The importance of lighthouses is undeniable. From the very beginning of time, light aids have served as guardians in the dark, as well as, regulators of commerce. The Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, (280 BCE – 1323 AD), stood 450 feet high and is recognized as one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. In the new American colonies, lighthouses were of significant importance as most transportation–human or cargo–was accomplished by water.
The new colonial settlers constructed homes, built barns, and established businesses. But they also recognized the importance of providing navigational aids for the ships transporting goods in and out of crude harbors. In 1716, the first American lighthouse was built on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. By the 1770s the lighthouse had guided thousands of ships through the harbor.
But the operation of lighthouses was problematic. Prior to the formal “founding” of the United States, navigational aids were built, owned, operated, and financially supported by individual colonies or territories. Almost immediately problems arose. Operating independently of a centralized govern ring body, the lighthouses lacked operational uniformity which impacted the safety of the mariners, their ships and cargo.
As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington recognized the importance of securing American shores. The turning point of the Revolutionary War was acted out on the Tidewater Peninsula at Yorktown. Surrounded by troops under General Washington’s command and the French fleet, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered and independence was declared. Upon accepting the presidency of the United States, Washington immediately addressed the issue of lighthouse management and central control of navigational aids.
“A Bill for the Establishment and Support of Light Houses, Beacons, and Buoys, and for authorizing the several States to provide and regulate Plots” was proposed within months of Washington’s first inaugural. Following lengthy and heated debates, the House agreed to Senate amendments on August 3, 1789, and the official parchment copy of the bill was prepared by joint committees of the House and Senate.
Three days following, the committee members “notified their respective chambers that the bill was ‘perfected’ and ‘truly enrolled.’ The Speaker of the House and the vice president signed the bill.” It was duly noted that “this Act did originate in the House of Representatives. The Lighthouses Act became law the following day, when President Washington signed the enrolled bill.” (Information provided by www.uscg.mil/history)
Following the signing of the new law, the Federal government retained ownership, as well as responsibility, for all American lighthouses. Significant improvements in the operation of lighthouses were immediately implemented and operational guidelines established. Today, the U.S. Coast Guard administers approximately 400 lighthouses, the majority of which are automated. In honor of its history as the first American lighthouse, Boston Light on Little Brewster Island is currently the only manned U.S.C.G. station.