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.