Since ancient times light has been used as a navigational aid for ships. The Egyptian King Ptolemy I ordered the creation of what was probably the world’s first lighthouse, which was completed in 285 B.C. This structure was about four hundred feet tall, and had an open fire as its light source. It was located on the Island of Pharos, and survived for nearly 1,500 years.
Introduced in 1990, the Lighthouses stamp series commemorates “the classic coastal sentinels that reflect our nation’s seafaring past.”
This set of five booklet stamps was issued to celebrate the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s Bicentennial. The Lighthouse Service is still an important part of today’s modern Coast Guard, which also celebrated its bicentennial in 1990. The lighthouses pictured here are Admiralty Head (WA), Cape Hatteras (NC), West Quoddy Head (ME), American Shoals (FL) and Sandy Hook (NJ).
These five stamps depict five historical lighthouses, each from one of the Great Lakes: Spectacle Reef from Lake Huron, Thirty Mile Point on Lake Ontario, Split Rock from Lake Superior, Marblehead on Lake Erie, and St. Joseph on Lake Michigan. Since the early 19th century, these historic lighthouses have aided mariners on the nation’s “inland seas,” which have many of the dangerous features of oceans, including violent storms, gale winds, fog, and ice.
The original Cape Henry Light was abandoned as an active lighthouse in 1881. Despite several cracks in walls six-feet thick at the base, the tower still stands today. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse was painted in 1873 with the black-and-white, diagonally checkered pattern that still identifies it today. Threatened by erosion, the Morris Island Lighthouse was abandoned in 1962. Today, it stands surrounded by water, about 1,600 feet from the shore. The Tybee Island Lighthouse is still an important aid to ships navigating the mouth of the Savannah River. The 70,000-candlepower light can be seen for 18 miles. The Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse is a cast-iron skeleton with a central stair cylinder. It was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition before being erected at Hillsboro Inlet to guard the Florida Reef at Pompano Beach.
Located off California’s northern coast, St. George Reef Lighthouse marks a hazardous reef six miles from California’s shore, near Crescent City. Winchester Bay, Oregon, is the site of the Umpqua River Lighthouse. It was originally lit in 1857 to mark dangerous shifting sandbars that had caused many shipwrecks. Washington’s Gray’s Harbor lighthouse was first lit in 1898 to mark the channel into one of America’s most important lumber ports. Located in fog-prone northern Washington state, the light was also equipped with a windmill that powered two trumpet foghorns. Discovery of gold in the Yukon created a need for the Five Finger Islands Lighthouse in Frederick Sound, Alaska. The island of Oahu, Hawaii, is the site of the Diamond Head Lighthouse, built on the side of an extinct volcano. The lighthouse, which stands 147 feet above sea level, was first lit in 1918.
Lighthouses built along the Gulf Coast of the United States faced two remarkable forces – Mother Nature’s fury plus the devastation of America’s tragic Civil War. The few that survive bear witness to decades of hurricanes, erosion, and man’s attempts to save these towering sentinels.
Many of New England’s lighthouses guarded the Eastern shorelines before the U.S. became a country. Since then, they have become beloved landmarks to seafarers and “landlubbers” alike.
In Colonial times, the British established beacons at the busy ports of Boston and New London. During the American Revolution, the lighthouses were destroyed then rebuilt by opposing forces. When the nation gained independence, President George Washington understood the significance of the New England lighthouses and commissioned the first keepers, contracts for oil, and completion of a new station in Portland Head, Maine.
The role of lighthouses in history continued during the War of 1812. In Boston Harbor, the keeper and his wife witnessed the battle when American Captain James Lawrence declared, “Don’t give up the ship!” The lamps from Rhode Island’s Point Judith station were stolen by the British, and later found in Bermuda, returned, and reinstalled.
In the 20th century, the lanterns were extinguished along New England’s rocky coast to prevent the nation’s enemies from navigating the waterways and busy harbors.
If the lighthouses could speak, they would recall over 200 years of history…of shining their lanterns across the seas during storms and battles, faithfully guiding thousands of ships that passed their way.
Discover events in American history – plus the stamps that make them come alive.
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