The Changing Nature of a World Cultural Tradition
Ever since antiquity, lighthouses have been important in coastal navigation. They have been employed along seacoasts, large lakes and riverine systems. They have been used to warn unwary sailors of rocky cliffs, shoals and underwater hazards lurking beneath the wavetops. They have averted many a maritime disaster, although at times they have been useless in an impending catastrophe. Originally manned by lighthouse keepers and their families, today's lights are just as likely to be completely automated. A colorful lore has been built up around them through the ages, and they have even been featured in works of science fiction. This article seeks to trace the history and evolution of these prominent features on the land and seascape, and to forecast the more distant future of their usefulness to humans in the times to come.
Two of the more prominent lighthouses of antiquity were also classified as ancient wonders of the world. The Colossus of Rhodes on the island of the same name and the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt served as landmarks and guideposts to mariners of their times. Both were erected at approximately the same date, and both suffered a similar fate. The Colossus, depicting the sun god Helios, was designed by Chares of Lindos. It was some 105 feet high and was built of bronze and iron. Contrary to popular depictions of it in later centuries, it probably did not straddle the entrance to the main harbor at Rhodes, but likely stood off to one side. All evidence indicates it was toppled by the powerful earthquake of 226 B.C. It lay in ruins for centuries afterward, and was finally broken up and sold at a later date. It may well have held a burning lantern as a beacon for mariners at sea. The Pharos of Alexandria was built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a successor to Alexander the Great, who also left behind some prominent gateways around Alexandria. The Pharos was reputedly designed by Sostratus of Cnidus, although scholars have questioned this account. It may have reached well over 300 feet in height, and was probably constructed of pink granite blocks, perhaps mixed with limestone. The light was provided by a furnace at the top, which was then accentuated by mirrors to throw a very strong beam at night to guide seamen. It was partially destroyed in three earthquakes between 956 and 1323 A.D. What was left of it was finally removed by 1480 to be used in the construction of a fortress on the other side of the harbor. It was frequently depicted in drawings of the First Century A.D. as a backdrop for the voyages of Saints Mark and Paul, as they endeavored to spread early Christianity around the eastern Mediterranean.
Off the southern coast of England there is a fascinating lighthouse which stands out for two major reasons: it is situated not on a cliff or bluff but is anchored into the sea itself, and it marked a major sea battle centuries ago. Beachy Head Light was erected in 1902, and has been operational since that date. The chalk cliffs above it seem to overwhelm it, but it is better situated in the water than high above the sea. It is administered by the Corporation of Trinity House, an organization founded by Henry VIII in 1514. I has been automated since 1983, and is one of the best guides for mariners navigating the irregular coast of England at that point of the shore. It is also notable for the naval battle of Beachy Head in 1690, at the height of the War of the Spanish Succession. This was a most unusual battle because it reversed the usual English victory over the French, and instead marked an extremely rare win by the French under Louis XIV over a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet. There were no lost French ships, but the English lost at least one ship of the line, and their Dutch allies fared much worse. This confounds the public stereotype of the English as invincible at sea, which is reinforced by their generally successful record before and after this setback. Today, Beachy Head serves as a practical navigational aid and a living museum for this epochal event.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, primarily centered on Hatteras Island. It has a famous lighthouse very familiar to Americans and people around the world. Made of brick, it stands 193 feet tall and is actually the tallest lighthouse on the eastern seaboard. Its well-known black and white striping scheme is a perfect reflection of summer, although it serves its purpose around the calendar. in service since 1803, it stands twelve stories high, and can be seen from many miles at sea. It presides over an extremely hazardous part of the Atlantic coast, not only in historical terms, but even today. A sandbar known as Diamond Shoals has been dangerous for southbound shipping here for centuries. Its currents are so risky that it earned the reputation as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" in earlier times, with the sea floor littered with many wrecks. In addition, this stretch of coast is right in harm's way during the Atlantic hurricane season each year from June 1st to November 30th. The present lighthouse was moved some years ago from a point closer to the ocean to its current location, a feat of local engineering. Today it is obviously a tourist destination and features a gift shop and excellent local fishing nearby. Because of its considerable height, warnings are visibly posted for heart or respiratory patients to assess their conditions before attempting such a climb. This shore also witnessed the predations of Edward Teach, the notorious "Blackbeard" who plundered along this coast and further south, apparently as far as Antigua, deep in the Caribbean. He and other pirates such as Mary Read and Anne Bonney got away with it for some time, even getting pardons from the Stuart and Hanoverian sovereigns. Blackbeard's severed head today resides at the Pirate and Treasure Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest town. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Light therefore hold an important place in nautical history and lore.
Great Lakes Lighthouses
The five Great Lakes constitute nothing short of a maritime phenomenon. Even before the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway system in 1959, they facilitated the growth of industrial America and Canada. Despite the closed nature of the lakes, they still require navigational aids to shipping. Lake Erie alone, for example, boasts around twenty individual lights! It is almost too hard to examine all the lake lights individually, so three shall serve as illustrative. In Holland, Michigan, the Holland Harbor Light made of wood, known locally as "Big Red" because of its distinct color, has served in its guidance capacity since 1872. It is situated across a channel from Holland State Park, adjacent to a long pier protruding into Lake Michigan. A paddlewheel steamer offering dinner cruises goes right by it, and it is a major accent to this coast. In Marblehead, Ohio, the Marblehead Lighthouse has served since 1822, and is the oldest lighthouse on the American side of the Great Lakes. Built of limestone, it is also notable for its location close to Cedar Point, the ultimate in roller coaster experiences. A Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society has been established for museum funding and preservation of this light. Another landmark light is Split Rock, Minnesota, on a 130 foot cliff overlooking Lake Superior, the largest, coldest and deepest of the five Great Lakes, a true inland sea. Constructed of brick, it has illuminated its shore since 1910, and was built to guide bulk ore ships of the Steel Company Fleet. This light stands in sharp contrast to the English Beachy Head Light, and is highly visible for miles at sea from its commanding position atop its cliff. Lake Superior is also noted for its November gales, which have caused many a shipwreck. Perhaps the most memorable was the "Edmund Fitzgerald", an ore freighter which sank in November 1975. Although only twenty-nine lives were lost, this incident gripped the popular imagination and led to the haunting and lyrical ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," sung by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot in 1976. Lake Superior must still be regarded as the most dangerous of the five lakes, hence the ongoing need for lighthouses like Split Rock.
The preceding list of lighthouses across space and time is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, there are countless other examples to offer, but it serves as an overview of the subject. Given the nature of safety at sea or within enclosed systems like the Great Lakes, the need for lighthouses is self-evident. The many wrecks off Chicago and the mountainous waves of Lake Superior illustrate the need for lighthouses even in our time. If they conjure images of the romantic past, they will still be around in the future. This much remains certain: world trade is growing, human population is growing, and as long as people live on continents or islands separated by vast waters, they will need ships to facilitate this traffic. Wherever a dangerous coast presents an obstacle to navigation, a lighthouse will stand guard to guide the vessel to a safe port. New technological innovations, through satellites and computers, will play a role in this evolving world drama. In fact, the story has only begun-- and the lonely sentinel has not fallen yet.