Historical Fiction, History, Research

A Brief History of Lighthouses

Shores of Chaos: Shipwrecked came about from my love of lighthouses and all things related to the seashore. I went to my first lighthouse when I was about eleven and have been enchanted by their architectural design and their purpose for existence ever since. I chose to set my story in the 1890s as this is a time before lighthouses became automated and lighthouse keepers were still a necessity. I likewise chose to set the story in Maine because it had the right type of setting for the atmosphere I intended. At its peak, the state of Maine had about 80 lighthouses.1 Although the lighthouse in my story is fictional, it is inspired by the many Maine lighthouses that sit atop rocky cliffs at the edge of pine forests. Likewise, Wawenock Point and its respective town of Port DePaix are fictional.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Maine, one of the many Maine Lighthouses that inspired the one in my story

Lighthouses have been around since ancient times, with the first known lighthouse being the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt dating from about 280 B.C., although it is possible there were earlier ones. The Romans built lighthouses throughout Europe when they expanded their territory. They built the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña, Spain around the end of the 1st century A.D. and a lighthouse in Dover, England around 40 A.D. and both still stand.1 The earliest style lighthouses consisted of open fires and braziers that used wood or coal for fuel and were located in elevated spots. These types were used until about the mid 19th century in some places, including in England and the Baltic region. Candles were then used in lighthouses that had enclosed lantern rooms from the 1500s through the 1700s in Europe and in North America. Many candles had to be used to produce sufficient light to be seen miles away and were often arranged in candelabras. As early as 1500, some lighthouses used oil lamps with either seal, fish, or whale oil for fuel. These early oil lamps produced a lot of smoke and bad smells. Oil lamps improved over time with designs that allowed for better air flow, lower oil consumption, and greater illumination with reflectors.2 By 1885, kerosene was the principal fuel for lighthouses in the United States (US).3 The first electric arc lamps were installed in lighthouses in the 1860s in France and England. The first lighthouse in the United States to use electricity was the Statue of Liberty in 1886 when it was briefly used as an aid to navigation.2 This was followed by the south tower at the Navesink Twin Lights in New Jersey in 1898. Modern light bulbs are now used in many lighthouses.3 

The Navesink Twin Lights in New Jersey, a place I’ve visited many times

In 1821, Augustin Fresnel developed his first bulls-eye panel lens; an invention that would transform lighthouses.3 His design consists of concentric circles of glass that refract light to create a strong beam. Often multiple panels of this bulls-eye design are used in a single lens to create a flashing sequence by creating multiple beams of light; other lenses are fixed and create a single, circular beam of light.4 This type of lens became known as the Fresnel lens and improved the illumination of lighthouses immensely and helped to prevent more shipwrecks. The first Fresnel lens was used in the Cordouan Lighthouse in France in 1823 and its use spread throughout the world. The Navesink Twin Lights were the first American lighthouses to use Fresnel lenses in 1841.3 These lenses could range in size from the smallest sixth order at about 1.5 feet tall to the largest first order at 8.5 feet tall. The lenses were rotated using a clockwork mechanism in which a weight would drop down either in the center of the lighthouse or in the wall. The weight was attached to a cable that wound around a drum with the help of gears that would determine the speed of rotation. The lens would sit upon ball bearings, chariot wheels, or a mercury bath so that it could rotate.5

The sequence of flashes made by Fresnel lenses allowed  mariners to know where they were at night,5 while daymarks, identifying patterns painted on the outside of lighthouses, helped mariners establish their location in the daytime.Lighthouses also vary in shape, height, color and structural materials; some being made of brick, stone, wood, or metal. The United States had over 1,500 lighthouses constructed throughout the centuries, but only about 850 of them were ever in operation at one time.Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina is the tallest in the United States at 196 feet tall and Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, built in 1764, is the oldest operating lighthouse in the country.1

Examples of different types of Fresnel lenses (courtesy of Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse website)

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the men and women who operated these structures. In the United States, lighthouse keepers and their assistants had a variety of duties. Their main concern was keeping the light on from sunset until dawn. They had to keep records of daily shifts, absences, the condition of the light station, the weather and water conditions, use of supplies and expenses, shipwrecks, and any unusual occurrences. They also had to clean and make repairs to the lighthouse equipment and other parts of the light station when needed. They were also expected to intervene with shipwrecks and to help people in distress when able.6 Not only did weather conditions and shipwrecks pose danger for light keepers, but they also had to deal with risks of fire from the lamps and mercury poisoning. Some believe the mercury baths the lenses sat in may be the actual reason some keepers were reported to have gone insane. Many keepers also had to cope with isolation for those who worked in lighthouses in remote locations or in open water.7

Not all keepers had to fear isolation as many lived in the keeper’s quarters with their families. Family members could help maintain the light if the keeper was unable to fulfill his or her duties. Many women not only helped their male family members, but often took over their position in the event of incapacity or death of the male.8 From these circumstances came stories of famous female keepers such as Ida Lewis and Kate Walker. Ida Lewis became the official keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse in 1879, but had helped her parents run the light for many years before. She saved at least 18 people, mostly thanks to her skills with a boat, and received the Gold Lifesaving Medal.9 Kate Walker became the keeper of Robins Reef Lighthouse after her husband died; serving for over 30 years and saving over 50 lives.10 African Americans also helped to run light stations at first as paid servants or slaves then later as keepers in their own right by the late 19th century.8 Eventually all lighthouses were automated, ending the need for light keepers in the United States. The only lighthouse that maintains a keeper is Boston Light because it is the oldest light station in the country, although the tower itself was rebuilt.1

Ida Lewis (from Wikipedia)
Kate Walker (from NPS.gov)

Lighthouses have stood as a testament to the better side of humanity. Their goal has been and always will be to help mariners at sea reach safety by being the guiding light in the darkness. The men and women who once ran these beacons were quick to put their own lives at risk to save others at sea; a noble profession indeed.


  1. “Lighthouse Facts” by the United States Lighthouse Society
  2. “Lighthouse Lamps Through Time” by Thomas Tag for the United States Lighthouse Society
  3.  “Chronology of Lighthouse Events” by Thomas Tag for the United States Lighthouse Society
  4. “The Fresnel Lens” by Thomas Tag for the United States Lighthouse Society
  5.  “The Invention that Fixed Lighthouses” by Vox on Youtube. Feb. 17, 2021
  6. “Instructions to Light-Keepers” by the United States Lighthouse Establishment. July, 1881.
  7. “The Dark Side of Lighthouses” by Amorina Kingdon for Hakai Magazine. Nov. 18, 2016
  8. “Lighthouse Keepers” by the National Park Service
  9. “Notable People: Idawalley Zorada Lewis, Keeper, USLHS” by the United States Coast Guard
  10. “Media Monday: Kate Walker and Robbins Reef Lighthouse” by the Hudson River Maritime Museum

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