In the heyday of lighthouses, the U.S. had as many as 1500. That’s more than any other country! Lighthouses reside in 37 states. With 150 in all, Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state.
Lighthouses are somewhat nostalgic today. With electricity and modern navigational systems on boats, they have become outdated. They help the odd boater out of a storm now and then, but we don’t rely on them like we used to.
Back at the turn of the century, lighthouses were lifesavers. They were usually built on capes or coastlines that were particularly difficult to navigate. They have been around since before the U.S. was a country. Americans erected more in 1910 than any other year. Of the 267 made that year, 140 of them were in Michigan!
Maine may be known as The Lighthouse State, but Michigan has more of them. The Great Lakes surround the state on three sides.
Lake Michigan curves around it in a U-shape creating the left, top, and right borders. Lake Erie finishes the right perimeter off at the bottom. Lake Michigan is known as the deadliest Great Lake. It has rip currents that terrify beach-goers every summer. Back in the time before electric lights, those strong currents caused even deadlier problems for ships traveling Lake Michigan. Without lighthouses, those ships would never have made it to port safely. Naturally, they had plenty of them to go around.
The Oldest Lighthouses in the U.S.
Wood-burning fires powered the first lighthouses in America. Lightkeepers kept the braziers going to help ships find their way. The first such lighthouse stood on Little Brewster Island in Boston, in colonial New England. Its keepers helped ships sail murky waters before the birth of the USA! In fact, the original tower was destroyed by the British in the American Revolution.
The oldest continuously used lighthouse in the states is in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The people in the area had talked about erecting a tower there since 1679. The large, jutting sandbar Sandy Hook was named for was a navigational hazard for sailors. It took many ships down before the community installed the lighthouse in 1764.
The Tallest Lighthouse in the U.S.
Off the coast of Cape Hatteras, NC lies the infamously dangerous Diamond Shoals. The shoals are shifting, underwater sandbars. In the days before electricity, they took down countless ships. The government finished the first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras in 1803. Unfortunately, it wasn’t tall enough to guide the ships around the shoals. They kept sinking along that unpredictable shore. Over the next 70 years, the government added 110 feet to the lighthouse making it 200 feet and the tallest lighthouse in the U.S.
In 1999, the effects of erosion threatened to level the U.S.’s tallest lighthouse. Rather than let that happen, the community came together and moved it to safer ground 3000 feet inshore. You can visit it today. It offers a spectacular view of the stars in the summertime.
The Most Unique Lighthouses in the U.S.
Lighthouses didn’t just serve an essential role in navigation over the years. They were also a source of beauty and architectural creativity. It’s why many of them are still around today as tourism centers and even BnBs.
New London Ledge Lighthouse
On a little manmade island off the coast of Connecticut sits a square-shaped lighthouse in the style of the French Second Empire. They built it in 1908 to supplement light to the New London Harbor. Instead of making it on the coast, they created an island just for it. Two wealthy local gentlemen influenced the architectural design.
Deep in the South, on Mississippi’s coast, stands a beautiful white lighthouse. It’s not the tallest lighthouse. Nor does it sport a unique design. What makes this lighthouse so interesting is that it is smack dab in the middle of a four-lane highway! It became a symbol of the city’s resilience after it withstood Hurricane Katrina. At the very top, a camera catches a live feed for anyone interested.
Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse
The Charleston Light holds a special place in locals’ hearts as being the most modern lighthouse around. Instead of the classic cylindrical shape, it is triangular. Constructed in 1962, it brought a new architectural style to an old necessity.
Statue of Liberty
Did you know that the most iconic symbol of America is also a lighthouse? The beacon in the torch doesn’t just give newcomers hope. It also protected ships coming into the harbor in New York City, which is in the state of New York. When the statue was assembled in 1886, electric lights were brand new.
It was a huge undertaking to install electricity so high up in the torch and crown. A few weeks after they set out to illuminate her, they succeeded. On November 1, 1886, they gave us the very first electric lighthouse in the U.S.
Fun Facts about U.S. Lighthouses
- Most lighthouses are cylindrical, but they can also be constructed as square, octagonal, or triangular.
- Lightships were used in especially deep water. They had bright lights at the tops of their masts to help ships through treacherous or foggy waters.
- A daymark is a pattern painted on a lighthouse to help ships distinguish one from another. They are usually barber’s spirals, stripes, or checkered patterns.
- There is only one lighthouse still run by a person instead of an automated system in the U.S. today. It’s that very first lighthouse on Brewster Island in Boston.
❓ Trivia Time: How many state abbreviations can you name?