Education · Kate's Corner · News


Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef on the edge of New York Harbor.

Have you crossed a bridge or ridden on a highway for which you paid a toll? That money collected helped pay the cost of building that bridge or highway.

Tolls paid by ship owners helped build the first lighthouse in the American colonies in 1716. “By virtue of an Act of Assembly in the First Year of His Majesty’s Reign, For Building & Maintaining a Light House upon the Great Brewster (called Beacon-Island) at the entrance to the Harbour of Boston, in order to prevent loss of Lives & estates of His Majesty’s Subjects: the said Light House has been built; And on Fryday last . . . the Light was kindled, which will be very useful for all Vessels going out and coming in the Harbour of Boston, or any other harbours to the Massachusetts Bay, for which all Masters shall pay to the receiver of Impost, One Pen[n]y per Ton Inwards, and another Peny Outwards, except Coasters, who are to pay Two Shillings each, at the clearance Out. And all Fishing Vessels, Wood Sloops, etc., Five Shillings each by the Year.”

Boston by JCC
Boston Harbor Light Station. Photo by Candace Clifford

Twelve lighthouses were built in the colonies before independence, six of them in Massachusetts:

Boston Light 1716, Massachusetts
Brant Point Light 1748, Massachusetts
Beavertail Light 1749, Rhode Island
New London Light 1760, Connecticut
Sandy Hook Light 1764, New Jersey
Cape Henlopen Light 1767, Delaware
Charleston (Morris Island) Light 1767, South Carolina
Plymouth Light 1768, Massachusetts
Portsmouth Light 1771, New Hampshire
Cape Ann Light 1771, Massachusetts
Nantucket (Great Point) Light 1784, Massachusetts
Newburyport Light 1788, Massachusetts

Each of the 12 colonial lighthouses was financed by the colony in which it was located.

The new Congress of the United States, however, decreed “That all expenses which shall accrue from and after the 15th day of August 1789, in the necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers erected, placed, or sunk before the passing of this Act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States . . ..”

Shipping must have been really important in those days for the new Congress to assume responsibility for all aids to navigation.

“The states, however, wary of a central government, dragged their heels and it wasn’t until 1797 (eight years after passage of the Act) that all the colonial lighthouses were turned over to the fledgling government.” (Isn’t it wonderful, the stuff you can find on the Society’s website?)

Information from Boston News-Letter, September 17, 1716; Holland, Ross, America’s Lighthouses; “History of the Administration of the Lighthouses in America” by Wayne Wheeler

Submitted July 27, 2017

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