Lighthouses & Ships


What is a lighthouse?

It is a tower with a bright light at the top, located at an important or dangerous place regarding navigation (travel over water). The two main purposes of a lighthouse are to serve as a navigational aid and to warn boats of dangerous areas. It is like a traffic sign on the sea. What a seeing-eye dog is to a blind person is what a lighthouse is to a seaman.

Do all lighthouses look alike?

Although we often think of a lighthouse as a tall, white conical tower, there are many, many variations of design. Depending on its location, it might be tall (where the land was very flat) or short and squat (where there was a high cliff or rocky coast). It could be square, octagonal (with eight sides), conical (like an ice cream cone upside down), cylindrical (like a very fat pipe), or even like a skeleton.

Tall, conical light
(Pensacola, FL)

Screwpile light
(Thomas Point, MD)

Round caisson/sparkplug light
(Duxbury, MA)

Lighthouse also come in different shapes and sizes?

Octagonal (8 sides)
(Sandy Hook, NJ)

(Point Arena, CA)

(Boca Grande, FL)

(Currituck, NC)

Big Bay, MI

You might find the lighthouse standing alone, attached to the building where the lighthouse keeper lives, or connected to the keeper?s quarters by an enclosed walkway. Sometimes the lantern room is built into the roof of the keeper?s house.

When the lighthouses were built, they were constructed with whatever materials were most readily available. They were designed to fit the local geographic and climatic conditions. Some are made of stone; others brick, concrete, wood, steel, cast iron, and even tabby (a mixture of shells, lime, sand and water). So you can see that each lighthouse is very unique.
The U.S. Lighthouse Society originally designed this packet to furnish teachers with basic information about lighthouses, their purpose, history, operation and technology in a form presentable to young students. with the society's permission the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office is posting this modified version with additional photographs and information.

The U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office would like to thank Mr. Wayne Wheeler and the other members of The U.S. Lighthouse Society who produced and distributed the original version of this curriculum.

For more information on lighthouses, teachers and students should contact The U.S. Lighthouse Society, 244 Kearny Street, San Francisco, Ca 94108 or consult the lighthouse web pages on The U.S. Coast Guard Historian's web site.