Old Style Stone Lighthouses, 1808-1849

In the early days of the 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 had standard plans drawn up 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 most 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, SC, light station sometime late in the nineteenth century. On the left is the 1858 lighthouse, tall and slender, crowned with a large lantern holding a first-order Fresnel lens. On the right is the old style tower, a 65-foot model built in 1827. It is short and blunt: notice that its base is as broad as 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. G.A. and J.L. Marler have posted a recent photo.)

Cape Romain Light Station, South Carolina; US Coast Guard photo

Ocracoke Light, North Carolina; U.S. Coast Guard photo
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 somewhat 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.

The lighthouse at St. 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 built 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 the present fifth order lens). These improvements increased the tower's height to 73 ft.

Saint Marks Light, Florida;
NPS photo by David Cipra

Turkey Point Light, MD;
NPS photo by Ralph Eshelman
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 seemed 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, and about half of his lighthouses survive. His Turkey Point Light, 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. Donahoo's Cove Point Light, on the Bay's western shore, is a good example of the 50-foot size, and the little Piney Point Light, on the lower Potomac River, is one of two surviving examples of the 30-foot size (the other is at Owl's Head, Maine).

Piney Point Light, MD
NPS photo by Candace Clifford


The following 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 GA (1820, 65 ft) - fully restored and reactivated in 1997-98, more than a century after it was abandoned
  2. Great Cumberland Island GA (1820, 50 ft) - relocated in 1838 to Amelia Island FL, where it remains in use
  3. Franks Island LA (1823, 65 ft?) - in ruins for many years, this lighthouse collapsed in 2002
  4. Ocracoke NC (1823, 65 ft) - well-loved landmark of the Outer Banks, still in use
  5. Cape Florida FL (1825, 65 ft) - rebuilt in 1846, substantially altered and raised to 95 ft in 1855; restored and reactivated
  6. Key West FL (1825, 65 ft) - rebuilt 1849 after being overturned by a hurricane; substantially altered and raised to 85 ft in 1895
  7. Owl's Head ME (1826, 30 ft) - picturesque and well known lighthouse near Rockland, still in use
  8. Cape Romain (1) SC (1827, 65 ft) - abandoned since it was replaced in 1858
  9. Cove Point MD (1828, 50 ft) - still in use, soon to be restored by the Calvert Marine Museum
  10. Fort Gratiot (Port Huron) MI (1829, 65 ft) - still in use; height raised to 85 ft in 1861
  11. St. Marks FL (1829, 65 ft) - raised to 73 ft in 1867; still in use; restoration planned
  12. Thunder Bay Island MI (1832, 40 ft) - substantially altered and raised to 50 ft in 1857; still in use
  13. Turkey Point MD (1832, 40 ft) - recently deactivated by the Coast Guard but since reactivated by the local group working on its restoration
  14. Piney Point MD (1836, 30 ft) - deactivated in 1964 but carefully restored in recent years
  15. Little Cumberland Island GA (1838, 50 ft) - deactivated in 1915; maintained by a local homeowners' group
  16. West Sister Island OH (1848, 50 ft) - in use but stripped of its lantern

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Checked and updated August 25, 2003. Site copyright 2003 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.