Instructions to Light Keepers

Circulars for lighthouse keepers were issued initially through local customs collectors who served as superintendents of lights in their districts. Most instructions concerned tracking the amount of oil used in lighting their lamps. The oil was a very valuable commodity. In 1835 Stephen Pleasonton, who oversaw lighthouses within the Treasury Department from 1820 to 1852, issued the following instructions. His clerk copied them into a volume recording outgoing correspondence now part of the National Archives collection under Record Group 26 Entry 18. After the U.S. Light-House Board took over the administration of the lighthouses in 1852, the lighthouse service became much more organized and …

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U.S. Coast Guard Celebrates 225th Birthday

According to Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price, the U.S. Coast Guard considers August 4th, the date the U.S. Revenue Marine Service was created in 1790, as their official birthday not the January 28 date when their name was changed in 1915 (see Scott’s January 28 blog). The U.S. Coast Guard acquired its new name when the federal government combined the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Originally called the U.S. Revenue Marine Service, this early “U.S. navy” was “tasked with coastal surveys and exploration, saving life and property at sea, defending United States territorial waters, enforcing …

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Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses

While working in my digital research library, I recently revisited several letters written by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. As you know, the Secretary of Treasury oversaw lighthouses in the early years of the new republic, with frequent oversight from President Washington. These letters were written to Benjamin Lincoln, the first customs collector in Boston, who, as the letters indicate, became the first superintendent of lighthouses for the state of Massachusetts. Copied from Record Group 26 during a 2001 visit to the Boston Regional Branch of the National Archives, the first letter is dated March 10, 1790, and the second July 14, …

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National Lighthouse Museum Opens on Staten Island

The National Lighthouse Museum will open in the old General Lighthouse Depot, Staten Island, on August 7, 2014, the 225th anniversary of George Washington signing the act that created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in 1789. A full weekend of events is planned as part of the celebration. The General Lighthouse Depot was once the central hub of the lighthouse system. According to the 1867 Annual Report of the U.S. Light-House Board, “Previous to the establishment of this depot the reserve material for the light-house service was stored in the several districts, involving the necessity for a multiplication of storage, buildings, mechanics, workmen, supplies …

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Support Needed for Designating National Lighthouse Day

As you may know there’s a big push afloat to have August 7th designated “National Lighthouse Day.” In 2013, August 7th, the day the lighthouse service was established, was recognized in a congressional bill. But it was just for that year. Now the effort is to have the date recognized in perpetuity.

August 7, 2014, is the 225th anniversary of the first act of Congress that made the administration of lighthouses the responsibility of the new federal government.  It also marks the 75th anniversary of the transfer of lighthouses to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. And it will also be the opening day of the new National Lighthouse Museum Educational Center on Staten Island.

There is now a facebook page devoted to this effort. It provides suggestions on how to contact your congressional representatives to support this designation. You can also show your support by “liking” this page if you have a facebook account.

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Lighthouse District Staff Under the USLHB

When the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) took over the administration of lighthouses in 1852, they divided the country into districts and assigned an army officer to act as district engineer and a naval officer to act as district inspector. These officers oversaw the lighthouses in their districts and communicated directly with the corresponding USLHB secretary in Washington.  Letters to the USLHB from the district engineers and inspectors can be found in National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 24 (NC-31) and copies of letters from the USLHB to the district engineers and inspectors can be found in Entry 23 (NC-31). The …

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Lighthouse Service in World War I

As seen from this presidential proclamation, the Lighthouse Service played a role in the First World War.  Most of the lighthouse tenders and a few lighthouse stations, all on the east coast, were placed under the jurisdiction of the War and Navy Departments.  This particular document came from National Archives Record Group 45 – Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library [ONRL], Entry 464b.

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Early Lighthouse Administration

Early keeper appointments and decisions relating to lighthouses were approved by the President. The 1793 letter above gives presidential approval for adjustments in keeper salaries. This letter is actually signed by President Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear. (Documents signed by a president are generally held in the vault at the National Archives.)  Note President Thomas Jefferson’s approval of the appointment of Elzy Burroughs as keeper of New Point Comfort Lighthouse, Virginia, in 1804, on the letter below.  As the lighthouse establishment grew, the president turned the administration of lighthouses over to the Commissioner of Revenue and he in turn transferred these …

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