By Rick Spilman – Next only perhaps to an anchor, lighthouses are symbols of security and safety. Even with modern electronic navigation, there is something incredibly reassuring about seeing the lume of a lighthouse beacon shining through the darkness or hearing the moan of a fog horn reverberating through a blinding white fog. And yet, most of the time, we take lighthouses for granted. They often seem to just integral part of the shoreline or stony sentinels growing naturally up out of rocky reefs.
In reality, they are nothing of the sort. Lighthouses exist only because of those who built them, operated them and maintained them. Eric Jay Dolin’s Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse tells the story of how these iconic structures came to be and how they helped shape the commerce and the future of our young nation.
Prior to 1716, the coast was largely dark in the British North American colonies. Dolin describes building the first American lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston harbor in 1716, a 60 foot high conical tower made of rough cut granite, lit by crude lamps burning fish or whale oil. Tending the first lighthouse proved to be a perilous job. Several lighthouse keepers and members of their families drowned in the first years of operation as they attempted to get to or from Little Brewster Island in bad weather. Fires caused by whale oil lamps tipping over or lightning strikes gutted the lighthouse repeatedly. Nevertheless, the lighthouse was considered to be a success, and soon lighthouses were being built all along the East coast.
What Dolin makes vividly clear is that building and operating lighthouses was a constant battle of one sort or another. At times, it was an actual battle. During the American Revolution, Boston Light became a strategic target that the British attempted to the defend while the American rebels tried to put out the beacon. Finally, as they retreated from Boston in 1776, the British blew up the tower with black powder, leaving a pile of rumble where the lighthouse once stood. Likewise, during the Civil War, the Confederates destroyed many of the lighthouses along the coast to make navigation more difficult for the Union fleet blockading their harbors.
When not literally at war, the battle was often with the elements. Dolin points out that the lighthouse builders and keepers were not always the victors. The engineering required to design and build lighthouses in often treacherous locations was daunting. The first Minot’s Ledge Light of 1850, for example, was nine miles southwest of Boston harbor and lasted only about year before it was blown away in a major storm in April 1851, killing two lighthouse keepers. A second much stronger lighthouse was finally built on the ledge in 1860 and survives to this day.
Other battles were bureaucratic. Dolin describes how in the early nineteenth century, governmental penny pinching and patronage colluded to keep the US lighthouses far behind the standards and technology of their European counterparts. Finally, as the expanding borders of the nation grew to include the Gulf and West Coasts, the US changed the administration of the lighthouse service and adopted Fresnel lens, which greatly increased the range that lights could be seen.
Dolin spends considerable time recording the lives of the lighthouse keepers. He documents the challenges and considerable responsibilities of keeping the lights shining in all weather. These ranged from the loneliness of isolation, problems of supply, to the logistics of getting the lighthouse keeper’s children to school, to dealing with medical emergencies, and even the difficulties associated with dealing with lighthouses in the paths of migrating birds. The only downside in this is that the volume of the anecdotes slows down the pacing of the middle portion of the book considerably.
One of the high points of the books are the accounts of heroism by the lighthouse keepers. In addition to their duties running the lighthouse, the keepers were often the first responders in case of emergencies. One notable example was Ida Lewis at the Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island, who is credited with rescuing at least 18 people. She became the lighthouse keeper in 1879, after the death of her mother, who had taken over as keeper when Ida’s father died. Ida Lewis’ first rescue was when she was 17 years old. Remarkably, her last documented rescue was in 1906, when she was 63.
“Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse” is an excellent read for anyone who has even been caught up by the beautify and mystery of a lighthouse. Dolin eloquently captures the history behind these iconic structures and the special breed who kept their lights shining.