Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beacon of Light

It has been said that lighthouses, probing the eternal, mysterious sea, are to America what castles are to Europe. Satellite and radio navigational aids have rendered lighthouses obsolete to big shippers and sophisticated recreational mariners. But to owners of small boats, a lighthouse is still a valuable visual aid, a welcome site in a storm, and a guide past treacherous rocks, reefs, and shoals, just as it was when hardy keepers maintained the lights.

Wood fires illuminated early lighthouses. Arrays of candles arranged in tiers, and coal in brazier pans, were also tried. Then came whale and fish oil lamps, which produced a terrible stench. Even worse was colza oil from rapeseed. It wasn't until French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel revolutionized the lighthouse in 1822 with a system that took advantage of the refractive properties of glass. The Fresnel lens bent a single light source inside a beehive of glass prisms into powerful sheets visible up to twenty-two miles away. This gave way to the beginning of the Fourth Order to the First Order Fresnel lens that we hear of today. The old Lighthouse Service designed a different signaling pattern for each and every light. In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about wartime readiness, placed light stations under the Coast Guard. The move spelled the end of the Lighthouse Service and to the staffing of most towers.

Even the sturdiest of lighthouses could not survive all the ravages of nature and man. Some have succumbed to relentless erosion. Ice floes took out others. Before park services and historical societies came to the rescue, the Coast Guard rapidly decommissioned lighthouses, leaving them to whatever fate might befall them.

During the heyday of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, when 1,462 light stations ringed America's shorelines, Fresnel lenses were brought to a depot on Staten Island, New York, where they were assembled for shipment to light stations around the country. Abandoned in the 1960's, the facility sat idle until 1999, when the site, with a spectacular Manhattan view, was selected for a new national lighthouse museum.

But each lighthouse is its own treasured historic curiosity. These towers' austere beauty, keepers' lonely stories, and fanciful tales of lighthouse hauntings have inspired books and poems, paintings, collectibles, license plates, and postage stamps. Many structures remain endangered, but the nation's affection for these beacons in the night shines brightly.

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