The Oldest Integral Lighthouses

An "integral" lighthouse is literally a house with a light on it: the light tower is incorporated as an integral part of the keeper's quarters. Building an integral lighthouse is relatively simple and not so much more expensive than building a house, so many early lighthouses were of this type. Apparently the first one in the British colonies was the 1769 lighthouse at Plymouth, Massachusetts, which was built in the form of a house with two lanterns on its roof, one at each end of the building.

Dozens of integral lighthouses were built during the long administration of Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury and supervisor of U.S. lighthouses from 1820 to 1852. When the Lighthouse Board took control of the lighthouses from Pleasonton, it found most of these lighthouses to be inadequate or in poor repair, so most of them were quickly replaced, generally with much taller towers. As a result, only five integral lighthouses survive from the "old-style" period of the Fifth Auditor. These lighthouses are poorly known and all but one of them have survived long periods of neglect.

The Point Lookout Light in Maryland marks the entrance to the Potomac River from Chesapeake Bay. John Donahoo of Havre de Grace, the master lighthouse builder of the Chesapeake, built an integral lighthouse at Point Lookout in 1830. It was one of a dozen lighthouses Donahoo built in his long career and it is one of seven Donahoo lighthouses that has survived.

The original Point Lookout lighthouse was a single story brick dwelling with a lantern centered on the roof. As the picture shows, this lighthouse has been modified considerably over the years. In 1883 the Lighthouse Board added a second story, and in the 1920s the house was expanded again, becoming rectangular rather than square. Only the front part of the lower story of the building is original. Nonetheless, Point Lookout is the oldest integral lighthouse in the country.

Deactivated in 1965, Point Lookout Light was long owned by the U.S. Navy as part of the Patuxent Naval Air Station. The Navy kept the building secure and painted but allowed the interior to deteriorate. In 2002 the state of Maryland bought the building, added it to Point Lookout State Park, and began an extensive restoration program. In recent years the lighthouse has been open for tours on the first Saturday of each month May through November. A major restoration project was underway in 2018.

Point Lookout Light, Maryland, July 2006
Flickr Creative Commons photo by C.W. Bash

Poplar Point Light, North Kingstown, Rhode Island, 2007
photo from New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
copyright Jeremy D'Entremont; used by permission

In 1831, an integral lighthouse was built at Poplar Point on the West Passage of Narragansett Bay in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Charles Allen, a local contractor, built an octagonal frame light tower, rising about 55 feet (18 m) above the water, at one end of a 1-1/2 story Cape Cod style frame keeper's quarters. This is the oldest frame lighthouse in the country. The lighthouse was active until 1880, when it was replaced by an offshore light. Sold into private hands in 1894, Poplar Point Light has been a private residence ever since.

The owners of Poplar Point have extended the house considerably. The original building is at the right in the picture; it includes the small square chimney behind the light tower. Although the additions detract somewhat from the historic context of the site, the owners have meticulously maintained the building and it is in excellent condition.

In January 2010 the lighthouse and the surrounding estate were placed on the market for an eye-opening $7.5 million; this was reduced to $6.45 million in November 2011. The listing was taken down in November 2013.

Selkirk Light, New York, April 2006
Flickr Creative Commons photo by C.W. Bash

The oldest integral lighthouse surviving more or less in its original form is the Selkirk Light, built in Selkirk, New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, in 1838. A local stonemason, Jabez Meacham, built a sturdy 2-1/2 story keeper's quarters of fieldstone, that is, the stones are uncut and fitted together with a craftsman's eye. An octagonal frame light tower is perched at one end of the building. Amazingly, the tower is crowned by the original "birdcage" style lantern. Fewer than half a dozen of these early nineteenth century lanterns survive.

The old lantern was never replaced because the lighthouse was deactivated in 1859 before it could receive a more modern Fresnel lens. For many years it was part of a small lakeside resort; the present owner, Jim Walker, says it was "famous for its German cuisine (and the constant comings and goings of smugglers during Prohibition)." Walker purchased the property in 1987 and has restored it as a guest house. In 1989 a modern 190 mm lens was installed and the lighthouse was relit after 130 years of darkness. Selkirk Light is a historic treasure, a unique glimpse of the lighthouse establishment of 160 years ago.

Unfortunately, Mr. Walker is getting too old to maintain the property, and in 2003 he placed it on the market for $1.25 million. There were no takers, so the owners hired new managers who renovated and improved the property while preserving the lighthouse. In early 2014 the lighthouse and marina were sold to the Ellis and Barnell families.

Here is another treasure, the East Point Light in Heislerville, New Jersey. It was built by Nathan and Samuel Middleton in 1849 on the east side of the entrance to the Maurice River from Delaware Bay. It is the second oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, after the 1764 Sandy Hook Light.

As the picture reveals, the octagonal light tower is mounted on the center of the roof of a 2-1/2 story brick keeper's quarters. The house itself is interesting; this is perhaps the only surviving lighthouse with a colonial style keeper's house.

The lighthouse remained in service until it was darkened by World War II in December 1941. After the war, the Coast Guard decided the light was no longer needed, and the building was abandoned. The state of New Jersey took control of the property in 1955, not for restoration but because the tract was an inholding within a wildlife preserve. The building continued to deteriorate until 1971, when local citizens founded the Maurice River Historical Society to save the lighthouse from collapse. In 1980, they persuaded the Coast Guard to reactivate the light, and a 250 mm lens was installed in the lantern. Many more years would pass before funds could be found to complete the restoration. The exterior restoration was completed in 1998, and work is now proceeding to restore the interior as a maritime museum.

East Point Light, Heislerville, New Jersey, March 2007
Flickr Creative Commons photo by cljo
Fishing Battery Light
Fishing Battery Light, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, June 2010
Flickr photo copyright yellowsnapper; used by permission

Of course, not all lighthouses are as fortunate as the Selkirk and East Point Lights. The Fishing Battery Light was built in 1853 on an artificial island off the entrance to the harbor of Aberdeen, Maryland, in the northernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay. It was John Donahoo's last lighthouse, and it was surely one of the last lighthouses ordered by the Pleasonton administration. Donahoo placed the lantern directly atop the roof of a simple two-story brick keeper's house.

Keepers continued to live in the lighthouse until 1939, although the light was moved from the lantern to the adjacent skeletal tower in 1921. In 1942 the island became a national wildlife refuge. Since then, things have gone steadily downhill for the abandoned lighthouse, and it is now on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List of critically endangered lighthouses.

In the summer of 2004 Wayne Frady, of Port Deposit, Maryland, took on single-handed the task of saving this lighthouse. He painted the building, did some roof repairs, and started work on a stone seawall to slow erosion of the island -- paying for all the materials from his own pocket. Sadly, these efforts did not lead to more complete restoration. When Hilari Seery visited in May 2017, she found the building near collapse and with a huge hole in its roof.

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Posted July 17, 2001. Checked and revised September 25, 2018. Site copyright 2018 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.