The Coast Guard Helps
Light the Way for Mariners
By DAVID F. WINKLER
On Jan. 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act passed by Congress eight
days earlier that combined the Revenue Cutter Service,
which had been established on Aug. 4, 1790, and the
Life Saving Service, which had been created on June
18, 1878, to form the U.S. Coast Guard. In ensuing
years, the Coast Guard would absorb additional components of the nation’s marine safety infrastructure,
such as the Lighthouse Service (1939) and the Bureau
of Marine Inspection (1946).
Given the legacy of the Revenue Cutter Service during the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Coast Guard
rightfully zeros in on the date in 1790 that Congress
authorized the Treasury Department to construct 10
vessels to enforce customs laws as its institutional
However, with the incorporation of the Lighthouse
Service into the Coast Guard in 1939, the historical
roots of the organization actually extend back another
year to Aug. 7, 1789, when Congress placed the control of the new nation’s dozen colonial vintage lighthouses under the Treasury Department.
As the United States expanded during the 19th century, so did its coastline. According to the World
Resources Institute, the United States trails only
Canada in length of coastline.
However, because much of Canada’s shore fronts the
Arctic, it is the United States that leads the world with
more than 1,000 lighthouses constructed to warn
mariners away from dangerous shoals or guide them
into safe havens.
Seventy-six years after George Lakeworthy, the
nation’s first keeper, lit Boston Island Lighthouse in
1716, the first federally constructed lighthouse was lit
at Cape Henry, Va., at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
George Washington signed the construction contracts
and appointment letter for the first keeper for the
nation’s first public works project. Following the Gold
Rush and California statehood, the first West Coast
lighthouse opened in San Francisco Bay on Alcatraz
Island in 1854.
Most locations requiring lighthouses were not located within protected harbors near civilization. Wave-swept offshore rock outcroppings provided some of the
more dangerous engineering and construction challenges.
SEAPOWER / AUGUST 2013 46
For example, one mile off Cohasset, Mass., astride
the entrance to Boston harbor, a granite outcrop
named Minot’s Ledge represented a serious hazard to
navigation. Between 1832 and 1841, the rocks claimed
40 vessels with serious loss of life.
An initial lighthouse built atop of iron poles was swept
away in 1851. Eventually, the remains of that structure
would be replaced by a 114-foot-tall masonry tower that
took five years to build. At first, workers could only work
at low tide on the calmest days as the initial interlocking
granite blocks were put into place. In 1860, the new light
was lit and this beacon remains in place 153 years later.
The wreck of SS City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901 off San
Francisco with a loss of 128 lives led to the construction of a tower atop of Mile Rocks located off the
Golden Gate. With workers initially climbing off small
boats onto a seaweed- and barnacle-covered rock, a
1,500-ton concrete and steel foundation was laid for a
wedding-cake-style steel tower.
Getting to and from the tower proved to be one of
the toughest commutes in America. Small craft maneuvered in 15-foot swells under a rope ladder that hung
from a boom that extended out from the tower. In
1966, the top layers of the wedding cake were removed
for a helicopter pad and the light was automated.
While America’s network of beacons no doubt saved
innumerable lives, the operation of them also cost the
lives of many fine public servants starting with
Lakeworthy, who drowned in 1718 when a boat taking
him ashore from Boston Island Lighthouse capsized.
The storm that took down the original Minot’s Ledge
Lighthouse also claimed the lives of its two keepers.
Seas were not the only danger keepers faced. As recently as 1983, keepers at the Cape Saint Elias Lighthouse in
Alaska were chased by bears.
Although, automation gradually eliminated the
need for keepers, the requirement to maintain these
beacons does come with dangers. It’s one of the many
types of risks taken daily by the men and women serving in the Coast Guard. ■
Source: Ralph E. Eshelman, Ph.D. “Beacons,” The Coast Guard,
Tom Beard, ed. Foundation for Coast Guard History (2004).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian for the Naval Historical