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Lighthouses: From Top to Bottom

Lighthouses: From Top to Bottom

Mar 1st 2020

Lighthouses: From Top to Bottom

For thousands of years, lighthouses have helped provide safe passage for ships in the night around the world.

Lighthouses can trace their origin to approximately 300 B.C. in Alexandra, Egypt, when Pharaoh Ptolemy I and his son, Ptolemy II, built a 450-foot marvel that became one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, this piece of history did not survive to modern times, having been destroyed by earthquakes and invading armies sometime around 1300 A.D.

The world's oldest surviving lighthouse, a fully-preserved Roman lighthouse known as the Tower of Hercules, was constructed in 20 B.C. in Spain's La Coruna. It sits on a 190-foot rock and reaches a further 180 feet into the sky. It was restored in the 18th century, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. The Tower of Hercules is still used for maritime signaling today.

The United States has played host to roughly 1,500 lighthouses over the years, although fewer than one thousand of these have been functional at any given time. Michigan leads the states in number of lighthouses, with approximately 130, followed by Maine with 80.

The first U.S. lighthouse, Boston Light, was built at Little Brewster Island near Boston in 1716. The site gained a reputation for tragedy when its keeper, George Worthylake, along with his wife and daughter, drowned while crossing the water to the lighthouse in 1918. The original structure was destroyed by the British during The Revolutionary War, only to be rebuilt in 1784. The site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

In contrast, the oldest U.S. lighthouse never to have been rebuilt is Sandy Hook Light in New Jersey. It was completed in 1764 and is still in operation today. It was initially known as The New York Lighthouse because its construction was partially funded by the New York Lottery.

The first West Coast lighthouse was built on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1854. The Alcatraz Island Lighthouse was replaced by a taller version in 1909.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton, N.C., with its eye-catching black-and-white "barber pole" paint scheme is the tallest in the U.S. at 193 feet. The most expensive, located at St. George Reef near Crescent City, Calif., cost $715,000 when it was constructed in 1892, approximately $19M in today's money. It was decommissioned in 1975.

In the early days, lighthouses were typically manned by one to five keepers. A few of these, about 80, were women; many took over after their husbands had died or become ill. In fact, in the 19th century, lighthouse keeping was one of the first government jobs available to women.

Lighthouse keeper has not traditionally been a particularly prestigious or well-paid position. The first U.S. keeper, Worthylake, was paid about $250 a year, which translates to approximately minimum wage in modern currency.

In the United States, the keeper position is nearly obsolete. Today, all U.S. lighthouses are automated and just one is still staffed by a resident Coast Guard keeper—the oldest, Boston Light.