The Oldest U.S. Towers, 1764-1791

The first American lighthouse (as far as we know) was a stone tower built by the colony of Massachusetts and lit for the first time on September 14, 1716, on Little Brewster Island (then called Beacon Island) in Boston Harbor. Unfortunately this lighthouse doesn't survive; retreating British troops blew it up on June 13, 1776.

There were 11 lighthouses at the start of the Revolution in 1775 and 15 at the time the first Congress met in 1789. Only two of these early lighthouses stand today, plus a third tower that was under construction in 1789. These "pre-Federal" towers have several things in common. All of them are massive towers of rubblestone: locally available stone not dressed into blocks but fitted together by expert masons. The walls are solid stone, many feet thick at the base. All three lighthouses were built by local craftsmen of great skill; we know their names but we know little or nothing of their lives. All three are revered local landmarks, preserved today with the greatest care. And all three are still active lighthouses with more than two centuries of service to their credit.

The only surviving colonial lighthouse is the light at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the southern entrance to New York Harbor. For its time it is an impressive structure, 85 feet high and 29 feet in diameter at the base. It is built of rubblestone and the interior of the tower is lined with brick. The work was done by Isaac Conro, a New York stonemason; we know practically nothing about him except that he built this lighthouse. He built so well that an 1852 Congressional investigation described his work as one of the three best-built lighthouses of the 350 or so then existing in the country.

The lighthouse remains active today, shining its light through a third-order Fresnel lens installed in 1857. The keeper's quarters was built in 1883. The light, located in the Gateway National Recreation Area, was restored by the National Park Service in 1999-2000. It reopened to the public on June 10, 2000, one day before the 236th anniversary of its first lighting. Another round of renovations began in the fall of 2017 and the lighthouse reopened in June 2018.

Sandy Hook Light, New Jersey, July 2006
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Oliver J. Lopena
Boston Light
Boston Light, Massachusetts, July 2010
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Michael K.

The octagonal Sandy Hook lighthouse served as a pattern for several actual or proposed lighthouses. In 1765, Pennsylvania financed the construction of a lighthouse at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, very similar to the Sandy Hook light. The Cape Henlopen Light survived more than 160 years before collapsing onto the beach in 1926 due to erosion of the sand dune on which it stood. In Georgia, the 100-foot Tybee Island lighthouse, built in 1773, was an octagonal brick tower also similar to Sandy Hook. The lowest 60 feet of this colonial tower serve today as the foundation of the 145-foot tower completed in 1867. The colonial governments of Virginia and Maryland also got copies of the Cape Henlopen plans and agreed to build a similar tower at Cape Henry, Virginia. Stone blocks for this tower were actually shipped to the coast, but the Revolutionary War broke out before construction could begin.

After the Revolutionary War ended Massachusetts hired Richard Devens to rebuild the 1716 Boston lighthouse. The contract called for a tower "nearly of the same dimensions of the former lighthouse." The Devens tower, finished in 1783, was originally 75 feet high and 24 feet in diameter at the base. Like Sandy Hook, it is a solid rubblestone tower; the walls are seven and a half feet thick at the base. Unlike Sandy Hook, the tower is conical with a round cross section.

The federal government took ownership and responsibility for the Boston Light and all of the country's lighthouses in 1789. In 1859 the tower's height was raised to 89 feet with a watch room and a new lantern built to house a second-order Fresnel lens. This lens remains in use today. The lighthouse, now located within the limits of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, is generally considered the only remaining manned light station in the country, although several other lighthouses are located at active Coast Guard stations. Coast Guard personnel turned the light on and off every night until April 16, 1998, when the light became the last in the U.S. to be automated. It now operates 24 hours a day.

The lighthouse at Portland Head, Maine, was planned by the Massachusetts state government (Maine being part of Massachusetts until 1820). The federal government took over its construction in 1789. The light tower, completed in January 1791, was built by two local stonemasons, Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. Like Boston Harbor the Portland Head tower is round in cross section and built of rubblestone. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower but General Benjamin Lincoln, the federal supervisor, ordered it raised to 72 feet so the light would not be blocked from the south. Bryant quit in protest at the change in plans, and Nichols finished the work.

The upper part of the tower has been modified several times: the 20-foot section below the gallary was added in the 1860's, removed in 1883, and restored in 1885. The height of the modified tower is 80 feet. The lantern held a second-order Fresnel lens from 1885 to 1991, when a DCB-224 aerobeacon was installed. The light station is now owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth and operated as the Museum at Portland Head Light.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, August 2008
Flickr Creative Commons photo
by Ted Kerwin

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Posted June 16, 2000. Checked and revised September 21, 2018. Site copyright 2018 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.