Early Classic Brick Towers, 1850-1869

American lighthouse construction made little progress from 1820 to 1852, while Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, was the superintendent of U.S. lighthouses. To save money, Pleasonton limited all new lighthouses to a maximum height of 65 feet. The old-style masonry lighthouses of the period share a bluntly conical design, with broad bases and narrow tops designed to hold a small "birdcage" lantern with an Argand lamp, a lighting technology dating from 1781. By European standards, U.S. lighthouses were embarrassingly inadequate and obsolete. Ship captains and ship owners complained continually about the lighthouses being too short, too dim, poorly located, and often out of service altogether.

Congress approached the problem by involving military engineers, first as inspectors of lighthouses and then as consultants on their design. In 1847, Congress directed that six proposed lighthouses be designed and built by the military instead of by Pleasonton's contractors. The resulting transition from old-style to classic design can be seen clearly at Sankaty Head in Massachusetts. Sankaty Head Light was built in 1850 under the direction of Benjamin F. Isherwood, who became the chief engineer of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

70 feet tall, Sankaty Head was the first lighthouse in the U.S. designed from scratch to carry a modern Fresnel lens. To provide for the larger lantern, the tower is broader at the top and less tapered than the old-style brick towers. When it was built, it displayed the most powerful light in New England; local captains called it "the blazing star." Its beacon pointed the way to a new day for American lighthouses. Today it is threatened by erosion of the 90-foot cliff on which it stands, and for a while there was some doubt as to whether it was worth saving. But in 2007 the 'Sconset Trust, using $4 million in private donations, relocated the lighthouse 400 ft (122 m) northwest. Indeed it is worth saving: as the very first of the modern masonry lighthouses, it is an important architectural landmark in U.S. lighthouse construction.

In 1852 Congress removed the lighthouses from Pleasonton's control and placed them under a new Lighthouse Board dominated by military officers. The Board immediately launched a major effort to build very tall masonry lighthouses at more than a dozen locations along the sandy shores of the mid-Atlanic and Southeast. Most of these lighthouses were completed between 1857 and 1860. Construction on others was interrupted by the Civil War (1861-65), and some of those towers weren't finished until the late 1860's.

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket, Massachusetts, September 2010
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Ethan Oringel

Barnegat Light, New Jersey, September 2006
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Pete Monte

For design and construction supervision, the new Board turned naturally to Army and Navy engineers. The best known of these officers is George G. Meade, a talented Army engineer who later became a general and won the critical battle of the Civil War at Gettysburg. When the Lighthouse Board began operations in 1852, Meade had just built the Carysfort Reef Light off the Florida Keys, a significant engineering achievement.

In 1855, Meade surveyed the inadequate lighthouses of the New Jersey coast, and in 1856-58 he returned to supervise the construction of the two tallest lighthouses ever built in the country, the 170-foot brick towers at Absecon Inlet in Atlantic City and at Barnegat Inlet to the north. Absecon Light, lit on January 15, 1857, was the first of the tall classic lighthouses to be completed.

The early classic towers are slim cones, robust and functional but overall rather plain in design, without ornamental flourishes of any kind, just as one would expect from their military origins. The towers have only a few windows. The galleries at the top are relatively narrow and usually supported by fairly simple cast iron brackets.

Both lighthouses were equipped with first order Fresnel lenses, the most powerful lenses available. The Absecon lens remains in service, while the magnificent Barnegat lens is on display in a museum next to the lighthouse.

In addition to Absecon and Barnegat, the list of typical early classic brick lighthouses of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast includes:

  1. Shinnecock Inlet, Long Island, New York (1858), 160 ft (demolished in 1948, a tragic loss)
  2. Cape May Point, New Jersey (1859), 160 ft
  3. Fenwick Island, Delaware (1858), 85 ft
  4. Assateague, Virginia (1867), 140 ft
  5. Cape Charles, Virginia (1864), 150 ft (toppled by erosion and a storm in 1927)
  6. Bodie Island, North Carolina (1859), 80 ft (blown up by Confederate forces in 1861)
  7. Cape Lookout, North Carolina (1859), 155 ft
  8. Jupiter Inlet, Florida (1860), 125 ft
  9. Dry Tortugas, Florida (1858), 155 ft
  10. Egmont Key, Florida (1858), 85 ft
  11. Pensacola, Florida (1859), 160 ft

These lighthouses are similar, but certainly not identical. The Lighthouse Board had no central design organization in the 1850s, so the towers reflect the thinking of each district engineer. One interesting architectural variation involves the gallery support. At several lighthouses, especially in the South, the gallery was not supported by brackets. Instead, the masonry of the tower was flared outward at the top to provide a platform for the gallery. This graceful gallery design is also found on many old-style lighthouses in the South. The bracketless design is seen at Cape Lookout, Dry Tortugas, and Pensacola Lights in the South. However, the Fire Island and Shinnecock Inlet Lights on Long Island also had the flared top.

All these lighthouses were completed or under construction when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Work on the Assateague lighthouse was suspended during the war. Work on the Cape Charles lighthouse continued, although it was interrupted by a destructive Confederate raid in 1862.

Cape Lookout Light
Cape Lookout Light, Core Banks, North Carolina, January 2004
Flickr Creative Commons photo by greenkayak73
Tybee Island Light
Tybee Island Light, January 2008
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Peter Meimon

In addition to these "typical" towers, several brick lighthouses of the early classic period have atypical designs. At Cape Romain, South Carolina (pictured in the old-style article) the 1858 lighthouse is fairly typical, with the flared top, but it is octagonal rather than circular in cross section. There is another octagonal tower at Tybee Island, Georgia, but here the unusual form can be explained. Tybee Island was the site of a historic 100-foot octagonal lighthouse built in 1773. This lighthouse was damaged during the Civil War. After the war, the engineers cut the old tower down to 60 ft and then extended it to 145 feet, keeping the octagonal plan and giving the tower its gracefully tapered appearance.

The 1858 lighthouse at Fire Island, New York is remarkable in its strongly tapered design, with a broad base and a cylindrical top. The lighthouse, considered one of the nation's most important when it was built, also has arched windows and a more elaborate gallery. This design is by J.C. Duane and J. St. C. Morton, the team of officers who also designed the lost Shinnecock lighthouse. The Shinnecoak and Fire Island towers were similar, but Shinnecock Light did not have the arched windows or the tapered profile.

Fire Island Light
Fire Island Light, Saltaire, 4 July 2010
Flickr Creative Commons photo
by Neil R.
Pointe aux Barques Light
Pointe aux Barques Light, Michigan, September 2007
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Kara

At least five early classic lighthouses were built on the Great Lakes, but only three are seen today in their original form. The oldest is the 1857 lighthouse at Michigan Island on Lake Superior in Wisconsin. This 64 ft tower, attached to a keeper's house, has a simple design similar to the old-style towers, but it has the more slender profile of the newer style. The 1858 lighthouse at Pointe aux Barques MI, on Lake Huron also shows the typical early classic shape, but with a distinctive gallery design unlike its East Coast or Great Lakes contemporaries.

Immediately after the Civil War, two more early classic lighthouses, originally quite similar to Pointe aux Basques Light, were built on Lake Michigan at Big Sable Point MI and Cana Island WI. Unfortunately, it seems that inferior brick was used, and the brickwork did not stand up to the northern climate. As a result, both lighthouses were encased in protective metal. The Big Sable lighthouse was covered with cast iron plate in 1900, and Cana Island Light got a jacket of steel plates in 1902. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any photos of either lighthouse taken before the metal cladding was installed.

The fourth lighthouse in this group is the tower at Point Iroquois MI, built in 1870 just as the early classic period was coming to a close.

In all, this article accounts for 22 tall brick towers of the 1850's and 1860's. These lighthouses set the stage for a tremendous burst of lighthouse construction, beginning with the lighting of the great tower at Cape Hatteras in 1970. That story deserves another article.

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June 6, 2001. Checked and revised October 3, 2018. Site copyright 2018 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.