Something about lighthouses captured our family’s fancy this past summer, and we found ourselves visiting as many as we could along the western coast of Lake Michigan. Their appeal is aesthetic, certainly, the romance of the shoreline and a lost time passed. But the amount of history—of commerce, technology, transportation—they represent is also significant, and I remembered a colleague who, in the early days of my PhD program, suggested that the history of the US Lighthouse Board would be a good topic for a dissertation, one on which there was still a great deal to be done. After spending some time this summer exploring lighthouses, I figured it might be time to revisit this idea, so I started looking for material. And it turns out the only recent book-length treatment on the topic is Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis Noble, a survey of the history of the US Lighthouse Service. The book provides an outline of the contours of this history that any more detailed study would be built upon.
Basically, the narrative of lighthouses in the United States goes something like this: the construction of lighthouses in Colonial times and the early days of the republic was haphazard and poorly managed. Their construction and supervision was linked with the collection of customs, and supervision of the lighthouses (or “aids to navigation”) was under the fifth auditor of the US Treasury, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasanton, who would control lighthouses for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1800s. The problem was that besides having no maritime experience, Pleasanton was primarily focused on keeping his political bailiwick as economically lean as possible. Noble claims that Pleasanton, along with his primary contractor, was responsible for retarding the development of lighthouses even as they proliferated on both coasts and the Great Lakes. This growing crisis, which Noble talks about briefly in terms of rising cost to life and commerce because of poor aids to navigation, precipitated the founding of the US Lighthouse Board in 1852.
This is where a detailed study could really sink some teeth into the narrative and provide context. What was the popular, contemporary feeling regarding lighthouses, or were there particular incidents that swung public and government opinion toward founding the Board to address the issue? Noble credits the Board with transforming lighthouse management in a manner of years from “a service of political appointees, with haphazard accomplishment” to a professional government service. How exactly was this accomplished? Part of the explanation, according to Noble, was the composition of the Board, which included civilian scientific representatives (like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) as well as army and navy officers. Part was also the fact that the Board issued detailed instructions for keepers, standardizing equipment and procedures. Part of this was technical innovation as well, with Noble treats briefly in discussions of oil and Fresnel lenses. But all of this discussion in Lighthouses & Keepers is generally superficial, simply one chapter in a longer overview of the Lighthouse Service, which came into being at the Board’s recommendations.
Noble has chapters on all aspects of the Service, not just lighthouses. He discusses lightships (which had a unique history on the Great Lakes), buoys, fog signals, and tenderships (ships that provided service and supplies). All of this provides a snapshot of aspects of the work of the Service, before it was disbanded in 1939— or rather, merged with the US Coast Guard, which again would be an interesting period to examine because, as Noble discusses, Coast Guard were enlisted officers whereas keepers were almost entirely civilian, so the merger of the two organizations inevitably led to some friction. Lighthouses, perhaps more than any other iconic structures, seem to embody history, and Noble’s book is an excellent (and perhaps really the only) way to access the institutional history behind them.