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© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Lighthouse Photograph and Print Collection
[1860]-1938
 PR 38

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Holly Hinman and Jennifer Lewis

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on December 13, 2011
Description is in English.

Historical Note

During the colonial period, American colonies each had individual financial and administrative control over their own lighthouses and other navigational aids. In 1716 the first American lighthouse began to guide sailors into Boston Harbor from its home on Little Brewster Island. By the time the colonies moved for independence from England in 1776, there were ten lighthouses in operation along the coastline. The newly-created Congress of the United States, meeting for its first session, recognized the important role maritime commerce played in the young nation's economy. In 1789, as its Ninth Act, the Congress provided for the federal takeover of all lighthouses and minor aids to navigation in its constituent states. This act also created the U.S. Light House Establishment and placed it under the administration of the Treasury Department. For the first few years many minor matters required review by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and signature by President George Washington. To simplify these processes, in 1792 the position of the Commissioner of Revenue was established to take over the leadership of the Light House Establishment. In the following years control would revert back and forth between these two administrators. Finally in 1820 superintendence was assumed by the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Department, Stephen Pleasonton, who would hold the command for the following thirty years.

Pleasonton's administration was notoriously resistant to change, and visitors from Europe commented on the poor state of the navigational aids of the United States. Although the number of lighthouses and lightships grew to 325 by 1852, many were not considered reliable. Although French inventor Augustin Fresnel developed lenses capable of gathering and focusing a central light into a beam visible from far greater distances than traditional lights in 1823, the lenses were not used in the United States until 1841 when an imported Fresnel lens was installed in the Highlands of Navesink Light (New Jersey) marking the approach to New York Harbor.

Until technological advancement made the construction of offshore towers feasible, light vessels were strategically placed in waters considered inhospitable for lighthouses. The first lightship off the coast of the United States was installed near Sandy Hook in 1823.

In 1852, Congress dissolved the Light House Establishment and organized the new U.S. Light House Board. The Board organized the country into twelve districts, each administered by an inspector appointed by the President. The Light House Board oversaw great changes in navigational aids. It immediately began installing Fresnel lenses in its lighthouses and oversaw the building of new screwpile lighthouses, as well as new types of fog signals and buoys. Under its direction, the first lighthouses and fog signals went up on the Pacific Coast. In 1886 the Light House Board tested a new light source, electricity, to illuminate the torch of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (which was then considered a key aid to navigation).

In 1910, the U.S. Light House Board was dissolved, and Congress established the Bureau of Lighthouses (better known as the Lighthouse Service). Finally in 1939, in the interest of efficiency, the Bureau of Lighthouses was integrated into the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard became responsible for the control and administration of approximately 30,000 navigational aids.