16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting

Larry Holzwarth - November 10, 2018

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
The remote Smalls Light was the scene of an incident which changed the way Trinity House manned their lighthouses. Wikimedia

4. An incident at Smalls Lighthouse changed the way British lighthouses were manned

The original Smalls Lighthouse was erected in 1775-76, designed by a Liverpool manufacturer of musical instruments. The lighthouse stood (an 1861 replacement still stands) on an islet near the tip of a remote peninsula in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In 1801, the already aging lighthouse was manned by two keepers, Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell. The keepers were well-known to have difficulties with one another, frequently bickering and threatening each other with bodily harm. While the two were alone at the lighthouse in 1801 Griffith was killed in an accident, and Howell was at a loss of what to do with his partner’s body. Disposing of the body by consigning it to the sea was ruled out because Howell feared he would be suspected of murdering his partner, given the well-known volatility of their relationship. He constructed a makeshift coffin, placed the body in it, and tied it to a rock outside the keeper’s house.

For the rest of the winter, Howell maintained the beacon himself. Meanwhile, wind and wave dashed the coffin to pieces, exposing the body so that it was visible from the keeper’s house window. As the surf rocked the remnants of the coffin, the body rocked with it, an arm appearing to wave back and forth as if calling for someone to come over, a sight which Howell was greeted with whenever he glanced out the window. Howell remained in isolation on the bleak isle, his only accompaniment the waving arm of his dead partner. By the time he was relieved at the lighthouse he was near gibbering, and his friends ashore were unable to recognize him, a man of completely broken mind. But he had managed to keep the beacon lighted throughout his period manning the lighthouse alone. The British authorities mandated that all lighthouse teams henceforth were to be of three men rather than two, which remained in effect until the 1980s, when automation took over the operation of lighthouses in the United Kingdom.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
An engraving of a meeting being held in Trinity House circa 1810. Wikimedia

5. The creation of Trinity House was a result of the malice of lighthouse keepers and pilots

Prior to the creation of Trinity House lighthouses in Great Britain, they were privately owned and charged passage fees similar to tolls to ships that passed them. Many lighthouse keepers also served as Harbor Masters and pilots. The system was rife with corruption, ships were charged exorbitant fees, denied passage, and in many cases deliberately wrecked, with the Harbor Master claiming salvage rights. Trinity House was created by Henry VIII in 1514 via a Royal Charter to regulate pilots. In 1566 his daughter, Elizabeth I, enjoined Trinity House to “make, erect, and set up such, so many beacons, marks, and signs for the sea…whereby the dangers may be avoided and escaped”. Trinity House erected numerous lighthouses around the British Isles, in some cases rendering the privately owned beacons superfluous, and in others purchasing them outright.

In 1836 Trinity House was awarded the authority to operate all lighthouses in Great Britain, and the last of the privately run houses were taken over. Trinity House was responsible for many innovations in maritime safety, including the use of buoys to mark navigable channels in harbors and rivers, and the first permanently moored lightship, the Nore Lightship, deployed in 1732. During the Blitz of London in 1940 Trinity House was bombed and the interior of the building gutted by the resulting fires. Many of the records which dated to the time of Henry VIII were lost in the bombing. Trinity House is funded through the levying of light fees on all commercial vessels which enter ports in the United Kingdom, a practice not too far removed from the days when owners of lighthouses charged fees for vessels which passed by their beacons on their way to complete their business with British ports.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
Lindau Lighthouse (right) and the Bavarian Lion flank the entrance to the harbor and port of Lindau on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Wikimedia

6. The Lindau lighthouse can be used to set the time

One doesn’t usually associate lighthouses with railroads, but the Lindau Lighthouse in southern Germany was built to mark the entrance to a port which was itself built entirely for the purpose of accommodating the Ludwig South-North Railway. The port was built in the mid-1850s on Lake Constance, providing pier facilities for shipping on the lake connected to rail heads owned by the Royal Bavarian State Railways. The narrow entrance to the harbor is guarded by the lighthouse on one side, across from which a statue known as the Bavarian Lion stands on a pedestal. The Lindau lighthouse has the face of a clock displayed prominently in the side of the tower, which was built at the same time as the port and stands just over 100 feet tall. The beacon was first lighted in the autumn of 1856.

When it first opened, Lindau used an open oil fire as the source of light, which was labor intensive for the keeper, who also had the responsibility of firing the fog cannons in conditions of heavy fog, which were and are frequent. The cannons were quickly replaced with a bell and later steam foghorns. Oil gave way to kerosene, followed by gas, before the source of illumination was changed to electricity in the 1930s, as part of Adolf Hitler’s programs to combat the Great Depression by upgrading German infrastructure. In the 1990s the lighthouse was fully automated and is used on demand. If a navigator needs the beacon to help guide him to the harbor mouth, the lighthouse is contacted via radio signal, and the beacon illuminates. The lighthouse was acquired by the town of Lindau in the early twenty-first century (as was the port) and became a popular tourist attraction.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
An 1831 drawing of the Neuwerk Tower (tallest in center) and other lighthouses of Cuxhaven in northern Germany. Wikimedia

7. Great Tower Neuwerk is the oldest secular building on the German coastline

Built on Neuwerk Island near Hamburg, the Great Tower was originally constructed as a fortification (a keep) in the early 14th century. It was built to house troops who were present to guard the approaches and the estuary of the Elbe from pirates of both the sea and the river. Thus the tower was five centuries old before it was converted to a lighthouse during the Napoleonic era, beginning in 1814. The tower had been part of a navigation system before it became a beacon itself, mariners could take bearings of other beacons and man-made structures as well as the tower to ensure that they were in the channel, safe from the rocks and shoals which mark the waters of the estuary. Fire beacons were used at night near the tower, but the tower itself did not hold a source of light for mariners until 1814.

When it was converted to a lighthouse, the 128 foot tall brick tower used 21 oil lamps to create a beacon, using reflectors. For more than fifty years the lamps were fueled with rapeseed oil. In 1870 the fuel was changed to kerosene. A new Fresnel lens installed in 1892 remains in use, though the light source was changed to electricity in 1942, in part as a defense measure allowing the beacon to be shut down rapidly, rather than allowing it to serve as a guide to incoming Royal Air Force bombers during their night raids. After five centuries as a fortress and two hundred years as a lighthouse the Great Tower was officially shut down. The Hamburg Port Authority continues to shine a small light from the Great Tower, not as a navigational aid but as an attraction for the city. The small light is provided by LEDs.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
As an army lieutenant General George Gordon Meade designed several American lighthouses, including at Cape May, New Jersey. Library of Congress

8. The victor of the Battle of Gettysburg was a builder of lighthouses

George Gordon Meade is most famous as the commander of the Union Army which emerged victorious in the 1863 Gettysburg campaign. Before the war he was heavily involved in the construction of lighthouses along the American east coast, as well as the development of new technology for the Lighthouse Board, which was roughly the American equivalent of Trinity House. Meade developed a hydraulic pump for use in lighthouses which eased the transfer of fuel, as well as improved safety when handling it, and which was adopted for all new American lighthouses. Among the many lighthouses he designed were Sombrero Key and Jupiter Inlet in Florida. He also was involved in the construction of several lighthouses in New Jersey, including Cape May Light and Absecon Light at Atlantic City.

Meade designed the 157 foot tall Cape May light, which was constructed under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. It was the third lighthouse to be built at Cape May, steady erosion dictated the replacement of both of its predecessors. At Barnegat light, Meade built the lighthouse about 900 feet from the waterline at high tide, within a decade the waterline was half that distance away. Several jetties were constructed over the years to reduce the erosion and the encroachment of the sea. Despite the difficulties encountered during construction, Meade completed Barnegat Light under a budget of $40,000, an impressive achievement considering that the Fresnel lens alone was purchased at a cost of $15,000 of his construction funds. Barnegat Light was decommissioned in 1927 as a navigational aid.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
Spectacle Reef Light was and is a marvel of engineering and the construction arts. US Coast Guard

9. Lighthouses were built on shoals to replace lightships in the Great Lakes

Lightships are vessels which are anchored off shoals and rocks which pose hazards to navigation, though they are themselves frequently hazardous to the sailors which crew them. In severe storms, lightships can drag their anchors, endangering both the crew within them and other ships, since they become out of position and can mislead other vessels. Lightships are not as tall as lighthouses, which means the beacon cannot be seen as far away as those erected on towers. Between 1870 and the turn of the twentieth century, engineers working for the Lighthouse Board began building lighthouses on the Great Lakes in shoals and upon rocky beds to mark them, allowing mariners to avoid the dangers they presented. One such lighthouse was Spectacle Reef Light, the most expensive ever built on the Great Lakes, under some of the most difficult conditions.

Construction was seasonal, with work only being accomplished in the warmer months, on a site where numerous ships had been lost during storms. A crib was built in a shipyard, towed to the site and submerged, creating a working area to build a cofferdam, in which the foundation was built. The construction took place in five month periods over four years. The tower was constructed of stone and bolted to the rock upon which it rests with three-foot long wrought iron bolts. Winter weather damaged the tower, delaying new construction each season until the damage could be repaired. The design of the tower and foundation proved so successful the Lighthouse Board adopted it for other projects, allowing them to reuse the specially developed equipment. The light was fully automated in 1972 and remains an aid to navigation on Lake Huron more than a century and a quarter after it was commissioned.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
The current Eddystone Light stands alongside the remnants of its immediate predecessor, which proved too well built to fully disassemble. Wikimedia

10. There have been four different lighthouses on Eddystone Rocks

Eddystone Rocks lie about 12 miles south-southwest of Plymouth Sound, one of the finest natural harbors in Great Britain and for centuries a strategically important naval facility and anchorage. During spring tides the Rocks are completely submerged and they were the cause of innumerable shipwrecks, both on the Rocks themselves and in the shoals of the French coast, where mariners trying to avoid them found themselves. The first attempt to build a lighthouse on the Rocks began in 1696, by Henry Winstanley, though his efforts were impeded by a French privateer who took him prisoner and destroyed the work in progress. Louis XIV ordered Winstanley freed, commenting, “France is at war with England, not with humanity”. The tower was completed and the light established in 1698. It was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1703, and Winstanley was lost at sea.

A second tower was completed in 1709, which remained in place until it was destroyed by fire in 1755. A third tower, designed by John Smeaton and built of granite blocks secured to each other through dovetail joints was built beginning in 1756. Smeaton’s tower remained in use until 1877, when it began to shake alarmingly in high wave conditions. Erosion beneath the rocks upon which it was based was the cause, and most of the tower was dismantled, though the foundations were too stoutly made to disassemble. They remain in place today. Construction of the fourth Eddystone Light began in 1879, with early work accomplished between the tides. It was completed in 1882, became fully automated in 1982 (the first offshore lighthouse to be automated by Trinity House), and remains in use in the twenty-first century, its beacon shining forth 161 feet above the hazards posed by the Eddystone Rocks.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
A general plan for the lights at South Foreland, site of he first electrically illuminated lighthouse in the world. Wikimedia

11. The first electrically powered lighthouse preceded Edison’s light bulb

By the time Thomas Edison applied for his patent for an improved electric light bulb in 1879, South Foreland Light at the top of the Cliffs of Dover had been warning mariners to avoid the Goodwin Sands using electric light for over four years. The Goodwin Sands is a massive sandbank in the English Channel which over the centuries claimed hundreds of ships, with some historians believing to number over two thousand. Several lights were established along the top of the cliffs to warn mariners of the Goodwin Sands, which shift and move, making their exact location in reference to the stationary lights difficult to establish. The South Foreland Light was a Victorian lighthouse operated by Trinity House and in 1875 it became the first light house in the world to use electricity to power its beacon, warning ships of the proximity of the deadly Goodwin Sands.

Using a technique pioneered by Michael Faraday, South Foreland used steam-powered magnetos to provide electrical power to carbon arc lamps. South Foreland towered over a second lighthouse, which beamed a second signal, and when a mariner lined up the two lights he knew he was able to negotiate the far end of the sandbank. Some historians dispute the nature of the relationship between the two lighthouses, and the destruction of Trinity House records and logs during the London Blitz has left much of the information about this critical lighthouse veiled in the fog of history. But it is indisputable that the use of electrical power for beneficial lighting was applied at South Foreland, one of the first times it was ever done, if not the first time. A rotating device to allow the light to appear to flash to observers at sea was installed in 1904. The South Foreland Light was deactivated by Trinity House in 1988, and stands today as a tourist attraction.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
A 2005 view of Ireland’s Baily Lighthouse captures the mood of remoteness which surrounds many such installations. Aineolach via Wikimedia

12. Baily Lighthouse in Ireland was once the brightest in the world

Baily Lighthouse is situated on a spit of land called Howth Head in Dublin. As with many lighthouses it is not the first to have been erected on the site, an important part of the sea lanes to enter the port of Dublin. The first was erected in the late 1660s under letters of patent from King Charles II. It was a short tower which held an open coal fire, and parts of the original facility remain. In the 1790s it was converted to burn oil, using six lamps backed by parabolic mirrors, with the light focused through a glass pane towards the open sea. In 1814 the lighthouse was moved to a new location, a taller tower was erected, and a more powerful lamp installed, providing a brighter signal over an extended range. The several incidents of collisions and shipwrecks in the area, often caused by heavy fog which obscured the signal, led to the installation of fog bells to supplement the light.

In 1865, notable improvements were made to the lighthouse which included the installation of a recently patented gas burning light. To support it, a gas plant was erected on the premises which manufactured gas from shale and eventually from coal. The new lamp, which its inventor John Richardson Wigham called a crocus burner, provided illumination more than a dozen times brighter than any other known source of artificial illumination, making Baily Lighthouse at the time the most powerful beacon in the world. The light was so successful that the system was installed in several other lighthouses in Ireland and across Great Britain. Baily Lighthouse was converted to electric light in 1972 and automated in 1996, the last of the Irish lighthouses to be rendered fully automatic, though an attendant retains a presence on the premises.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
The Cape Henry lighthouses in Virginia have guided mariners since 1792, when the original (right) was the first project of the federal government. Wikimedia

13. Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first project of the federal government under the Constitution

The Virginia Capes of Henry and Charles are the north and south entrances into the Chesapeake Bay, with Cape Henry being the location where the Jamestown settlers first came ashore in the New World. In 1792 the construction of a lighthouse on Cape Henry was considered so critical to the growth of the new nation by its new government that a contract was let out to build one, the first federal construction project launched by the United States government. The lighthouse was built of native sandstone, with a diameter of 26 feet at its base, rising to a height of 90 feet. Like most of America it was traumatized by the Civil War, damaged by Confederate soldiers when they withdrew before Union troops, and by Union prisoners who had been held there. Union soldiers repaired the damage and restored the light, which was needed by the Union fleet.

In 1870 the tower was struck by lightning and concerns over the stability of the nearly eighty year old lighthouse led to the construction of second lighthouse nearby. The taller tower was completed in 1881, a little more than 100 yards from its predecessor, which remained standing. The newer lighthouse stands almost sixty feet taller than the original lighthouse, and possessed a more powerful lamp. It was fully automated in 1983 and remains as a navigational beacon, though the more modern means of navigation render it more or less useful only to recreational boaters and sailors. The original Cape Henry Lighthouse was stabilized and remains open to the public, with a wrought iron staircase to the top for those willing to make the climb. While both lighthouses were remotely located when built, they are contained within the city of Virginia Beach today.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
Point Lookout Lighthouse is considered by those who consider such things to be the most haunted lighthouse in the United States. Fox News

14. Many lighthouses are claimed to be haunted

Lighthouses are often located in remote areas prone to fog and heavy mist. By design they are looming structures with few windows, and those no longer in service are often surrounded by crumbling service buildings, on lots overrun by weeds. They are located in areas where the sea is often troublesome to sailors, with crashing, heavy surf, and a reputation for shipwrecks. As such they are prime candidates for a haunting, and a favorite target of those who believe in ghosts and the paranormal. Tales of ghostly encounters in lighthouses are repeated around the world. Some focus on strange deaths within the lighthouse among the keepers and their families. Others are centered on the ghost of dead sailors whose ships foundered on the seas because they could not see the light or hear the fog warnings. Still others are of suicides who used the tower’s height to propel them to their deaths on the rocks below.

Haunted lighthouses abound in the Great Lakes, and the relatively recent movement to purchase a disused lighthouse from the government’s inventory for use as a permanent residence has done little to quell the tales of ghosts. Great Britain has its share of haunted lighthouses in Cornwall, Penzance, Dover, and elsewhere. Many lighthouses in Great Britain and the United States have been featured on television programs which purport to investigate such things as ghosts and spiritual presences. Many of the lighthouses around the United States which have claims to being haunted have been converted to Bed and Breakfast Inns, inviting their guests to spend an evening or two with the spirits in residence, perhaps fortified with spirits for sale. Others have become museums for tourists, who are warned of the possibility of a spiritual intrusion while enjoying their tour of the facility.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
Remote located and swept by wind and surf, Halfway Rock Light in Casco Bay could be the ultimate private residence, with emphasis on private. Lighthouse Friends

15. Halfway Rock is among the most remote lighthouses in the world

A barren rock shelf halfway between Cape Elizabeth to the southwest and Cape Small to the northwest opposite the former is the location of Halfway Rock Light, which marks the entrance to Maine’s Casco Bay. The rock upon which the lighthouse sits is ten feet above the tide line at high tide, but difficult to see in Maine’s often gray, foggy weather. After several ships went aground on the rock it was determined that a light was a necessity and in 1871 a light finally told mariners of the location of the rock shelf, as well as allowing them to plot their location in relation to the aforementioned capes. In 1887 the facility was expanded to include fog bells, since the light was often obscured by the density of the fog. In 1905 a steam horn replaced the bells. The lighthouse keepers originally lived within the tower, later, quarters outside of the tower were built.

Halfway Rock was considered so remote that the Coast Guard considered it “stag duty”. Married men were discouraged from working there, since their spouses could not accompany them. Halfway Rock was desolate, remote, often cheerless, and the only reward for the lighthouse keepers was the bleak beauty of Casco Bay, a decidedly acquired taste. In 1975 the lighthouse was fully automated and the keepers were removed once and for all. In 1988 Halfway Rock Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it has since been purchased by private interest intent on restoring the lighthouse and its outbuildings for their own use. They were no doubt aware that in 1883 one of the keeper’s assigned to the rock on which the lighthouse stands grew so weary of the isolation that he refused to speak to his team mates for weeks, and was eventually forced to resign after being designated a security and safety risk.

16 Tales that Make these Historic Lighthouses Unexpectedly Interesting
A French artist’s 1880 depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria, based on the descriptions left behind by Arabs who had visited the tower. Wikimedia

16. The Pharos of Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world

Approximately three centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, the Egyptians at Alexandria built a lighthouse which stood more than 300 feet in height, making it one of the tallest structures in the world for many centuries. It stood for more than a millennium, which is difficult to grasp in an age where buildings such as football stadiums and office complexes are determined to be obsolete after fifty years or so. It was built over a period of about 12 years, its intent to light the entrance to the harbor at Alexandria, itself founded by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. At the top of the great tower, which was constructed of limestone blocks stood a furnace, from which flames could be seen for great distances by sailors in the eastern Mediterranean. The tower also contained a great mirror which could be used to reflect sunlight during the daytime hours as a guide to sailors.

In the tenth century the lighthouse was severely damaged by successive earthquakes, and eventually the remnants of its ruins were obscured. It became to many the subject of myth, until in 1968 it was rediscovered by a UNESCO expedition of marine archaeologists. What was left of the ruins of the lighthouse were discovered on the seabed in Alexandria’s harbor, and by late in the twentieth century some of the ruins had been recovered and were on public display. Other ruins remain in place, accessible to recreational divers. The ancient Pharos of Alexandria was one of the tallest lighthouses ever built, purportedly to guide sailors into Alexandria so that they could avoid the ship wreckers of the island of Pharos. More than two thousand years later people still resort to lighthouses, as navigational aids, architectural examples, ghoulish entertainment, or a simple visit to the past.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hook Head Lighthouse”. John Eagle, Lighthouse Digest. October, 2001

“Boston Light, the Cursed Lighthouse of Boston Harbor”. The New England Historical Society. 2017. Online

“Smalls Lighthouse”. Trinity House, Lighthouses and light-vessels. Online

“Trinity House History: Official History Blog of Trinity House of Deptford Strand and its lighthouse service, incorporated 1514”. Online

“Lighthouses of Germany: the Bodensee”. Russ Rowlett, The Lighthouse Directory, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Lighthouses of Germany: Cuxhaven and Stade”. Russ Rowlett, The Lighthouse Directory, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Civil War High Commands”. David J. Eicher and John H. Eicher. 2001

“1994 Inventory of Historic Light Stations”. National Maritime Service, United States Department of the Interior. 1994

“Eddystone Lighthouse”. Trinity House, Lighthouses and Light-vessels. Online

“Michael Faraday: His Life and Work”. Silvanus Thompson. 1901

“Lighthouses of Eastern Ireland (Leinster)”. Russ Rowlett, The Lighthouse Directory, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“The Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont”. Edited by Richard Guy Wilson. 2002

“Haunted Lighthouses: Phantom Keepers, Ghostly Shipwrecks, and Sinister Calls from the Deep”. Ray Jones. 2010

“Cumberland man works to restore his own private lighthouse”. Tux Turkel, Portland Press Herald. July 10, 2016

“The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”. Paul Jordan. 2002

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