The history of the United States lighthouses and their keepers is very interesting. America’s first lighthouse was Boston’s Little Brewster Island, built in 1716. Destroyed during the Revolutionary War, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1783 and still stands today, a testimony to the spirit of our forefathers and mothers.
On August 7, 1789 the United States Lighthouse Establishment was created and operated under the Department of the Treasury. The determination was the Ninth Law passed and the first Public Works Act passed. Formerly built and owned by individual states or territories, the federal government now retained ownership, as well as responsibility, for all lighthouses. The first lighthouse constructed under the new law was located in Maine although state funding had been provided and building had commenced.
In 1822, a dramatic event revolutionized the lighthouse’s ability to illuminate its flame. Augustin Fresenel, a French physicist invented a lens that had the ability to cast a beam for miles and miles across open water. A central spherical lens surrounded by rings of refracting prisms, the new sculpture-like glass device enabled the light from a single lamp to beam in the desired direction. Europe immediately utilized the new device immediately. The lens was not implemented by United States lighthouses until 1841 as the seeds of war began to germinate.
A turning point in the control of lighthouses occurred in 1852 when the Lighthouse Board was created and assumed managerial responsibilities. The U.S. Lighthouse Service flag, a red, white, and blue pennant, flew proudly over the lighthouses. In the course of the next 30 years, the Lighthouse Board introduced uniforms for its male keepers, including both dress and fatigue; women did not have a dress code requirement. In 1910 the Lighthouse Service name was changed by an Act of Congress. The first Commissioner of Lighthouses under the new United States Lighthouse Service was George R. Putnam.
As World War I loomed, two American services merged in 1915 to become the United States Coast Guard: the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. According to the U.S. Coast Guard website www.uscg.mil/history “the law specifically stated that the U.S. Coast Guard ‘shall constitute a part of the military forces of the United States.’”
Twenty-four years later, the Lighthouse Service joined the U.S. Coast Guard and prepared to embark on World War II. Based on its history, which includes the Revenue Cutter Service established by Alexander Hamilton to collect taxes, the U.S. Coast Guard personnel have served valiantly in every military conflict since the Civil War.
The only armed service to reside outside of the Pentagon, the major role of the U.S. Coast Guard is not combat, and does not have a primary mission. Essentially, the U.S. Coast Guard performs as a multi-mission service and is on call for a variety of emergencies and duties. Past assignments include: fighting during Prohibition’s “rum wars,” rescuing Cuban refugees, controlling drug trafficking, and providing aid during Katrina.
Small compared to the other branches of the armed forces, with only 39,400 active-duty personnel, the U.S. Coast Guard’s major responsibility is protecting the nation’s 95,000 miles of coastline from terrorist attacks. During peace time, the U.S. Coast Guard is under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. In wartime, the U.S. Coast Guard can be transferred the Department of Navy by order of the President.
U.S. Coast Guard personnel are officially called “sailor,” although they have earned any number of nicknames…some quaint—Puddle pirates—others affectionate, “coasties.” But for the men, women, and children who have experienced the bravery of the U.S. Coast Guard personnel, “hero” would be most appropriate. Protecting American shores is their job, saving lives is their mission.
The United States Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus: Always Ready.