Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas #5: Daniel Woodbury and Standard Lighthouse Design

There was not much standardization of early American lighthouses. Masonry towers were generally octagonal, but rarely did the same contractor design or build multiple towers. As engineering techniques improved, conical brick towers became feasible.

The first real step toward a standardized design came from Winslow Lewis. Around 1820, he developed a simple design for a conical brick tower with a distinctive “birdcage” lantern that housed his patented Lewis lamps. The towers varied in height from 30 feet to 65 feet. How many of these towers were built is unclear, as no comprehensive list has been compiled. A Congressional report states that Winslow Lewis built approximately 80 lighthouses between 1827 and 1842 (he built lighthouses outside that time frame as well). Lewis was often the lowest bidder on construction of these lighthouses, but not all of them. Noah Porter and John Donahoo were among the others who occasionally outbid him. Additionally, some other designs were used, even on projects contracted to Lewis.

Ocracoke Lighthouse,
one of the best known examples
of a Winslow Lewis lighthouse
(National Park Service
via USLHS Digital Archives)

Few Winslow Lewis lighthouses survive. Many were poorly located, resulting in their destruction by storms or erosion. In an effort to cut costs, they often had shoddy construction. One common practice was the construction of hollow walls that used less brick. When double walls eventually become the norm for brick lighthouses, they critically included arches and buttresses to connect the inner and outer walls. That was a key architectural element to their stability that early hollow-walled towers usually lacked. In the 1850s, most surviving Winslow Lewis towers were replaced because they were too short to be effective.

When Army engineers began designing lighthouses they used their own personal designs, sometimes evolving those of their predecessors (such as the MeadeRaynolds-Bache family of lighthouses). In 1856 or 1857 the Lighthouse Board decided to adopt a standard plan. The Board’s Engineer Secretary (John G. Parke or William B. Franklin) would have played an important role in this decision. The circumstances are presently unknown, but more information is likely contained in the Journal of the Lighthouse Board (National Archives RG 26 Entry 1 Volume 3).

Antebellum Standard Brick Tower Plan
( National Archives via
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse & Museum)

The resulting design does not appear to have a formal name, but I will retroactively refer to it as the Antebellum Standard Brick Tower Plan. This and other standardized Lighthouse Service plans are in the National Archives College Park Annex Cartographic Department which unfortunately have not been digitized online. Fortunately, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse had a copy which they kindly shared.

The Antebellum Standard Brick Tower Plan features double walls, a staircase around a central column, and a brick apron that corbels or flares out to support the gallery deck. Attached to the base is a two-story structure with an oil house on the bottom and work room on top.

The design seems to have originated, at least in part, from a somewhat obscure source. Bogue Banks Lighthouse was completed in 1855 to serve as a rear range light for Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. It did not last long, being blow up by Confederates early in the Civil War to clear the field of fire for nearby Fort Macon. The short, cylindrical brick included an attached two-story support structure, a similar foundation, and a central column. Its designer was Capt. Daniel Woodbury.

Daniel P. Woodbury
(Library of Congress)

Daniel Phineas Woodbury graduated 6th in the West Point class of 1836. After brief service in the artillery, he transferred to the Corps of Engineers and spent most of his career working on fortifications. He designed the the Bogue Banks Range Lights because he was already assigned to make improvements Fort Macon and also to Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Additionally, Woodbury was assigned as the first Inspector of the 6th Lighthouse District and, in the absence of an official District Engineer during this time, essentially filled that role as well.

In addition to Bogue Banks, Woodbury also designed the little Cockspur Island Lighthouse near Savannah, Georgia. Although its design was not much different from earlier single-walled conical towers, it did include the flared top. Woodbury also designed the second Cape Romain Lighthouse in South Carolina. The design is has some similarities to the Antebellum Standard Brick Tower Plan, including the flared brick apron at the top. However, the tower is octagonal, does not have the attached oil house, and features an first-floor storage room with the tower’s front door being on the second floor.

Dry Tortugas / Loggerhead Key Lighthouse
(National Archives via USLHS Digital Archives)

In 1856, Woodbury was reassigned to the construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas and also put in charge of the new lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key. A preliminary plan for Loggerhead Key had been submitted by Woodbury’s predecessor, Horatio G. Wright. The final design of the Dry Tortugas / Loggerhead Key Lighthouse, presumably a meld of Wright’s draft with Woodbury’s experiences in the 6th District, resulted in the first use of what then became the Antebellum Standard Brick Tower Plan. However, for some reason Woodbury omitted the attached oil house and workroom (that portion is even crossed out on the architectural drawing).

During the Civil War, Woodbury commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Engineer Brigade. In 1863, Brevet Brigadier General Woodbury was placed in charge of Key West where he died the following year from yellow fever.

In the next column I’ll look at how Woodbury’s his successors and peers built upon what he had done.

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