Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas #4: William Franklin

William B. Franklin
as a Union Army Major General
(Library of Congress)

A native of York, Pennsylvania, William Buel Franklin graduated West Point at the top of the Class of 1843. His classmates included William F. Raynolds and Ulysses S. Grant. Franklin spend his entire antebellum service in the Corps of Topographic Engineers. He worked on various surveys in the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast, taught at West Point, and supervised the expansion of the Capitol and Treasury Buildings. During the Mexican War he was on the staff of General Wool and participated in the Battle of Buena Vista.

Before and simultaneous to his engineering work on the Washington federal buildings, Franklin held several important positions in the Lighthouse Service. He was the first Engineer (1852) and first Inspector (1852-1856) of the 1st Lighthouse District, embracing the state of Maine – the state that would eventually have more light stations than any other, except Michigan. Franklin was also 2nd Lighthouse District Engineer (1856-1860). Overlapping these positions, Franklin was also the Lighthouse Board’s Engineer Secretary (1857-1859).

Cape Ann Lighthouse
(US Coast Guard Historian’s Office
via USLHS Digital Archives)

As District Engineer, Franklin’s most notable contribution was the twin lighthouses at Cape Ann (Thatcher’s Island), Massachusetts. Elements of this design appear to have influenced the postwar design of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was itself the basis for a standardized design used for numerous brick and iron lighthouses in the 1870s.

In Maine, Franklin made numerous successful recommendations for new lighthouses – some to replace inadequate and/or deteriorated structures while others were entirely new. These included Baker Island, Bass Harbor, Brown’s Head, Deer Island Thorofare, and Franklin Island (not named for the engineer). Not all of Franklin’s advice was acted upon. At Matinicus Rock, he recommended a single revolving light, but the Lighthouse Board decided on twin fixed lights instead.

It’s probable that most lighthouses built in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts during Franklin’s time as District Engineer there used his designs, but currently that is difficult to prove. Of over two dozen such lighthouses, the architectural drawings for most of them are not available online from the National Archives or the US Lighthouse Society’s J. Candace Clifford Lighthouse Research Catalog. From the limited information available, Franklin can definitely be credited with the following designs: Boon Island, Franklin Island, Matinicus Rock, Petit Manan, Seguin Island . He probably also designed West Quoddy Head, but no information could be found to confirm this. Many of Franklin’s Maine lighthouses follow the same general design: conical stone towers, grated iron stairs around a central column, and a connected keeper’s dwelling. In addition to lighthouses, he would have designed many keeper dwellings during this period. Further research of the drawings (at the National Archives College Park annex) and/or correspondence between the Lighthouse Board and district office is needed to give William Franklin all the credit he should be due. He may well be one of the most prolific lighthouse engineers in US history. Given his numerous responsibilities, Franklin presumably did not personally supervise construction of any of the lighthouses he designed.

Seguin Island Lighthouse
(USLHS Digital Archive, Herb Entwistle Postcard Collection)

As Engineer Secretary, Franklin apparently also designed the brick-lined iron lighthouse at Cape Canaveral, Florida (not constructed until after the Civil War). He also created a simple standardized design for prefabricated square wooden cottage-style lighthouses on screwpiles. His design, and its slight postwar variations, was used for upwards of 40 lighthouses. These small lighthouses were primarily for rivers, bays, and other shallow areas with sandy or muddy bottoms – particularly Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina sounds.

Also as Engineer Secretary, logic and circumstance indicates Franklin was likely behind the creation of the antebellum Standard Brick Lighthouse Plan. Variations of this plan were used for at least a half dozen lighthouses in the southeast designed between 1857 and 1860. (More will be said about this design in a subsequent column.)

By the out break of the American Civil War in 1861, William Franklin had risen to the permanent rank of Captain in the Topographic Engineers. His Civil War service is generally not well regarded. Franklin commanded a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run and served in the Army of the Potomac for the first half of the war, reaching the rank of Major General of Volunteers. In early 1863, he led a “revolt of the generals” that included fellow former lighthouse engineers William F. Smith and John Newton. The conspirators were successful in getting Ambrose Burnside replaced, but were themselves also removed. Transferred to Louisiana, Franklin was part of the infamous Red River Campaign of early 1864 during which he suffered a debilitating leg injury that effectively ending his military career.

After the war, Franklin moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he was Vice President of the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Company. He also put his antebellum military experience to good use as a civil engineer, most notably with the modern Connecticut State Capitol building. He died in 1903.

Those wishing to learn more about Franklin can read From First to Last: The Life of William B. Franklin by Mark A. Snell.

Special thanks to Jeremy D’Entremont and for help narrowing my search regarding Franklin’s lighthouse projects.

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