Atlantic lighthouses of United States coastal waters were essential for getting people and supplies to land since the early days of navigation. We lighthouse fans always think of those beautiful, esthetic towers. But, really, they do include other sorts, like that light tower placed in a major shipping lane of New York Bay in 1999. The Ambrose Light, it was dismantled in 2008.7 Nicknamed Texas Tower lighthouses since they're reminiscent of off-shore oil platforms!1 Don't you think so?
Sometime after 1776, the U.S realized federal oversight for lighthouse maintenance was needed. This responsibility was first given to an Auditor of the Treasury Department, S. Pleasonton in 1850. This stewardship officially began with a meeting April 28, 1851, and was called the Lighthouse Establishment. Lighthouse guardianship has become more efficient with passing years.8
The Atlantic Coast of the U.S. had a need for lighthouses, with its many barrier islands, treacherous currents, valuable harbors and trading ports. Some severe hurricanes brought damage and ruin to many Atlantic lighthouses, but many survived. Those that suffered have often been saved by those of us that love their value, romance and history! Let's see what lighthouses we have along the Atlantic coast. How many have you visited?
Ambrose Light Tower - Not Quite Traditional
What comes to mind thinking of Maine lighthouses? We kind of think of crashing waves on rocky wind-swept beaches, with some low-lying cliffs. What do you think of? Author W.O. Thomson said that "New England lighthouses are legendary."2 Maine has an overwhelming share of the legends!
Let's think of an actual Maine lighthouse we can visit. And then some we'll just have to reflect on some of these Atlantic lighthouses of Maine.
Goat Island Lighthouse - Near Kennebunkport, off Cape Porpoise this active light still watches over the harbor inlet. The mostly barren island is a bit over 7 acres, with a keeper's cottage, oil house, boathouse and dock. Automated in 1990, 'til then it was the last staffed Maine lighthouse.6 Visiting not possible, without special arrangements via the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust.
Owls Head Lighthouse - Visit Owls Head State Park, see it's cute, diminutive, and sitting on a hilltop with style. Since 1825, at the peninsula's end, flanked by Penobscot Bay. Rebuilt in 1852, restored in 2010.8 The Keeper's home is now headquarters for the American Lighthouse Foundation.
Bass Harbor Lighthouse - In Arcadia National Park, Mount Desert Island. Built in 1876. The Fresnel lens still lights to guide entry into Bass Harbor. Wonderful views on foot-paths within the park grounds, but tours inside aren't done.8
Marshall Point Lighthouse - At the Light Station assisting entrance to Port Clyde Harbor, installed in 1832. A new light tower replaced the original in 1857. With the keeper's residence, it's on the National Register of Historic Places. A unique design, with a land bridge boardwalk from the doorway to a landing.6 Even featured in the Forrest Gump film!
Marshall Point Lighthouse Pre 1895, With Original Keeper's Home
The 1857 Replacement Kept the Covered Bridge - Today It's a Boardwalk
Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse - Actually a double Atlantic lighthouse, so nicknamed "Two Lights." Within a nice Lighthouse Park for a great historic outing. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.8
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse - Here's a Cassion lighthouse. Also nicknamed sparkplug8 or bug lighthouse, because of its shape. The top part of the tower built on a metal or concrete retaining foundation called a cassion. Advantages: lower construction costs and resistance to elements. This particular "bug" is in a large shipping channel into Portland Harbor. It marks a sneaky area obstructing ledge. Old Fort Preble is alongside,6 making it a popular picnicking and day use area.
A Cassion Lighthouse - Spring Point Ledge
Pemaquid Lighthouse - True Atlantic lighthouse history resides at the Pemaquid Point Light, starting with its 1827 commission. Then a needed rebuild in 1835 - so soon. And again in 1857!8 Rough! A beloved, popular beacon. Tours from mid-May to mid-October. Surrounded by a park/museum featuring Keeper's quarters and out-buildings. Managed by Bristol Parks and Recreation.
Portland Head Lighthouse - Watching over Portland Maine harbor, this lighthouse is the oldest watch light in Atlantic Maine. Now automated. See it at Fort Williams Park, currently owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. A wonderful place to visit.8
Whaleback Lighthouse - Looking at it, you know it's historic! Built in 1830, what you now see was constructed in 1872 because the original became storm-worn. Go to Kittery, it marks the entrance to the Piscataqua River.6
Whaleback Lighthouse circa 1847
Whaleback Lighthouse, circa 1950
Cape Cod Lighthouses
Lighthouses built on Cape Cod in Massachusetts faced rough weather with the location. Pilgrims settling the area influenced original construction. They built their New England homes in the tradition brought with them from European homelands, where they faced harsh winters. Strong, practical, without any "fluff."3 Thus, Cape Cod styling for lighthouses, centered the light tower on the keeper's cottage roof, incorporating it into the home's structure. The all-in-one building was made functional and solid.4 But, do you think it was, really?
West Dennis Light - Originally called Bass River light, currently it's atop the Lighthouse Inn, a tourist hotel. Bass River was a fishing port lane to Nantucket sound. In 1854 work started on the light and keepers home, helping seafarers navigate.6 It has the centered light placement of Cape Cod lighthouse styling.
Highland Light - Was also called Cape Cod Lighthouse. Built in 1857, third one there, even so it's the oldest on the Cape.8 Part of Cape Cod National Seashore, which can be visited year-round, but the tower can be toured May to October.
Buzzards Bay Entrance Light - A "Texas Tower" for ships entering Buzzards Bay, the leeward approach to Cape Cod on its Southwestern side. A ship rammed the one in the photo, crippling it. A light-ship took its place until a new Entrance Light was built in 1996.6
Buzzards Bay Entrance Light Tower in 1961
Wood End Lighthouse - This Lookout Station is almost as far south on the Provincetown hook of the Cape Cod peninsula as you can go. First lit November 20, 1872, became even more historical when it was Massachusetts's first solar powered lighthouse. Fully automated, only the tower and oil house remain.6
Long Point Lighthouse - Almost a twin to Wood End Light, it's almost 2 miles further South, about at the peninsula's Southern tip. Helping boats round the point into Provincetown Harbor. The original light wasn't twinned with Wood End, but was a Cape Cod style design in 1827. The pilings were undermined with time, so the traditional tower replaced it in 1875. A keeper's home and oil shed were built, both torn down in 1982 when the light went solar.6
The Wood End Lighthouse, Pre-1961, With the Keeper's House Still Standing
Race Point Lighthouse - From Provincetown itself, here's one where we can stay overnight! Well, not in the Tower, but in one of The Buildings: the Keeper's House or the Whistle House. Tours happen, from May to Oct. Not an easy jaunt to visit. But if you can get there, we think you'll find you won't regret it!
Nauset Lighthouse - This is a different kind of Atlantic lighthouse story! Originally built in Chatham, 1877. In 1923 was relocated to Eastham, replacing 3 out-of-service wooden lighthouses: "Three Sisters of Nauset." Erosion endangered this location by 1993. Concerned citizens got it moved back, but still just 37 feet from cliff's edge to the sea below! In mid 1997 the National Park Service took ownership, with Nauset Light Preservation Society management. The Keeper's house was still endangered, but arrangements made moving it near the tower.8 Phew!
Monomoy Point Lighthouse - Way out on Monomoy Island Dunes, the original 1823 structure was Cape Cod style, wood with a brick lantern room. Replacing it in 1849 was cast iron construction, still standing! After the 1914 Cape Cod Canal debut, its need dwindled, thus deactivated in 1923. It's on the National Register of Historic Places,6 and takes guests in the Keeper's Residence.
Nobska Lighthouse - By Woods Hole, scanning Martha's Vineyard. When built in 1876, it had Cape Cod style. But it was replaced as you see it now, a tower made of iron.8 The buildings include the beacon tower, keeper's cottage, radio house, and oil shed, all currently in disrepair. The lighthouse is automated6
Stage Harbor Light - Built in 1880, used until 1933. Was useful in navigating Monomoy Point and Pollock Rip Channel areas.6 Now privately owned as a household.
Stage Harbor Lighthouse
Atlantic Lighthouses in NJ
New Jersey prides itself on its Atlantic lighthouses. We spent our youth and early married life in coastal towns in the Garden State. So had the opportunity to visit some of them. The thing was, the state functions for recreation weren't then as well developed as it seems today. We'll be rechecking our childhood haunts for sure!
Navesink Twin Lights5 - Double beacons on a castle-looking edifice atop the Atlantic Highlands, overlooking Sandy Hook Bay. As children, both of us - Karen & Bill (hadn't met yet!) - peered up at these lights, imagining pirates' and sea captains' adventures and battles. While we were parked below on our beach blankets at Sea Bright. Neither of our parents ever brought us up there. Historically there since 1828 to assist ships into New York Harbor. Now a museum, with a tour of one tower.
One of the More Unique Atlantic Lighthouses
Sandy Hook Lighthouse - Oldest still-working lighthouse in the U.S. Near the end of Sandy Hook Atlantic barrier island, built in 1764. This location goes the opposite of most lighthouse's problems. When built, it was 500 feet from land's tip. Now it's about 1-1/2 miles away, as more sand has accumulated at the end of this peninsula. From what's called littoral drift. (when sediments deposit on-shore from normal movement trajectories of waves & currents). It was an aid for entering New York Harbor. Now it's within the NPS Gateway National Recreation Area.5 Daily tours every half hour: 1pm to 4:30pm.
Absecon Lighthouse - First lit in 1857, it's the tallest lighthouse in NJ. Proud feature of the area, listed on three historical registries. The original oil shed still stands, but the Keeper's cottage is a replica. Museum on-site, and you get to climb the tower (228 steps).5 There's an overnight program, as well! For info contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Absecon Lighthouse - April 2002. Photo Credit: Skip Willits
Barnegat Lighthouse - Nicknamed "Barney," it's at the northern end of barrier Long Beach Island. Another light was nearby in the 1830s. After the decade's end, it was threatened by bay/ocean water. Anyway its light was considered substandard. In 1857 a new lighthouse was being built, while that was collapsing into the sea. Its site submerged today. The replacement shone on Jan. 1, 1859, jetties protect it.5 Now within Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. You can climb 217 steps to the top, Memorial Day thru Labor Day. Or even virtually with the live camera display in the Interpretive Center.
Barnegat Lighthouse on Long Beach Island - 2007. Photo by Matthew Dodd.
Cape May Lighthouse - At the Southern tip of the state, lower part of Cape May peninsula in Cape May Point State Park. Still operating, automated in 1946. It's the 3rd lighthouse on this Cape, the first two lost to erosion, the sites now underwater! The first built in 1823, a second erected in 1847. The one you see today constructed in 1859. The current design is hurricane wind resistant.5 This is just one we tried for - back when, but was a no go!
East Point Lighthouse - Historically called Maurice River Light. On the Delaware Bay in Heislerville at the outlet of that river. Built in 1849, only Sandy Hook's light is older in NJ. It nearly burnt down in 1971. Outer restoration completion in 1999 after being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 19955 helped begin an ongoing rehab. A museum is on-site. Erosion is a continuing fight.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse - In N. Wildwood, at the top end of Five-Mile Beach. Valuable to local whalers in the 1800s. Finished in March 1874. It endured threats from beach erosion, storms and a fire. Closed in 1913 when severely storm-damaged, then moved away from surf and reopened the next year.5 Today it's on two historical registries, is along the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail, operates via the City, and has a museum and park-like setting.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
Great Beds Light - A little spark-plug lighthouse, out in Raritan Bay, off the coast of the small city of South Amboy. Constructed in 1880, made of cast iron. It's charmed this town, has been kind of adopted as their symbol of sorts. In 2008 was listed on the NJ Register of Historic Places and National Register of Historic Places.5
Great Beds Light is a Cassion type of lighthouse.
Sea Girt Lighthouse - By the beach, near Wreck Pond, a coastal tidal, yet fresh-water pond. The lighthouse had the first (1921) on-shore radio beacon direction finder for ships' triangulation usage. After its light was decommissioned, the house was a Coast Guard dormitory.6 In 1981 a non-profit took it over, and it's available for touring and other activities.
Captain Al Modjeski Monitoring Water Quality at Wreck Pond
North Carolina Lighthouses
Currituck Beach Lighthouse - Another of our own Atlantic lighthouse history stories. Helping get our own passion started. Our cousin brought us here, he was involved with its restoration story. Its tower is in its natural brick, so the appearance right away is singular. The plaque over its doorway marks its 1873 beginnings. It has the largest sized Fresnel lens, automated now, in service dusk to dawn.8
Bald Head Island Lighthouse - Nicknamed "Old Baldy" it's the oldest North Carolina tower still around, valuable guiding boats into Cape Fear River. Finished in 1817, it replaced the original from 1794 which was eroding into the river. It soon proved inadequate in placement and lumen power. There was lots more to its story until it finally took its place in history.6 Climb to the top, visit the museum. Now non-profit managed. To get there you must Ferry from Southport NC. Ferry Tickets - Adults: $23, Children 3 to 12: $12, Age Under 3: Free.9 Plan to Spend the Day!
It's Old Baldy - Photo Credit: Kubigula
Bodie Lighthouse - Not far south out of Nags Head, easy to visit. The Keeper's Home is a duplex, and the complex is situated on Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The true pronunciation is just like the "human body."9 Locals know that!
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - Pretty well known and distinctive. Go to Buxton on Hatteras Island. It's the prime Atlantic lighthouse overseer for the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" collision area of two major currents. Completed in 1870, it replaced an original which was becoming inadequate, and then damaged in the Civil War. Gradually the surf line approached this Atlantic lighthouse. For a while abandoned, despite efforts to prevent watery overrun. In 1999, more endangered, so it was moved. A major project, called: The Move of the Millennium! Today you can visit its new location.9
Cape Hatteras Light - An Iconic Atlantic Lighthouse
Oak Island Lighthouse - Near the Cape Fear River emergence, in Caswell Beach this beacon replaced the steel skeleton Cape Fear Light in 1958.6 The inside design is different, rather than the spiral stairway, it has a "ship's ladder" style with eight landings as you go. Quite steep. So be ready if you plan to tour.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse - Not too many lighthouses shine their light in the daytime. This one does! Another unique feature here is the diamond pattern, which has a directional indication. It wasn't the first here. Trouble with the first, from 1812, was it was too short! So in late 1859 this was completed, 67 ft. higher.6 Located on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it must be reached by private ferry.9
Ocracoke Lighthouse - Finished in 1823, it's all white. The original Keeper's Home is still there, but remodeled twice to accommodate an assistant keeper. The tower's totally automated,6 so sturdy it's even been a shelter during hurricanes. At the southern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You can visit the Light Station, but not climb the tower.9
3 Watkins, C. (2008-2020). Everything you need to know about Cape Cod style houses. Homedit retrieved from homedit.com/cape-cod-style-houses/
4 Vincent, M. (2016, 12/21). Historic light station information & photography: Massachusetts. Retrieved from web.archive.org/web/20170501202446/http://www.uscg.mil/history/weblighthouses/LHMA.asp
5 DeWire, E. (2002, 2011). Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic coast: Your guide to the lighthouses of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.
6 Holland, F.R. (1972). America's lighthouses: An illustrated history. Mineola, NY: Dover Publishing.
7 Lighthouse Digest Magazine (Jan. 2000). Bump in the night brings end to Ambrose Tower: New tower replaces it. Retrieved from web.archive.org/web/20070922220725/http://www.lighthousedepot.com/digest/Storypage.cfm?storykey=653
8 Jones, R. (2004, 2013). Lighthouse encyclopedia: The definitive reference. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequote Press.
9 National Park Service (Last update: April 27, 2020). Cape Hatteras National Seashore. North Carolina. Retrieved from nps.gov/caha/index.htm