After investigations revealed neglect and penny-pinching by Stephen Pleasonton, the U.S. Government established it’s second agency: The U.S. Lighthouse Board. This agency would oversee the administration of all lighthouses within the United States, ensuring their upkeep, creating standardized rules, overseeing keepers, and allocating funds.
The “Lighthouse Board Era” is a fascinating, expansive, and detailed time in American lighthouse history. The era lasted from 1852 to 1910; at the end the Bureau of Lighthouses took over, followed by the Coast Guard in 1939.
This blog post will attempt to give some generalized historical information about the board, proceedings, and expectations – but there’s so much amazing information we can’t cover it all in 1,000 words! Enjoy the summary…
Establishing The Board
October 9, 1852 – it’s an important date in American lighthouse history. On that day, after the inspection reports and recommendations, Congress created the Lighthouse Board, a nine member team that would oversee and regulate all operations relating to aids to navigation in the United States. Lighted buoys, light ships, and lighthouses.
The Lighthouse Board was comprised of educated, capable men from different backgrounds, including military, engineering, topography, and scientists. They contributed ideas, plans, and principles which modernized, transformed, and developed the American aids to navigation to rival the systems of other nations.
Writing The Rules
Beginning in 1852 and continuing with regular updates, the Lighthouse Board clearly spelled out exactly how the lighthouse establish would be run as an agency and how each lightkeeper in America would attend to his duties. Seriously, these rules and regulations are so detailed that they could be used to run an 1852 era lighthouse if someone had the inclination to try it. (They are also useful for historical novelists – ask me about night-watches sometime…)
At a lighthouse the rules and regulations were clearly posted and available for reference in case of any questions. After-all, it might be months in some locations before a keeper could consult with his supervisor.
One of the first things the Lighthouse Board did was divide the coastlines into districts. Twelve lighthouse districts, to be exact. They appointed an Inspector to each district and later an Engineer.
The Inspector toured each lighthouse in his district at regular intervals (often bringing food, supplies, and the mail during the visit) and ensured that all equipment at the light station was in proper working order and that the rules and regulations were followed. If a lightkeeper and his family weren’t following the prescribed rules, they could be dismissed -and, yes, that did happen on occasion.
The district engineer oversaw the construction of new light stations and the repair work on the current ones.
Constructing & Supplying Lighthouses
Under the Lighthouse Board and their hierarchy of “command” new lighthouses were constructed. The goal of the establishment was to put good lights where warnings or directions for navigation were needed. The Board published “light lists” for mariners, detailing the location of each aid to navigation and giving the identifying details of the station – thereby increasing safety for commerce and navy vessels.
How did the lighthouses get supplied? The Lighthouse Board established a centralized method of the getting food, oil, and other necessary items to their stations and keepers. A large depot at Staten Island collected and housed the supplies, but each district also had its own depot for more localized distribution.
Hiring The Keepers
There were qualifications spelled out in the rules and regulations for hiring keepers and assistant keepers. Lighthouse keepers were often former mariners who knew the signs of bad weather, were used to living by/on water, and respected the importance of a clear warning signal to the ships at sea or on the lake. Following the Civil War, some Union veterans found jobs at lightkeepers since it was government employment and a way to help a former military member.
While pay amount changed through the years, the keeper was only paid his salary, and the food supplies sent to the lighthouse were enough for him and his assistant (if he had an assistant); additional food for a family would have to be purchased or produced and there wasn’t help from the government for that.
If a keeper was fired or incapacitated, a replacement keeper would immediately take his place, sometimes temporarily. A keeper had to be at a lighthouse at all times to carry out the prescribed duties. (We’ll talk more about keepers and those specific duties in the coming weeks.)