Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lighting Our Way

Magnet # 312:  Lighthouses of the Chesapeake

Material:  Wood, Laminated Paper

Purchased By:  Me

This is National Lighthouse Day, established to commemorate when Congress approved an Act making the federal government responsible for creating and overseeing lighthouses and other maritime structures on August 7, 1789. They also assumed control of all lighthouses already operating in the United States at that time. By doing so, they were able to consolidate all lighthouses under one authority, the Department of the Revenue and later the United States Lighthouse Board, rather than have them scattered among various regions and states. This may have resulted in the creation and preservation of many more lighthouses than we'd otherwise have. By 1792, the first lighthouse built and completed by the federal government, Virginia's Cape Henry Lighthouse, was in use. The first lighthouses were being built on the Great Lakes by 1818. And in 1822, Augustin Fresnel, a French physicist, permanently changed lighthouses all around the world with the creation of his Fresnel lens. His device magnified the light through a series of glass prisms, extending it out more than 20 miles, a then unheard-of distance. Just over two decades later, they began to arrive in the United States. The delay was largely due to the miserly nature of the administrator of the United States Lighthouse Establishment at that time. But when the United States Lighthouse Board was created in 1852, they took the matter very seriously, installing Fresnel lenses in nearly all U.S. lighthouses within a decade. By 1854, lighthouses had reached the Pacific Coast, with the first one being built at Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. During World War I, nearly all lighthouses were temporarily transferred to the Department of War and by 1939, was was then called the United States Lighthouse Service was done away with and control of lighthouses was transferred to the United States Coast Guard. For the most part, they have continued to look after all of the lighthouses in the nation, but they have transferred control of some to other entities, such as the National Park Service. National Lighthouse Day finally came about in the 1980s, when sponsors from the East Coast brought a Bill to Congress that would hold the first observance on August 7, 1989, in honor of the 200th anniversary of when the federal government assumed control of all lighthouses. It passed without difficulty, was signed into law by President Ronald Regan, and has been observed ever since.

Even though lighthouses aren't as critical as they once were, they are still beloved features all over the United States, where there are hundreds of them located in 35 of the 50 states. Michigan has the most, with over 150 past and present - funny, I wouldn't have guessed that a non-coastal state would have so many. Some people travel to lighthouses as I have started traveling to state capitols, hoping to see them all. The United States Lighthouse Society encourages these travelers, offering a lighthouse passport that can be filled with 60 stamps that are available at over 300 lighthouses across the country. And as they fill an entire book, they have the option of sending it off it receive a patch that shows which level they are on - there are four levels in all. If you'd like to find out more, stop by  That sounds like fun, but if it's not for you, perhaps you could consider just checking out your nearby lighthouses or including a stop to one in your next coastal or lake vacation. These structures were once critical to the survival of many and although they have been replaced by new technologies, they remain important and beautiful parts of our country's history - plus a trip to the top can be great exercise that offers a stunning view. Your appreciation and support of these historical sites can help keep them around for generations to come.

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