Lighthouses have long been beacons for vessels on the open water. Lighthouses help warn sailors of dangerous shoals and other obstacles, and also serve as navigational guides to help keep ships and boaters safe. As individuals and families consider taking to the water, they may want to plan visits to some of the nation’s more impressive lighthouses. Learning more about lighthouse history can make these trips even more fun and educational.
Historians believe that beach bonfires were the earliest ways people on shore helped guide their sailors at sea. Eventually bonfires were replaced by structures that would ultimately be called lighthouses. The earliest known lighthouse was built in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago, according to Project Archaeology. In addition, archaeologists have found remnants of more than 30 lighthouses built by ancient Romans.
Boston Light, a lighthouse located on Little Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor, was the first lighthouse to be built in what is now the United States. The original structure was constructed in 1716, and the current lighthouse dates back to 1783. It is the second oldest working lighthouse in the United States, after the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey.
The first lighthouse in what was to become Canada, and the second on the entire coast of North America following Boston Light, went into service at the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1734. Louisbourg Lighthouse was destroyed by British troops in 1758, but rebuilt in 1842. It also was rebuilt in 1923. Canada also lays claim to the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in North America. The Sambro Island Light in Halifax Harbor predates Sandy Hook Lighthouse by four years.
The United States Lighthouse Society says lighthouse lanterns have been illuminated by various means through the years. Original lighthouses were lit by open fires from braziers to candles. Oil lamps, acetylene lamps, oil vapor lamps, and eventually electric incandescent bulbs paved the way for modern lighthouse illumination.
One innovation that revolutionized lighthouses was the Fresnel lens, a compact lens made of many prisms originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel. These lightweight lenses provide ideal light-gathering capabilities and magnification. A Fresnel lens can capture more oblique light from a light source, allowing the light from a lighthouse to be visible across greater distances.
Even though lighthouses are well-known for being used at night, daymarks make every lighthouse unique and also visible during the day. The daymark is the paint color and pattern on a lighthouse. This pattern also helps sailors know where their vessels are located along the coast.
Visiting lighthouses and learning about their rich histories can make for a fun-filled day trip.