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Shining a Light on Lighthouses


Where Gumbo Was #480

Lighthouses used to be a much bigger deal than they are today, with radar, GPS and automated beacons largely replacing the isolated towers along the coasts, but they still play a big role in public imagination and imagery. Just take a look at this sample of the hundreds of police and fire badges featuring lighthouses!


That exhibit is part of the National Lighthouse Museum, sitting right next to New York City's Staten Island Ferry Terminal, on the site of what was, for over 75 years, the headquarters of the United States Lighthouse Service, the depot that supplied lamps and lenses, oil and maintenance and even its own carefully-branded toilet paper rollers. PortMoresby and GeorgeG were this week's successful solvers, identifying the building and the museum.


The National Lighthouse Museum is a small museum with a big collection and even bigger dreams—but until it finds more money, it will have to settle for being well-organized, well-presented and fascinating; it's in the smaller of two historic buildings on the site, waiting to raise enough funds to expand out into the larger one next door.


They're hoping to get a boost in that direction soon, as fundraising events start up again after pandemic delays, with a Campaign to Illuminate Future Generations, whose honorary chair is the UK's number one lighthouse enthusiast, Princess Anne.


In the meantime, the visit begins with a small indoor lighthouse, which is actually a kiosk with an introductory video. Its outside walls are lined with meticulous models of dozens of lighthouses, including this ancient example, the Pharos which lit the way into Alexandria, Egypt in ancient times.


Panels lining one side wall recount the history of lighthouses (briefly) and of lighthouses in the U.S. (in detail). For a new nation with a long coast and few internal roads, they were important enough that the ninth bill passed in Congress when it first sat in 1789 created the lighthouse service and set aside funds to build them. Over time, the U.S. built over 1,500 lighthouses, although no more than about 850 were in service at any one time.


But there were soon enough lighthouses to need central management, planning, and supply. There were over a dozen lighthouse districts, each with its own supply systems; nothing was standardized, and many supplies were duplicated. In 1863, the Lighthouse Service established a General Depot on the museum site, where a quarantine hospital had once stood.


Everything needed for lighthouses was made or stored at the Depot. Fresnel lenses from France arrived there are were assembled into working lights by technicians (lampists, to be precise) like the one below in the Lamp Shop, the building the museum will eventually occupy.


Of course, lighthouses don't only shine their lights; sometimes fog obscures them, and they rely on foghorns like this one, that can be heard from miles away. And for daytime, there are 'daymarks.' No two lighthouses have the same shape and decoration—on purpose—and mariners had 'light lists' that identified the shapes and stripe patterns, etc. of the different lights, as well as the patterns of their flashing lights.


Besides keeping the lighthouse supply chain going, the Depot did the Service's research and development work. This small 25' lighthouse stood just outside the door; it was built to test new technologies, especially the development of the first electric lighting for lighthouses, which previously used oil lights.


Not all the lighthouses built were what we usually think of, a tower by the sea, perhaps with grass and a beach nearby. One exhibit points out how difficult it was to build some of them, such as the Tillamook Light on the west coast; it was built a mile off shore on a rocky ledge that had to be first leveled and then built on with supplies brought by ship.


And some lighthouses weren't technically lighthouses: they were lightships that sat well off the coast in outer channels to help ships find their way in.


Supplying lighthouses was not always easy, either. Even some that were on land were reachable only by tenders or by large rowing boats operated by the lighthouse keepers themselves, like this one, with some of its equipment. This one was used by a keeper who rowed his children to school daily.


Speaking of lighthouse keepers, their lot was not an easy one, requiring them to live at the lighthouse and essentially at work constantly, maintaining the light, winding the mechanism that turned the light (before electricity took on that chore) and to make emergency repairs.


One of the museum's walls describes the lives and careers of a number of keepers, some of them quite surprising, including several women who took on the job, in some cases after the death of lightkeeper husbands.


The Depot, which at its peak employed well over a thousand workers of all crafts (a carpenter's tools above) came under Coast Guard operation along with the Lighthouse Service in 1939. During World War II it took on small ship repair as well as its regular work, but after the war as more and more lighthouses were automated, its work scaled down, and it closed in 1965, and the city acquired the land.


As the sign says, "Everyone Loves Lighthouses," and in the 1980s and 1990s, there were campaigns in several areas to save lighthouses and their sites from destruction and development; that not only led to the National Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000, it also provided much of the energy that went into planning for a national lighthouse museum. The museum opened in 2015.


These half-round ornaments were made at the depot for the ships of the Lighthouse Service; they were mounted at the bow, more or less as cars had hood ornaments. Below: the museum's enthusiasm for the lighthouse theme may occasionally go just over the top....


If you're thinking of a visit...
While it is possible to drive there, and there is a parking lot, there's also a special treat available: the free Staten Island Ferry from Lower Manhattan docks right next door!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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