannah Thomas, widow of John Thomas. When General John Thomas went off to fight in the Revolution he left his wife Hannah in charge of the twin lights at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor. Our book Women Who Kept the Lights begins with a chapter on Hannah, the first known female lighthouse keeper in the U.S. The July 14 letter shown here indicates that Hannah’s son John Thomas, Jr., received the appointment at Plymouth. He set their salaries based on what the Colony of Massachusetts had been paying them. The Boston keeper received $400, Plymouth $240, Cape Ann $400, Plumb Island $220, and Nantucket $250.

In his correspondence to Lincoln, Hamilton also touches on Portland Head, then part of Massachusetts. That lighthouse was under construction when the letter was written. Photo copyright Candace Clifford

Here is the March 10th letter in PDF format: Hamilton’s letter of March 10 1790

Candace Clifford, May 9, 2015

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.


Support Needed for Designating National Lighthouse Day

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.

Lighthouse District Staff Under the USLHB

When the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) took over the administration of lighthouses in 1852, they divided the country into districts and assigned an army officer to act as district engineer and a naval officer to act as district inspector. These officers oversaw the lighthouses in their districts and communicated directly with the corresponding USLHB secretary in Washington.  Letters to the USLHB from the district engineers and inspectors can be found in National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 24 (NC-31) and copies of letters from the USLHB to the district engineers and inspectors can be found in Entry 23 (NC-31).

The district engineer and inspector worked out of a district office which had its own staff.  Here is a 1896 letter from a District Engineer W.R. Livermore, Major of Engineers, U.S. Army, describing the qualifications of the various staff members in the 1st/2nd district office based in Boston, Massachusetts.







Lighthouse Service in World War I

As seen from this presidential proclamation, the Lighthouse Service played a role in the First World War.  Most of the lighthouse tenders and a few lighthouse stations, all on the east coast, were placed under the jurisdiction of the War and Navy Departments.  This particular document came from National Archives Record Group 45 – Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library [ONRL], Entry 464b.