Jul 1

Consolidation of the Lighthouse Service with the Coast Guard: July 1, 1939

Sunday, July 1, 2012 1:00 AM


Boston Light, America's First Lighthouse



ON JULY 1, 1939, two of the oldest government maritime services were combined-the U. S. Coast Guard and the U. S. Lighthouse Service. The former has been under the Treasury Department and the latter in recent years was a bureau of the Department of Commerce. Officially, this merger is part of the President’s Reorganization Plan No. II, promulgated under the Reorganization Act of 1939 (Public No. 19, 76th Congress). Under this Act, “the duties, responsibilities, and functions of the Commissioner of Lighthouses shall be vested in the Commandant of the Coast Guard,” and all personnel of the Lighthouse Service are consolidated with the Coast Guard personnel. In many cases, Lighthouse Service personnel are given Coast Guard commissions, with ranks corresponding to their previous duties. No reduction in employment is being made, and such economy in personnel as may be possible through the merger will be effected only through voluntary and age retirements.

On July 7, the Bureau of Lighthouses, with all its equipment and staff, was moved from the Department of Commerce Building to Coast Guard Headquarters. For convenience and expedition in the administration and operation of the enlarged Coast Guard, the former Coast Guard divisions and sections and the lighthouse districts have been abolished and replaced by thirteen districts, named in order as follows: Boston, New York, Norfolk, Jacksonville, New Orleans, San Juan, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau, and Honolulu. The officers in charge of these districts are known as district commanders. To provide flexibility in the administration of the Coast Guard,

the commandant may, when in his judgment it is necessary, establish sections within a district and place under the commander of a district units and aids to navigation situated within the limits of an adjacent district.

It is thought that at this time it may not be out of place to describe some of the historical background and activities of the two services, in order to present a picture of the scope, of the duties, and the heritage of the augmented Coast Guard.

The Lighthouse Service

History.-The first lighthouse in this country is over two centuries old, having been established in September, 1716, in Boston Harbor, and now known as Boston Light. This lighthouse was built by the General Court of Massachusetts at the expense of the Province, and was a stone structure,located on Beacon Island. The Boston News Letter reports,

The said Light House has been built; and on Fryday last the 14th Currant the Light was kindled, which will be very useful for all Vessels going out and coming in to the Harbour of Boston, or any other Harbours in the Massachusetts Bay …

There were, altogether, 12 of these Colonial lights, namely, Boston, Sandy Hook, Cape Henlopen, Charleston, Cape Ann, Brant Point (Mass.), Beaver Tail (R.I.), New London, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Great Point (Nantucket), and Newburyport. These lights, with others completed later) were taken over from the states by the Federal government on August 7, 1789, which marks the official beginning of the Lighthouse Service, just 150 years ago. In celebration of this, the President proclaimed the week of August 7, 1939, as Lighthouse Week.

The maintenance of lighthouses, buoys, and other aids to navigation was under the supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton having been designated as the first superintendent of Lighthouses. The lighthouse work remained under the Secretary of the Treasury or his assistants until 1852, when the United States Lighthouse Board was organized, consisting of army and navy officers and civilians, all under the nominal direction of the Secretary of the Treasury.

It is interesting to note that from 1789 to 1903 the Lighthouse Service was supervised by the Treasury Department, which was also directing the Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service, forerunners of the present Coast Guard; and that the Lighthouse Service has now been returned to the Treasury Department.

On July 1, 1903, the Lighthouse Service was transferred to the newly organized Department of Commerce and Labor, but the Lighthouse Board was continued for administration purposes. In 1910, the Lighthouse Board was replaced by the Bureau of Lighthouses, under the Department of Commerce.

Lighthouses.-The development of lighthouses has been marked by great engineering skill, many of the structures having been erected under the most adverse conditions. The first lighthouse on Minots Ledge, off Boston, was 3 years under construction. The rock was bare only at low water and was exposed to the sea on all sides. Great difficulty was encountered in drilling holes for the piles. The lighthouse was destroyed by a storm only a year after its completion. The second lighthouse on the same site required 5 years to build, beginning in 1855, and is still in use. Three years were spent in cutting the rock to the required shape before any foundation work could be started, and during the first year it was possible to work only 130 hours. There are 1,079 stones in the Minots Ledge tower. Most of the lighthouses were masonry towers, but in later years iron, steel, or concrete structures were used.

Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse, built in 1850 in Delaware Bay, was the first screw pile lighthouse constructed in the United States, a type used on sandy bottoms. The structure was supported on 9 screw piles with blades 3 feet in diameter, which were bored 6 feet into the sand by turning. To protect against ice damage, the lighthouse was guarded by a screw pile icebreaker. Ice has always been a source of concern to the Lighthouse Service, constant attention being required to maintain the aids to navigation. Partly as a result of ice damage, a new lighthouse was later erected adjacent to the old structure on Brandywine Shoal. This is also the first of its type in this country, and consists of a concrete cylinder resting on piles, above which is a concrete building for the keepers’ quarters and lantern.

On soft coral rock, special iron piles are used for the foundation. These piles are driven into the rock until shoulders on the piles bear on large disks or “washers” which distribute the load over the rock. The tower, usually an open framework, is placed over the foundation. The first lighthouse constructed in this fashion was Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, 1852.

In general, lighthouses on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are necessarily tall, due to the low elevation of the coast line. Cape Charles and Hog Island, Virginia, have the tallest towers, the lanterns being 191 feet above the base, and the heights above sea level are only a few feet more. On the other hand, due to the generally higher coast line on the Pacific Ocean, the towers on the west coast need not be very high, in fact, only 4 lighthouses exceed 100 feet in height. San Nicolas Island Light, California, although a low tower, has its light 556 feet above the sea.

Early lighthouses were illuminated by open fires of wood or coal, obviously very hazardous as well as unreliable. Most lighthouses had whale oil, vegetable oils, lard oil, or kerosene for lighting. Tybee Island, Georgia, was commissioned in 1791 with candles as the illuminant, this being the only instance of candles having been used in a lighthouse in this country. The following year it experienced a bad fire, and the report at the time states,

… about 2 o’clock in the morning the negro that trimmed the lites went up to trim them and he discovered the lanthorn in flames he cry’d out the litehouse was on fier i jump’d up and run up Stairs … the glass and sinders was fawling so thick and it was so very hot i was not able to tarry half a moment and i saw it was in vain to attempt to save it.

In 1841 the first Fresnel lens was installed at Navesink, New Jersey. This resulted in a greatly increased brilliancy in the light, together with the ability to direct the light into beams, with reduced fuel consumption. Accordingly, beginning in 1852, a program was started to replace the old reflectors with Fresnel lenses, a task which took about 7 years. The largest lens in service is at Makapuu Point, Hawaii, having an inside diameter of about 9 feet, enclosed in a lantern 16 feet in diameter. This light, however, has only 150,000 candle power, and is far exceeded in brilliancy by Navesink Light, with 9,000,000 candle power.

In 1916 the installation of electric lighting was begun on a large scale. This is the current illuminant, although there are still some oil and oil vapor lamps in service. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in automatic or unattended lights. Many of these burn continuously night and day, while others employ remote control operation using electric lights, and others are acetylene gas lights with photoelectric control.

Lightships.-The earliest lightships were small boats, which were equipped with a mast or tower surmounted by a light. They had no crews at first, but were visited daily to light and extinguish the light. The first was established in 1820, off Craney Island in Hampton Roads. By 1852, there were 38 light vessels in service, but by 1885 this number was reduced to 22, as many of the boats on protected stations were replaced by lighthouses due to the unreliability of the “lightboats” as they were then called.

The first iron light vessel was built in 1882 for the New Jersey seacoast. Composite steel and wood vessels were also built, but now all are constructed of steel. In 1891 propelling machinery was introduced to aid the vessels in keeping station in heavy weather, as well as to provide for emergency operation in the event of loss of the mooring. It was also convenient to have power for proceeding back to port for dry-docking and repairs. All self­propelled lightships had steam propulsion until recently, when new construction provided for direct Diesel and Diesel-electric machinery. The installation of Diesel power was undertaken on many of the older existing vessels, some of which were 35 years old. The latest lightship, for Cornfield Point, in Long Island Sound, replaces the last lightship without propelling engines regularly to occupy a station, with the exception of the radio controlled Lake St. Clair Lightship, on the Great Lakes. At the present time there are about 40 lightships in service, which maintain lights on 30 stations.

Other vessels operated by the Lighthouse Service are the fleet of about 60 tenders, ranging from about 60 to 200 feet in length. These vessels have the arduous duties of maintaining and inspecting buoys, lighthouses, and lightships.

Buoys.–Buoys comprise about half the total number of aids to navigation maintained by the United States. The first buoys were wood spar buoys and another type built up of staves resembling a barrel. In 1850 iron can buoys were introduced followed in 1900 by tall can and nun buoys. During the last half of the nineteenth century bell buoys and gas lighted buoys were tried, but it was not until 1910 that satisfactory lighted buoys were operated. Some of the lighted buoys are extremely large, being about 60 feet long, weighing 17 tons. Most of them burn acetylene gas and can operate without attention for many months–on one occasion a buoy off Cape Cod burned about a year and a half without having been extinguished. Electrically lighted buoys are now being introduced, having dry cells in the base.

Radio beacons and fog signals.–The introduction of radio beacons greatly enhanced the service rendered to navigation, the first successful installations having been made near New York in 1921. Most of the radio beacons are maintained on lighthouses or lightships, and there are now almost 150 stations so equipped. Among the forms of fog signals in use are compressed air and electrically operated horns, whistles, sirens, oscillators, and bells. A large number of buoys are fitted with either bells, gongs, or whistles, and serve as fog signals. Submarine signals are in use at a few stations.

Rescues.–Because of the exposed location of lighthouses and lightships, and the careful watches in effect, the personnel of the Lighthouse Service have made many rescues and rendered assistance where other agencies were not immediately available. The fact that such incidents are purely voluntary and not part of the regular duties makes them the more creditable. The men of the service have distinguished themselves in innumerable cases of strandings, collisions, fires, hurricanes, floods, winter exposure.

The Coast Guard

History.–The Coast Guard in name is only 24 years old, but its service started with the organization of the Federal Government. It began as the U. S. Revenue Marine by the Act of July 31, 1789, and was charged,

. . . to regulate the collection of duties imposed by law on the tonnage of ships or vessels, and on goods, wares and merchandises imported into the United States.

The next year, August 4, 1790, funds were provided for the construction of 10 vessels about 36 to 40 feet long. Thus the Revenue Cutter Service started under the Treasury Department, where it has remained ever since, although for short periods its vessels were assigned to the Navy Department even as early as 1798, when the original 10 cutters were placed at the disposal of the Secretary of the Navy for 2 years during the French hostilities. The revenue cutters were also engaged in war duty during the War of 1812, Seminole War, Civil War, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, and World War, as well as in a few minor hostilities.

In 1799 an appropriation was made for 10 additional cutters, and at the same time added powers were granted to enforce the customs laws. Authority was given to board and search vessels, an ensign was established for the service, and vessels refusing to heave to on demand from a vessel flying the ensign were subject to being fired upon.

Lifesaving, now one of the major Coast Guard services, was at first conducted by the Massachusetts Humane Society in 1785. An Act of December 22, 1837, authorized vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service, and others, to operate on the coast in severe weather to render aid to navigation and seamen, and in 1848 appropriation was made for surf boats and rockets to protect the New Jersey coast; later this was extended to other areas.

In 1871 Congress set up a separate organization as part of the Revenue Marine Service to supervise this work, and in 1878 the Life Saving Service was made an independent unit within the Treasury Department, the Revenue Cutter Service remaining for its original purpose of customs regulation.

On January 28, 1915, the two units were brought together again and the name “Coast Guard” adopted. Two years later, however, the Coast Guard was placed under the Navy Department during the World War, during which time the torpedoing of the cutter Tampa was America’s greatest naval loss, 113 having perished.

Since the World War the Coast Guard has increased on a tremendous scale, as a result chiefly of the need of preventing smuggling due to prohibition, for which it was necessary to build a large number of fast vessels. Now, especially with the addition of the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard forms an organization equalled by no other of its type in the world.

Coast Guard functions.–The primary duty of the Coast Guard is concerned with the safety of life and property at sea and the enforcement of all Federal laws thereon. This work is carried out by various types of cruising cutters and patrol boats, integrated by the efficient communications system, centered at Washington, reaching to the various districts and to individual vessels. When marine accidents take place near shore, the Coast Guard stations may also render assistance, either by reporting the trouble so that cutters may be dispatched or effecting the rescue by surf and lifeboats, line throwing equipment, and breeches buoys, from the beach.

These services are available on inland waters and the Great Lakes as well, and are taxed to the utmost during floods, at which times men and boats are brought to the scene with expedition from distant points.

In addition to assistance in cases of distress, the Coast Guard maintains the International Ice Patrol, to make surveys of ice conditions in the North Atlantic, and to keep shipping informed of the location of icebergs. This service, the expense of which is shared by other nations, was inaugurated in 1913 following the sinking of the Titanic through collision with an iceberg. Since then, not a single life has been lost on the North Atlantic as a result of iceberg collisions.

The enforcement of marine laws continues as a major Coast Guard activity, which began with the collection of tonnage dues, but which now includes the prevention of illegal entry of liquor, narcotics, and other prohibited or taxable commodities. The Coast Guard also enforces navigation laws and motorboat regulations through cooperation with the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. Coast Guard cutters are sent to Alaska, the North Pacific Ocean, and the Bering Sea, and have the duty of enforcing the Convention of July 7, 1911, between the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan, for the protection of fur seals. At the same time, medical and dental treatment is given to natives, mail is delivered, transportation provided where other means are lacking, and law enforcement generally in Alaska carried out, with the Coast Guard holding court and administering justice.

Salvage, removal of derelicts, and ice­breaking are undertaken by the Coast Guard where necessary for the safety of navigation. Wrecks are blown up, beached, or salvaged until claimed by owners or private individuals. The policy is not to interfere with commercial salvage facilities after their arrival.

The Coast Guard frequently cooperates with scientific expeditions. The Alexander Hamilton was to go on the voyage of the Carnegie Institution of Washington to the South Seas and the icebreaker Northland on the third expedition to Antarctica. Recently, however, it has become necessary to withdraw these vessels for duties in connection with enforcement of neutrality.

A potential duty of the Coast Guard is to serve as part of the Navy in time of war, and to that end cutters are provided with a basic peace-time battery, but with provisions for additional guns and ammunition for installation as required.

Newly added are the U. S. Maritime Service for training merchant marine personnel, and the Coast Guard Reserve for organizing small boat owners to insure the availability of additional boats for flood and hurricane relief.

Coast Guard vessels.–The vessels of the Coast Guard are necessarily the scene of most of its operations. In design, efforts have always been made to provide the ships and small boats best suited to the various requirements. The result has been the development of a number of specialized types of craft. The Coast Guard has always been a leader in the development of naval architecture and marine engineering and, for example, did pioneer work in welding, electric propulsion, and applications of Diesel power.

The largest vessels operated by the service are known as cruising cutters, about 36 of which are listed. The latest Alexander Hamilton class vessels are 327 feet in length with a speed of over 20 knots. Replacing some former navy destroyers, these ships are very seaworthy and can go anywhere. They are excellent potential naval vessels. having good subdivision and a substantial armament aboard with provision for war-time guns and ammunition. Also known as cruising cutters are the turbo-electric 240-250-foot classes of which the Chelan is typical, as well as the 165-foot geared turbine ice­breaking Escanaba class.

Then there are the 50 harbor craft consisting of two general types–harbor cutters and assistance boats or “AB boats.” The former are substantially tugs, equipped for boarding vessels, patrolling, and icebreaking. Two recently completed 110-foot cutters, the Raritan and Naugatuck, distinguished themselves as ice­breakers on their trial trips on Lake Michigan, when they opened paths in the ice 6 to 15 inches thick, and were slowed down to only about half speed. The Naugatuck was actually stopped in the ice to let photographers board her, and then started again without having to back up to get headway.

There is a group of about 128 vessels known as patrol boats, designed for coast­wise operation, ranging from about 50 to 165 feet in length, the majority of the vessels being the familiar 75-footers of 1924, the 125-foot size built in 1926-27, and the more recent 165-foot Thetis class. Most of the patrol boats range in speed from about 13 to 16 knots but the new 80-foot class is capable of 30 statute miles per hour and the 72-foot type make 35 miles per hour on the same horsepower. These fast types were developed largely as anti-smuggling weapons.

Small boats are the most numerous Coast Guard craft, consisting of some 1,800 surf boats, picket boats, motor life boats, etc., which are scattered all over both coasts, Great Lakes, rivers, and on ships.

Aircraft.–In 1919, when several planes were acquired from the Navy, aviation had its beginning with the Coast Guard. Now there are 54 planes, useful for rescues, particularly in cases of emergency illness on shipboard requiring hospitalization, and for patrol and observation purposes. The Alexander Hamilton class cutters are equipped to carry an amphibian.

Stations.–The Coast Guard has some 200 stations distributed at dangerous locations which are the means of great saving in life and property. Crews are drilled constantly in handling boats in the surf, beach patrols are maintained at all times, lookouts are on duty, and in emergencies crews are prepared to send alarm and put out in a surf boat or rig a breeches buoy.

Academy.–The Coast Guard Academy, which has occupied its present quarters at New London since 1932, has a rank and quality of training comparable with the academies of the Army and Navy.

The Combined Services

From the foregoing it is obvious that the merger of the two organizations is most logical. Both have always been associated with the safety of marine transportation, with the objects of preventing accidents by suitable warnings and providing assistance to life and property if accidents should occur.

To gain an idea of the magnitude of the combined service the following table is presented, representing in round figures, the sizes before the merger:

Lighthouse Service Coast Guard

Total personnel 7,000 10,000

Vessels operated 100 220

Small boats 1,500 1,800

A total of about 29,000 aids to navigation operated by the Lighthouse Service are now under Coast Guard administration. The Coast Guard in one year recorded about 15,000 instances of lives saved, vessels assisted, and other services rendered, and the value of vessels assisted in one year amounts to about $65,000,000.

There will be an improvement in the service rendered to shipping with the two services integrated under one supervision, administration, and communications system, with the facilities of each now mutually available, and with the elimination of duplicated effort. It is to be expected that these two old and essential services will continue to render an even greater degree of maritime service under the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus.” микрозаймы

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