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Great American Lighthouses

May 2024
1min read

by F. Ross Holland, Jr. ; The Preservation Press; 346 pages.

There is no such thing as an ugly lighthouse. One of the editors here saw his first—the “Little Red Lighthouse” under the George Washington Bridge in New York City—at the age of six, returning from an afternoon of grandmothers and holiday turkey. It was a particularly beautiful day, one of those fall afternoons when the sun falling over New Jersey turns the Hudson River into a shimmering golden plate, and since then he has never been able to pass a lighthouse without stopping to admire it.

It may well be the same for other Americans. In the National Trust’s new guide to our nation’s greatest lighthouses, Ross Holland, a retired historian for the National Park Service, takes the reader on a tour through thirty-three states and more than three hundred sites. We learn, for example, that the first permanent lighthouse in America was built in Boston Harbor in 1716, after merchantmen petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for a “Light Hous and Lanthorn on some Head Land at the Entrance of the Harbor of Boston for the Direction of Ships and Vessels in the Night Time bound into the said Harbor.” When the keeper there drowned in a boating accident, the young Benjamin Franklin mourned the loss in a poem.

The book is divided geographically, with listings of lighthouses for New England, the South, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, and the West. Pictures are included to identify the beacons, but the story behind the lighthouses and the people who kept them is the author’s principal concern. We are told of Kate Walker, who managed the Robbins Reef Lighthouse in New York Harbor from 1886 until 1919, saved the lives of some fifty sailors, rowed her children to school every day, and didn’t retire until she was seventythree. We read the story of the USS George M. Cox , which ran aground near the Rock of Ages Lighthouse in Isle Royale, Michigan, in 1933. The keepers there braved darkness and fog to get all 125 passengers and crew off the sinking ship and into the lighthouse, where they lined its 130-foot spiral staircase until the foul weather abated and they could be evacuated.

And we find out that the lighthouses themselves have had a hard time of it. The Aransas Pass Lighthouse, built in 1857 to guide ships into Corpus Christi Bay, was badly damaged during the Civil War and its top twenty feet had to be replaced. During the repairs the usually balmy Texas coast was assaulted with a cold front so severe that “fish, thrown ashore by the hundreds, were frozen, and birds of all sorts sought refuge in the tower … where they perished.” Though the repairs were effected, time and erosion shifted the opening of the bay so that by 1952 the station had to be moved to a new location.

Lighthouses aren’t as common today as they once were—they’ve been displaced by smaller, less expensive sea buoys—but there are still hundreds of them dotting our coastline. For those who stop to look at them, this book will add immeasurably to the visit.

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