Education · Kate's Corner · Lighthouse Construction


Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

The earlier lighthouse on Robbins Reef was built of stone, but my tower was built of cast-iron plate. Cast iron became a very useful material in the second half of the 19th century because it was lightweight and watertight. A cast-iron tower could be made in sections, easily transported, and assembled at the site. It could also be taken down, moved, and reassembled. When lighthouses constructed of masonry sank or blew over, having no solid footing, they were often replaced with much lighter cast-iron structures.

A cast-iron tower for Cape Canaveral was begun in 1860, delayed until the end of the Civil War and completed in 1868. In 1894 continued erosion prompted the tower to be disassembled and moved a mile further inland to its present location. Courtesy National Archives

During the Civil War the Confederates took down the cast-iron tower at Bolivar Point in Texas plate by plate. When the war ended, the sections of the tower’s one-inch-thick cast-iron skin were never found, probably having been used to make armaments.

The Boca Grande Rear Range Lighthouse in Florida served as the Delaware Breakwater Rear Range until 1918. When the tower was offered to the various lighthouse districts, the 7th district superintendent claimed it and erected it on Gasparilla Island.

A 191-foot cast-iron, skeletal structure, the tallest of its kind [191 feet], was erected at Cape Charles to guide ships into Chesapeake Bay. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office
The third tower at Cape Charles, Virginia, was built in 1895, while I was at Robbins Reef. According to the 1893 specifications for the metal work at Cape Charles: “It is to be an iron skeleton structure, surmounted by a service room, a watch room with gallery, and a lantern accessible from below by a spiral stairs and an elevator inclosed in a cast-iron cylinder. The skeleton structure will rest upon eight circular foundation disks, which will be anchored to a concrete foundation and the lower belt of the stair cylinder.  It will be composed of columns, sockets, struts, and tension rods, forming a frustum of a regular octagonal pyramid, bounded at the upper end by an architrave, the latter supporting an octagonal service room, a circular watch room, surrounded by an octagonal gallery and a sixteen-sided lantern.” Are some of these terms new to you?

I wondered how they put the huge 1st-order Fresnel lens into such a tall tower. On June 17, 1895, the lens, which had been sent to Baltimore from the general depot on Staten Island, New York, was taken to the station by the tender Jessamine. A hoisting engine was set up, a mast erected on the watch room gallery, with the necessary pulleys and rigging, and the parts of the lens apparatus were hoisted outside the tower into the lantern, where they were properly arranged and bolted together by lampists—men specially trained to assemble and maintain lamps and lenses.

Information from Clifford, Nineteenth-Century Lights, pp. 23, 195; 1895 Annual Report of the U.S. Light-House Board; David Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico; National Archives Record Group 287, Box T683

Submitted September 28, 2017

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One thought on “KATE’S CORNER #11

  1. Kate, Thanks for all the good work and the great information. We appreciate it. If you think about it, Cape Charles is also the second tallest tower in the USA. John Mann Lead Docent Ponce Inlet Lighthouse

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