Monthly Archives: January 2014

History of Lighthouse and Rescue Services (Part 1)

Allan Wood | January 2, 2014 | COMMENTS:Comments Closed

Lighthouse and Rescue Service History – Part 1

As the start of this New Year of 2014, here’s a little education in understanding the importance of the three rescue services that began at the beginning of our Nation’s history and eventually evolved into our current Coast Guard. These three early services were the Lighthouse, Revenue Cutter, and Life Saving Services. After all, if it wasn’t for these services in place, many of our ancestors might not have not been able to immigrate to this country safely, and shipping and trade would have been difficult to navigate through the many storms along the coast. These same types of services, although under different organizations, became prevalent in many other countries as well as expansion through trade and shipping continued from the late 18th century into the twentieth century.

Boston Harbor Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island, Massachusetts.

Boston Harbor Lighthouse


New England has arguably the most dangerous coastline in the world. The first lighthouse, Boston Harbor lighthouse, in Massachusetts, was built in 1716. By the time the Constitution had become the law of the land in 1789, twelve lighthouses were already built in the United States. It was at this time that lighthouse control passed from the states to the federal government’s Treasury Department as the US Lighthouse Service.

As more lighthouses were established along the eastern coast, they were strategically placed to provide guidance and warn mariners of dangerous reefs, ledges, and shoals. Keepers and their assistants’ main duties were to maintain the lights at all costs. Their daily tasks involved, tending the wicks, fueling the tanks, polishing the brass, cleaning the soot of the lenses and prisms, and maintaining the rest of the tower and surrounding buildings. They would also become involved in many rescues that occurred at or very near the lighthouse. Their rescue equipment consisted of a rowboat or some type of lifeboat depending on the number of assistants the keeper had, and various lines and preservers for hauling survivors into the boat. There always had to be someone to keep an eye out at the lighthouse, especially during a storm to make sure the light did not go out, to guide mariners to safety.

Snow covered rocks along the rocky Maine coast.

Snow covered rocks along the rocky Maine coast.

Shortly afterwards, President Washington established the beginning of the Revenue Marine Service in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The Revenue Marine Service, or the Revenue Cutter Service, as it was also referred to after throughout the late 18th and the 19th centuries, referred to its ships as cutters. The first revenue cutter was built in Newburyport, which today is recognized as the birthplace of the Coast Guard. The early ships were used in times of war and for law enforcement in protecting our shores.  It wasn’t until the 1830’s that these fast vessels would be used for rescue purposes, mainly out in open waters where lighthouse keepers or lifesaving stations were unable to help in those wrecks.

During the Civil War, the Revenue Marine Service received its official designation as the Revenue Cutter Service.  After the Civil War, smaller cutters were also built to patrol more closely to the coastline and were responsible for saving many lives from wrecks within harbors, or later as part of a coordination with lighthouse keepers and lifesaving stations.

To be continued…

Happy New Year!

Allan Wood


New England Lighthouses

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Book- New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales




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