History of Lighthouses and Lighthouse Boat Tours on Staten Island

August 11, 2017 | Blog | Reading Time 4:00 Minutes

The word “lighthouse” instills a variety of emotions and ideas including romance, beauty, security, danger, fear, isolation, crashing waves, etc. Lighthouses are generally magnificent buildings in stunning surroundings; and, stories about lighthouses epitomize themes storytellers have used throughout history.

The History of Lighthouses

As people began to travel greater distances on water, they marked their landing sites with piles of rocks. These rock piles helped them find their way home, but were of little use in the dark.

Because most shorelines are unremarkable, especially after dark, family or friends built bonfires on a high point in the area to guide mariners home during the nighttime hours. Later, a metal fire-filled basket suspended on poles or a tripod was employed as a signal.

Volcanoes: Nature’s Lighthouse

Seafarers who travelled where active volcanoes existed, often used the glowing lava to help them navigate. This worked well in the dark and over great distances making it a possible inspiration for the first lighthouse.

The First Lighthouse

Early wooden-hulled ships were guided and propelled through the seas by wind filled sails. Wind and waves easily pushed these vessels against rocky shores, resulting in the loss of many ships, cargo and crews; thus, the need for lighthouses arose.

The Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was constructed somewhere around 280 BC and is the first recorded lighthouse in history. At 450 feet tall, which is comparable to a 45-story skyscraper, Pharos is the tallest lighthouse ever built. An open fire, which was visible for 30 miles, burnt at the very top of the structure. Its light warned mariners of impending doom at night, while a smoldering column of smoke served as the daymark.

Pharos survived for 1500 years until two earthquakes damaged and then destroyed it in 1303 and 1323 CE.

People who study or are interested in lighthouses are referred to as pharologists, named for this lighthouse.

Lighthouse Design

Lighthouses serve two main purposes – to supply navigational assistance and to warn mariners of dangerous areas. As long as these two vital functions were accomplished, very few other design guidelines existed in early lighthouses.

Lighthouses were constructed of readily available materials and were designed to withstand the area’s climatic conditions. Materials used could include wood, steel, concrete, brick or even tabby (a mixture of shells, sand, lime and water.) Its shape was at the whim of the builders or influenced by its integration into the surrounding landscape. It may stand alone, or it could have the lighthouse keeper’s living quarters attached or in close proximity to it.

Mariners used lighthouses during the day as landmarks to help with navigation as they sailed along a coastline, giving lighthouses the additional function of daymarks. When lighthouses were of similar design and color, from a distance they looked almost identical, making it impossible for mariners to know where they were with certainty. This happened along the North Carolina and Virginia coast in the 1870s. To assist mariners, the Lighthouse Board issued an order that lighthouses were to have unique designs and/or be painted dissimilar colors.

This worked as a daymark, but served little use at night when navigation was most dangerous and the lighthouse was most needed. Looking for a way to make each lighthouse’s light unique, multiple lighthouses were built at several locations. To overcome this labor intensive and expensive option, designers began mounting a group of lights on a rotating framework to create a unique flashing signature for each lighthouse.


This lead to the invention of the Fresnel lens in 1822. The Fresnel lens, which can weigh as much as four tons, intensifies the light’s glow, making it visible at greater distances, up to 21 miles, and it allowed for an unlimited number of flashing patterns. Using each lighthouse’s unique light color and flashing pattern, mariners can determine their location at sea in relation to the land.

In foggy weather, mariners are unable to see the light emitted by the lighthouse, so foghorns were developed. The first documented “foghorn” used was at Boston light in 1719 and was, of all things, a cannon which was fired every hour when foggy conditions prevailed. Later, other noise making devices were used such as fog bells, steam whistles, sirens and reed trumpets. Today, computerized sensors detect moisture in the air, which automatically triggers the foghorns.

All lighthouses in the United States have been automated and no longer requires the services of a keeper, except one. The Old Scituate Lighthouse in Boston, for sentimental reasons alone, still uses a keeper. Due to advances in technology, lighthouses have become all but obsolete. Without keepers, and having lost their usefulness, the care and maintenance of many lighthouses has fallen to various non-profit local organizations or government agencies.

Lighthouse Boat Tours in New York

If your desire to see or learn more about lighthouses has been whetted, and you too have become a pharologist, you might be interested in a tour of lighthouses offered by Staten Island’s National Lighthouse Museum.

The Brielle

Just as a lighthouse guides mariners through dangerous passages, The Brielle is like a shining beacon, beckoning those who are looking for a safe place to retire. Tucked away from fast-paced surroundings in a park-like setting on Staten Island, we offer full-service assisted living and memory care in a safe and caring environment. Contact us today for more information about our vibrant senior living community.