One of the first known lighthouses was also the greatest and most famous of all lighthouses. It was built in 285 BC at Alexandria, Egypt, on an island at the entrance to the city’s harbor.
This lighthouse, called the Pharos of Alexandria, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was over 440 ft tall and stood for 1500 years, until it was destroyed by an earthquake.
The Romans constructed lighthouses in several harbors, as far away from Rome as Dover in Britain. One of Italy’s most famous lighthouses was built in 1161. Located at Genoa, this lighthouse was manned in 1449 by Antonio Columbus, uncle of famous explorer Christopher Columbus.
Extensive lighthouse construction did not occur in modern times until the 17th century. Prior to that time, most lighthouses were harbor lights serving as homing beacons so boats could safely find their way into port.
Beginning in the 17th century, however, as travel on the high seas increased, major coastal lighthouses were constructed to warn mariners of dangerous rocks, reefs, and currents. Twelve lighthouses were constructed in Britain’s American colonies in the 18th century. The first was built in 1716 in Boston Harbor.
By 1900 nearly 1,000 lighthouses, both coastal and harbor types, had been built in the United States. Although estimates vary, as many as 50,000 lighthouses may exist in the world today. At the end of the 20th century most of these lighthouses were either automated or abandoned. Before the use of electric beacons, the lighthouse keeper had to keep the gas beacon lit, clean the reflecting mirrors, and remove soot from the tower windows.
With the introduction of automated electric beacons, the lighthouse keeper became all but obsolete. In addition, modern satellite-based navigational systems that can be installed on ships of all sizes have replaced the lighthouse as a primary navigational aid.
Today, lighthouses that have been automated are used primarily as backups for marine navigation, while many other lighthouses are no longer in operation. Some national governments have turned control of these abandoned structures over to local governments and nonprofit organizations. In many cases, abandoned lighthouses are being turned into parks, museums, inns, and research and educational centers.
The Newburyport Harbor Range Lights
The Newburyport Harbor Front and Rear Range Lights were built in 1873 to help mariners navigate up the Merrimack River from the ocean to the wharves of Newburyport. In that year, the Lighthouse Board reported:
Two range lights to guide up the River Merrimack to the city of Newburyport have been established in the same position as the private lights before maintained by subscription, and were lighted June 1, 1873. The front light is on an iron tower, conical in form, 14 feet six inches high, located on Bayley’s new wharf, and the focal plane is 25 feet above the sea. The rear light tower is about 350 feet – from the front light, on a brick tower, pyramidal in form, 32 feet high, and the focal plane is 47 feet above the sea.
Prior to this, perhaps as early as the 1600s, and certainly during the 1700s and early 1800s, a large oak tree on High Street, know as the “Beacon Oak” served as a marker for ships coming up the channel. Attached to the top of its massive trunk was a pole surmounted by a copper cask, and later a weathervane. This prominent landmark collapsed of old age in 1833.
In 1788, one of America’s earliest lighthouses, the Newburyport Harbor Lighthouse, was built on the sandy beaches of the north end of Plum Island in order that ships could locate the Merrimack River entrance from the sea. Two years later, in 1790, the first Revenue Cutter ship was built in Newburyport to patrol and protect our nations’ shores. The first ship established the beginning of America’s Revenue Cutter Service, the oldest branch of what would later become the U.S. Coast Guard. That is why today Newburyport is considered the birthplace of America’s Coast Guard.
During the mid-1800s a number of aids to navigation were constructed in the middle of the Merrimack River to lead ship to the downtown wharves. Black Rock Beacon and the Newburyport Piers Lights were all mid-stream markers designed to aid sailors in navigating up the river.
At about this time, a pair of privately built and maintained range lights were constructed at the same site as the present range lights. These were apparently damaged by ice floes during a spring flood, which prompted the community to petition the government for a new pair of federally operated lighthouses in 1871. The following year, the 42nd Congress approved $10,000 and remained operational until decommissioned in 1961.