American Lighthouses: New England

What do you imagine when I say “lighthouse?” A stormy scene? A breath-takingly beautiful rocky coast with a picturesque lighthouse perch on a cliff? A tall, tall tower reaching into the sky (or so it seems)?

I used to always associate lighthouses with New England. They fit nicely into the maritime history of the region and many of the quaint and picture-perfect structures are in that region. Also, New England tourism markets lighthouses and frequently uses them as symbolism.

In recent weeks, we’ve discussed the purpose of a lighthouse and their beginnings in American history. As the Lighthouse Board took over and worked with engineers more aids to navigation were constructed along the United States coasts and lakeshores. This month we’ll be looking at the different styles of lighthouses and discovering the unique features of lighthouses in the various regions of the U.S.A. And we’ll kick-off our discussion with a trek to New England through text and photos to discover some lighthouses in the region.

The Coastline

The New England Coast varies by state. There are rocks, safe harbors, relatively safe shores, and submerged dangers. This presented a challenge for lighthouse construction.

Remember, a light has to be seen by the passing vessels so the captain and crew are warned or directed on their course. So…if there was a cliff or promontory, the lighthouses tended to have short towers. If there land was more flat (like the land where Nantucket’s lighthouses were built), those structures had taller towers.

Because of the varying coastline, we find a mix of lighthouse design in the New England region. Purpose always came first, beauty and iconic imagery was completely secondary!

Sheffield Island Lighthouse; has elements of a basic lighthouse design from the 1850’s and shortly thereafter. (By Polaron – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8255132)

A “Classic” Structure

When the Lighthouse Board took over the management of American aids to navigation in 1852, they knew they had to construct new lighthouses. To streamline the building projects, they developed a blueprint for a basic lighthouse for locations that didn’t need a tall tower because of the coast formation or because the lens and light weren’t supposed to have the farthest range. (Lighthouses were constructed based on navigational needs and that also determined the size lens that would stream the light into the darkness. More on lenses later…)

There is a lighthouse design and structure that is semi-common among the New England lighthouses built in the 1850’s and a few decades later. No, of course it’s not the only design (see below), but it gives visual clues to the construction date of the lighthouse. However, even with the blueprint idea, each lighthouse was/is a little different. They don’t all have the same floor plans, exterior, trims, details, etc. etc. How do I know this? I looked at a lot of lighthouse photographs, stat sheets, and floor plans when I was crafting an accurate but fictional lighthouse for the forthcoming historical novel!

Some Famous New England Lighthouses

Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey is the oldest continuously standing light tower in American. Built in 1764, it holds a third order lens and has an octagonal shaped tower. Sandy Hook Lighthouse is protected by the National Park Service and is open for tours at select times.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse (photo from Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine was first constructed in 1791, but was modified several times through the 19th Century to better meet the maritime needs. It’s an iconic lighthouse for artwork and photography. (I’ve seen its photo in modern seafood restaurants!) The lighthouse is protected by a state park and can be visited.

1933 image of Portland Head Lighthouse

Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse about twenty miles southeast of Boston was literally built on a ledge in the ocean. And it had a disaster; on April 17, 1851, the tower was pulled and swept off the rocks and two keepers died. Later, the lighthouse was rebuilt (completed in 1860) and hailed as possibly the greatest engineering feat of the Lighthouse Board era. The lighthouse still stands, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is unmanned and automated.

Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse

And last, but not least in our very short list, is St. Croix River Lighthouse in Maine. It was lighthouse #1 when it was active since it was so close to the U.S.-Canadian border! Constructed in 1856 and lit in 1857, notice some similar features to the Sheffield Lighthouse – tower rising from the house structure, small, compact, and basic.

St. Croix River Lighthouse

A Story To Remember

Abbie Burgess was just fourteen-years-old in 1853 when her father was appointed lightkeeper at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Maine and moved the family to the lonely island. Abbie helped her father tend the light and took the responsibilities of lightkeeping seriously.

In January 1856, the family’s food supply was dangerously low and they hadn’t received their regular visit from the supply tender (boat) in the previous autumn. Mrs. Burgess was ill, and Keeper Burgess decided to row five miles to the mainland to bring back medicine and food. However, shortly after the keeper left, a big storm blew in and lasted for four weeks.

Abbie Burgess (no known restrictions)

Who tended the lights? Abbie Burgess. As the storm grew worse, she feared that the house might be swept away in the waves, wind, rain, and sleety snow; she moved her mother and siblings into the light tower before their home was destroyed. In addition to keep the light burning and looking after her family, Abbie made a rescue mission: to save the chickens.

Later she wrote to a friend: You know the hens were our only companions. Becoming convinced as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: “I must try to save them.” She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of part with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at the window, exclaimed, “Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming.”

Abbie and her family survived the four week storm. She faithfully keep the warning beacon burning through the difficult days. Her father returned with supplies. Her father remained the lightkeeper until 1860, but Abbie fell in love with the new keeper, married, and stayed at Mantinicus Rock until 1875.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in 19th Century American Maritime, Lighthouse and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to American Lighthouses: New England

  1. Pingback: American Lighthouses: Middle Atlantic | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Lighthouses: Lamps & Lenses | Gazette665

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