Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas #1: The Men Who Ran The Lighthouse Service

My name is Josh Liller. Since 2014, I have been the Historian and Collections Manager for the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, operated by the non-profit Loxahatchee River Historical Society. A decade ago I had never visited a lighthouse in my entire life, but I’ve rapidly learned to love lighthouses and their history. You may have read some of my articles in Keeper’s Log or Lighthouse Digest. I’m honored to be invited to contribute articles to USLHS blog. In my column, “Bright Ideas,” I will be sharing stories from my research. A recurring topic will be lighthouse architecture and the engineers behind it.

I maintain a webpage, also called Bright Ideas, where I share information compiled from my personal lighthouse research. My first such project started back in 2015 when I was cataloging lighthouse correspondence from the National Archives. The signatures were often difficult to read so I tried to find a list of Lighthouse District Engineers and Inspectors to match signatures to names based on dates. I couldn’t find an existing list so I compiled the information from the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board. These reports (for most years) are available free online through sources like Google Books and Hathi Trust. The Lighthouse Board was replaced by the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910 so finding the District Superintendents from then until the Coast Guard merger in 1939 wasn’t as easy, although the list is now fairly complete. There is a chronological list by district (note some districts changed over the years, especially in 1910) and also an alphabetical list. The latter includes not only everyone on the chronological list, but also some assistants and those who served on “Special Duty” — i.e. engineers assigned to specific lighthouse projects around 1850. Many of the 600+ people on the alphabetical list have links to their Wikipedia page. Some people served as Engineers and/or Inspectors of multiple districts and/or on more than one occasion.

Although not the District Engineer, Barton S. Alexander served as superintendent of the construction for Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in Massachusetts from 1855 to 1860. He later served as a Union Army engineer during the American Civil War.

One of the big changes the Lighthouse Board instituted upon its permanent establishment in 1852 was establishing Lighthouse Districts for regional management of lighthouses and other aids to navigation. Until 1910, each district had an Engineer and an Inspector. Engineers were Army officers from the Corps of Engineers or Corps of Topographical Engineers. They handled the location and design of aids to navigation, and managed their construction and repair (with project supervision usually delegated). Sometimes one engineer served two adjacent districts at the same time. Inspectors were Navy officers. They handled personnel matters and performed quarterly inspections of each light station in their district.

As part of the reorganization into the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910, district offices were reorganized with a single head Inspector (changed to Superintendent in 1917) with one or two Assistant Superintendents and various support staff. Use of military officers was phased out, except for the three districts that covered the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Those districts were headed by members of the Army Corps of Engineers. While there were no lighthouses on those major inland rivers, there were plenty of smaller aids to navigation to operate and maintain.

In doing the research on the district officers, the same sources also allowed me to compile a list of people who served on the Lighthouse Board, which also includes links to Wikipedia. There is also a chronological list of the Chairman, Engineer Secretaries, and Naval Secretaries of the Lighthouse Board since these are the names you’ll usually see in correspondence. A list of Bureau of Lighthouses officers covers the 1910-1939 period.

Prof. Joseph Henry, LLD, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was one of 20 men who served as Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, but the only one who wasn’t a Navy officer. He was also the Board’s first Scientific Advisor.
(U.S. Lighthouse Society archives)

Prior to 1852, the US Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) had been headed by a Treasury Department official, most (in)famously the long tenure of Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasanton. The Lighthouse Board took over the management of the USLHE in 1852 and consisted of Army engineers, Navy officers, the Secretary of the Treasury, the head of the United States Coast Survey, and often a civilian Scientific Advisor. (In 1903, the USLHE moved to the new Commerce Department so the Secretary of Commerce replaced the Secretary of the Treasury on the Board.) One member, usually a Navy officer, served as Chairman. An Army officer, sometimes the Chief Engineer, served as Engineer Secretary who handled correspondence with the District Engineers and often worked to establish standardized plans. The Naval Secretary corresponded with the District Inspectors. In addition to those serving on the Board, numerous civilian clerks and draftsmen worked for the board.

George Putnam was Commissioner of Lighthouses from 1910 until his retirement in 1935. Except for Stephen Pleasonton, no one individual was in charge of the Lighthouse Service longer than Putnam.
(US Lighthouse Society)

The Bureau of Lighthouses replaced the USLHE in 1910, still in the Department of Commerce. It was a completely civilian organization. Instead of a board, there was a single Commissioner of Lighthouses assisted by a Deputy Commissioner, Chief Clerk, Chief Constructing Engineer, Examiner at Large, Superintendent of Naval Construction, and various division heads.

Click here for a list of the members of the Lighthouse Board

2 thoughts on “Bright Ideas #1: The Men Who Ran The Lighthouse Service

  1. This is a very good history of the management of our lighthouses.

    One thing not mentioned is that photos of almost all of the members of the Lighthouse Board can be found on the USLHS website under History and then under Historical Figures.

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