Who’s In Charge: The Changing Command
Of America’s Lighthouses in a Changing America
As America grew and confronted changing challenges, command of U.S. lighthouses changed repeatedly in recognition of their importance in maritime safety, economy growth and national defense. Here is the chronology of the changing lighthouse command:
- Colonial Days – Each colony built and controlled the lighthouses within its borders. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington’s Continental Army battled British troops for control of Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the New Jersey lighthouse that guided ships into New York Harbor. Sandy Hook eventually fell to the British.
- Lighthouse Establishment, 1789-1852 – President Washington, realizing the defensive as well as economic importance of lighthouses, moved to put all U.S. lighthouses under federal control. The ninth act of Congress, passed August 7, 1789, created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment as part of the U.S. Treasury Department. Thus the first Superintendent of Lighthouses was Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary.
- U.S. Light-House Board, 1852-1910 – On October 9, 1852, the U.S. Light-House Board was launched within the Department of Treasury. In recognition of their military importance and the increasing technology needed in the operation of lighthouses, the board was composed of three Navy officers, three from the Army Corps of Engineers and two “civilians of high scientific attainments …”
- U.S. Lighthouse Service, 1910-1939 – On July 1, 1910, the Light-House Board was dissolved by Act of Congress and authority passed to the newly created Bureau of Lighthouses, better known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service, under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department.
- U.S. Coast Guard, 1939-1956 – With war threatening in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential order that dissolved the Lighthouse Service and transferred command of all U.S. lighthouses to the U.S. Coast Guard July 1, 1939. During the war, all beacons at U.S. lighthouses were extinguished. After the war, lighthouses were relit. Some, including Sea Girt, were changed to automatic lights, requiring no personnel. Others continued to be staffed and manually operated.
- Borough of Sea Girt, 1956-Present –The federal government’s General Services Administration offers the empty Sea Girt Lighthouse and its property to the State of New Jersey, which is not interested. But the Borough of Sea Girt is. On August 10, 1956, the Borough buys the property for $11,000. The building is used for more than 20 years as the town library and community center. The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee is formed in 1981 to “save our lighthouse” and in August of that year signs a lease with the Borough to take charge of the lighthouse.