Old Style Brick Lighthouses, 1820-1849

In the early days of the U.S. federal government lighthouse maintenance was one of the tasks of the Secretary of the Treasury. In 1820 Secretary William H. Crawford delegated this responsibility to Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Pleasonton served as superintendent of U.S. lighthouses until 1852. He was a bureaucrat, with no direct knowledge of the sea, of construction, or of lighthouse operation.

For technical expertise Pleasonton relied on Winslow Lewis (1770-1850), a former sea captain from Wellfleet, Massachusetts. When U.S. shipping was embargoed during the Napoleonic wars Lewis turned his attention to lighthouses and designed a new lighting apparatus based on the Argand lamps being used at that time in Europe. In 1812 Congress bought Lewis's patent rights for the lighting system and awarded him a contract to equip all the country's lighthouses with the new lamps. Four years later, after this work was completed, Lewis won a contract to supply oil to all the light stations and to visit them once a year to verify that they were being properly operated.

Before long Lewis was also winning contracts to build new lighthouses. When Pleasonton took over responsibility for these contracts Lewis formed an alliance with him, and for three decades a large part of the lighthouse construction in the country was awarded to Lewis. Demand for lighthouses was high as shipping boomed on the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes. Funds were short. Pleasonton took pride in his economical administration of the lighthouses and strived to build them as cheaply as possible.

To meet the demand Lewis drew standard plans for conical lighthouses in five sizes: 25, 30, 40, 50, and 65 feet high. Dozens of these lighthouses were built, many in brick and some in stone. However, Lewis's ignorance of engineering and Pleasonton's pinch-penny policies made many of these lighthouses unsatisfactory: they were too short or poorly constructed or both. Most were later pulled down and replaced by taller, sturdier towers. Only a handful survive today, most of them surviving because someone other than Lewis had the contract to build them, or because Lewis happened to pick a subcontractor who was particularly skilled in brick construction. I refer to these lighthouses of the Pleasonton-Lewis era as "old style."

The historic photo at right shows clearly the difference between old style towers and the towers that replaced them after the Lighthouse Board was appointed in 1852. The photo shows the Cape Romain, South Carolina, light station sometime late in the nineteenth century. On the right is the 1858 lighthouse, tall and slender, crowned with a large lantern holding a first-order Fresnel lens. On the left is the old style tower, a 65-foot model built by Winslow Lewis in 1827. It is short and blunt: notice that its base is even broader than that of the taller tower. It is topped by a "birdcage" lantern originally designed for the Lewis lamp system.

(Both towers still stand, although the older tower has lost its lantern and all of its paint. The newer tower was deactivated in 1947. This is the only place in the country where old style and new style towers stand side by side. Keith Anderson's page for Cape Romain has several recent photos.)

Cape Romain Light Station, South Carolina, 1893
U.S. National Archives photo

Ocracoke Light, North Carolina, September 2008
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Shayne Hiles

One of the best-known old style brick towers is the lighthouse at Ocracoke village on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Winslow Lewis lost the contract for this 65-footer to Noah Porter, another New Englander. Porter's work, completed in 1823, has held up well over the years. The photo shows the two most characteristic features of the old style design. The tower is bluntly conical, and the lantern is slightly off-center because it is positioned over the top of the spiral stairway. The original birdcage lantern is gone, replaced by a mid-nineteenth-century lantern having distinctive trapezoidal windowpanes. The lantern was designed for a fourth order Fresnel lens installed in 1854; this lens was replaced with another fourth order optic in 1895, and that lens remains in use today. The tower's brickwork was later covered with a stucco-like mortar, painted white. Several other old style brick towers have received similar treatments.

Ocracoke Light is owned now by the National Park Service as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The narrow, winding stairs are closed, but visitors are allowed to enter the base of the tower.

The lighthouse at Saint Marks on the Florida panhandle has a history that illustrates the recurring problems of the old style lighthouses. Winslow Lewis won the contract to build a lighthouse at the mouth of the St. Marks River in 1829. As usual, Lewis didn't actually build the light tower; his role in construction was to install the lantern and light apparatus. The tower construction was subcontracted. In this case the subcontractor cheated, building a tower with hollow walls instead of solid walls. The local Collector of Customs refused to accept the work, and a new contractor, Calvin Knowlton, was hired to rebuild Lewis's tower.

Knowlton's version, with solid walls, was finished in 1831. Unfortunately the site selected (by Lewis) was too close to the Gulf, and the lighthouse was soon threatened by beach erosion. In 1842 Lewis won a new contract to dismantle and rebuild the tower farther inland. This was done, but because the foundation seemed a bit shaky Lewis decided to attach the keeper's quarters to the tower (a practice common in the North but rare in the South). In 1865 retreating Confederate troops tried to blow up the lighthouse and succeeded in damaging it sufficiently that it had to be rebuilt again (for a fourth time). The 1867 reconstruction kept the tower's old-style conical profile but added the flare at the top to support a larger lantern, which was used for a fourth order Fresnel lens (later replaced by a fifth order lens). These improvements increased the tower's height to 73 ft.

Saint Marks Light is now owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge. A restoration now underway will allow the lighthouse to be opened to the public.

Saint Marks Light, Florida, July 2007
Flickr Creative Commons photo by banichiji

Turkey Point Light, Maryland, October 2006
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Matt Tillett

One of the best of the builders of old style lighthouses was John Donahoo, or Donahoe, of Havre de Grace, Maryland. Throughout the old-style period Donahoo seems to have had a lock on the lighthouse contracts for the Chesapeake Bay, outbidding Lewis consistently. In all he built a dozen very sturdy lighthouses on the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Seven of his lighthouses survive and two are still active. 

Donahoo's Turkey Point Light (left), built on the headland of Elk Neck at the northern end of the Bay, is the only surviving example of the old-style 40-foot size that hasn't been heavily modified. His Cove Point Light, on the Bay's western shore, is a good example of the 50-foot size, and the little Piney Point Light (right), on the lower Potomac River, is the only surviving example of the 30-foot size.

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

The following surviving lighthouses fall in the old style brick category. Some are well known and well restored, but others are abandoned or rarely visited. The dates and heights shown are for the original construction. As the list reveals, the surviving lights are mostly the taller models, and many of them were altered to make them taller still.

  1. Sapelo Island, Georgia (1820, 65 ft, Winslow Lewis) - fully restored and reactivated in 1997-98, more than a century after it was abandoned.
  2. Great Cumberland Island, Georgia (1820, 50 ft, Winslow Lewis) - relocated in 1838 to Amelia Island, Florida, where it remains in use; it was restored in 2004-08.
  3. Ocracoke, North Carolina (1823, 65 ft, Noah Porter) - a well-loved landmark of the Outer Banks, well maintained and still in use.
  4. Cape Romain (1), South Carolina (1827, 65 ft, Winslow Lewis) - abandoned since it was replaced in 1858, this lighthouse is now gravely endangered.
  5. Cove Point, Maryland (1828, 50 ft, John Donahoo) - still in use, now owned and maintained by the Calvert Marine Museum.
  6. St. Marks, Florida (1829, 65 ft, Calvin Knowlton- raised to 73 ft in 1867; still in use; restoration underway.
  7. Fort Gratiot (Port Huron), Michigan (1829, 65 ft, Lucius Lyon) - still in use; height raised to 85 ft in 1861; restored in 2011-12.
  8. Turkey Point, Maryland (1832, 40 ft, John Donahoo) - deactivated by the Coast Guard in 2000 but reactivated in 2002 by a local group working on its restoration.
  9. Piney Point, Maryland (1836, 30 ft, John Donahoo) - deactivated in 1964 but carefully restored in recent years.
  10. Little Cumberland Island, Georgia (1838, 50 ft, Joseph Hastings) - deactivated in 1915 but maintained by a local homeowners' group.
  11. West Sister Island, Ohio (1848, 50 ft) - in use but stripped of its lantern.

These lighthouses started life as old-style brick towers, but they have been altered substantially by later construction:

  1. Cape Florida, Florida (1825, 65 ft, Noah Humphreys) - this lighthouse was rebuilt in 1846, then substantially altered and raised to 95 ft in 1855; it was restored and reactivated in 1978.
  2. Key West, Florida (1825, 65 ft) - rebuilt in 1849 after being overturned by a hurricane; substantially altered and raised to 85 ft in 1895.

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Posted December 1999. Checked and revised September 23, 2018. Site copyright 2018 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.