pemaquid point lightouse

Favorite Lighthouses on the East Coast

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During my road trip across the USA many years ago, I visited several lighthouses.  Listed below are a few of my favorite lighthouses on the East Coast.

New York

History of Sodus Point

The Sodus Bay Lighthouse is located in Sodus Point Beach Park.  Technically, it is not on the East Coast as it directs boat traffic in Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario.  Due to the surrounding area’s history, however, I could not leave it out.  And it is this history that made in one of my favorite lighthouses as I drove the Seaway Trail along Lake Ontario.

Sodus Point is one of the four towns in New York where runaway slaves, known as Freedom Seekers, found their way to Canada to shake the lion’s paw.  I can’t even imagine what it felt like for those making the 1,000-mile journey on the Underground Railroad to see the lighthouse.

Not far from the lighthouse was a bluff, now known as Freedom Hill, where at nighttime the runaway slaves would signal the schooner, Free Trader, captained by George Garlock.  He would pick them up and transport them on his routes to Canada.  During the day, he would collect them from row boats as many times bounty hunters were at the dock from which the schooner left.  What brave souls they all were!

History of the Sodus Bay Lighthouse

The Sodus Bay Lighthouse was authorized by Congress in 1824 and appropriated $4,500.  The project included a 1.5 story dwelling and a 40-foot tower with a ten-lamp revolving light.  Four years later, the entrance of Sodus Bay was contracted to be 470 feet.  As a result, two piers were built, with the west pier featuring a stone tower, 30-feet high.

The pier tower with four lamps was a guide for entering the harbor.  It was destroyed by weather in 1854 and replaced by two lights suspended on masts.  Frame towers, painted black and white, replaced the masts in 1872.  The inner tower, only 18 feet high could not be seen from the lake, and only served vessels leaving the harbor.  The outer tower, 27-feet tall, featured a 6th-order Fresnel lens and illuminated the horizon.  Around the same time, the dwelling and tower on land were in disrepair and replaced. 

Twenty years or so later, additional structures were added, and the inner pier beacon was rebuilt and painted white.  In 1901, the outer pier tower was elevated and fitted with the Fresnel light from the lighthouse.  At this time, the Sodus Bay Lighthouse went dark, however, the keepers remained to care for the pier lights. A year later, the nightmark was changed to a light flashing every 2.5 minutes while a fog signal was put in. 

sodus bay lighthouse and the underground railroad

The present-day pier light was erected in 1938 and the light was converted from kerosene to electricity.  The signal was also updated to a different sequent.  The pier light was finally automated in 1984.  Thereafter, the Coast Guard turned the lighthouse over to the Town of Sodus Point.  Now the lighthouse is operated by the Sodus Bay Historical Society.  It is open from May 15-October 15 and includes a museum.  Admission for adults costs $6, kids $3.

Maine

It is hard to think of Maine without thinking of lighthouses.  I visited many while in this state, and it is hard to choose a favorite.  It is a photographer’s delight to snap a photo of the reflection of the Pemaquid Lighthouse in a tide pool.  The Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse is also worth a visit.  But my favorite lighthouse on the East Coast of Maine was the Marshall Point Lighthouse.

History of the Marshall Point Lighthouse

The original Marshall Point Lighthouse was established to aid navigation along the Gulf Coast of Maine and to mark the entrance to St. George River at Port Clyde.  Constructed in 1832 of rubblestone, the tower was 20 feet high with seven lard oil lamps.  A new, 24-foot granite and brick tower was constructed at the water’s edge in 1858.  The 7 lamps were replaced by a 5th order Fresnel lens whose light was white and fixed (not flashing).

Electricity modernized the light in 1935.  It was automated in 1971. And finally, in 2018, the US Coast Guard replaced the Fresnel lens with an LED light.  The Fresnel lens may be seen in the museum located in the keeper’s house.  The museum also includes exhibits about the lighthouse industry, the history of the peninsula and the documentation of the Forrest Gump movie filming.

marshall point lighthouse in forrest gump

Forest Gump concluded his cross country run at The Marshall Point Lighthouse.  The fact the lighthouse was featured in this movie may be one of the reasons I liked it so much, but also, I liked the walkway and quaint feeling of Maine’s St. George peninsula.  I wouldn’t have even known about the lighthouse if it weren’t for some friendly Maine residents that I met on my scenic road trip across the USA.

Massachusetts

History of the Nauset Light

Cape Cod has a rich history with lighthouses, and the Nauset Light in Eastham has plenty of its own.  The original construction in 1838 consisted of three 15-foot brick towers.  Being the only place in the country where three lights were built in one location, the towers were easily identifiable.  Painted white with black tops, they earned the nickname “Three Sisters” as from sea they looked like three ladies in white dress with black hats.

Through the years, two keeper’s houses were built, and the towers were upgraded with larger Fresnel lenses.  By 1892, however, shore erosion required the brick towers be replaced with three moveable wooden towers, 22 feet tall. The lights and lanterns were transferred to the new towers which stood 97 feet above the water and next to a new oil house.

Twenty years later, the center wooden tower of the Three Sisters was fitted with a revolving Fresnel lens that flashed three times every ten seconds.  It became known as “The Beacon”.  The end towers became unnecessary and as a result, were sold off in 1918.

In 1923, an iron tower in Chatham was dismantled and used to replace “The Beacon”.  The tower, donning a kerosene lamp within a 4th order Fresnel lens, was placed 200 feet from the cliff.  Now known as the Nauset Light, the top half of the iron tower was repainted red as a daymark in 1940.

By 1952, the light was automated with electricity and approximately 30 years later the 4th order Fresnel lens was replaced with two rotating aero beacons.  The light signal changed from three white flashes to one red flash and one white flash which could be seen from 17 miles away.

By 1993, the Nauset Light needed to be moved again as it was now standing only 50 feet from shore.  Without the funds to do so, the Coast Guard darkened the light.  At this time, the Nauset Light Preservation Society was established to raise the funds to save the lighthouse.

At the end of 1996, the Nauset Light was moved 300 feet southwest of the previous site and was relit six months later.  Both the oil house and the keepers house were also moved to this location in Eastham on Cape Cod’s National Sea Shore.

Nauset light on the cape cod national sea shore

The complex is now operated by the Nauset Light Preservation Society which is solely funded by donations.  Visitors my tour the light, a private aid to navigation, free of charge.  Tours take place from May to October with increasing times available in the summer months.

Just thinking about how the mariners have had to keep up with all the changes to the Nauset Light is what makes this iconic structure another one of my favorite lighthouses on the East Coast.  Not to mention, as part of Cape Cod’s National Sea Shore, it is one of many scenic places to visit on the Cape.

North Carolina

History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina protects one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast. Offshore of Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Steam and Virginia Drift currents collide and force ships into the twelve-mile long sandbar called Diamond Shoals.  There have been so many shipwrecks in this area that it has been nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Congress authorized the construction of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1794, though it did not begin until 1799.  The 90-foot sandstone tower whose lamp was powered by whale oil, was finally lit in 1803.  Unfortunately, the tower was ineffective in guiding vessels because it was too short and blended into the background.

As a result, fifty years later, the tower was finally raised 60 feet, painted red at the top and fitted with a first-order Fresnel lens.  By the 1860’s the lighthouse needed extensive repairs.  Consequently, a new lighthouse was built to replace the old one in 1870.

The new lighthouse, which measured 198 feet, was and still is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States.  For its daymark, it was painted with a black and white stripe pattern.  At night, its Fresnel lens, powered by a kerosene lamp, shined 16 miles offshore.  The lamp was electrified in 1934, but due to beach erosion the lighthouse was decommissioned.  Consequently, its beacon was moved to a skeleton structure a mile northwest of the brick tower.

The brick lighthouse was transferred to the National Park Service in 1937, and it became part of the first National Seashore in 1953 when the park was established. In the meantime, the beach naturally rebuilt itself, and the beacon was transferred back to the brick tower in 1950.

Unfortunately, the beach began to erode again, and by 1999, the lighthouse had to be moved.  It took 23 days and cost $11.8 million to move the lighthouse and six additional structures 2,900 feet from their original location.  Now it stands 1500 feet from shore, the original distance from the sea.

cape hatteras lighthouse on the outer banks

As part of the National Parks, the lighthouse is open for self-guided tours.  It is one of my favorite lighthouses on the East Coast due to its iconic daymark. Additionally, it is located near many other things to do in the Outer Banks, including visiting the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, named for the treacherous coast of which the lighthouse warns.

Georgia

History of the St. Simons Lighthouse

The St. Simons Lighthouse is located near the remains of Fort Frederica on Georgia’s coast.  The original lighthouse was constructed on four acres of land donated to the Federal Government. The three-year construction project, which included the tower, dwelling house, separate kitchen, oil house and well, cost $13,775 in 1807. 

The lighthouse was made of tabby, a mixture of shells, sand, water and lime, stood 75 feet tall, and was lit with whale oil.  The lighthouse lasted 50 years until the Confederate soldiers blew it up to keep it out of the hands of the Union Navy during the Civil War.

A second lighthouse and keepers dwelling were completed in 1872.  The new lighthouse was constructed of Savannah grey brick and stands 104 feet high.  The tower featured a 3rd order Fresnel lens and was lit by a kerosene oil lamp until it was replaced by electricity in 1934.  In the 1950’s, the lighthouse was automated, ending the need for a keeper.

The tower, maintained by the coast guard, still guides boats into St. Simons Sound.  It is painted solid white as its daymark, and its nightmark is a flash every sixty seconds created by its original light plus four rotating lights.

St. Simons Lighthouse in Georgia's East Coast

In addition to the lighthouse, whose 129 steps may be climbed by visitors, the complex includes the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum and the World War II Home Front Museum. 

The St. Simons Lighthouse Museum which features exhibits on the history of Coastal Georgia is located in the keeper’s house.  The World War II Home Front Museum, which is new since I last visited, is housed in the Historic Coast Guard Station.  This museum includes many interactive displays from radar training to building ships.

The lighthouse complex is operated by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society and is open every day except for five major holidays.  The rates vary based on the museums included in the ticket as well as the age of the visitor.  Find out more details at its website.

This is a favorite of mine, not only for its history, but also for the surrounding history on St. Simons Island, in particular the remnants of Fort Frederica.  Be sure to add into a scenic drive along Georgia’s coast.

Florida

History of St Marks Lighthouse

In 1828, the US House of Representatives authorized the construction of the St. Marks Lighthouse and appropriated $6,000.  After an initial evaluation, it was quickly determined this was not enough money.  The lighthouse was finally built in 1830 for nearly double that amount.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse didn’t pass inspection as it was constructed with hollow walls which didn’t meet the contract specifications.  As a result, it was rebuilt with solid walls and finally lit with whale oil lamps in 1831. 

Within ten years, however, the tower was in disarray.  It suffered from a hurricane as well as moisture accumulating in its walls.  Additionally, shore erosion threatened its location.  As a result, a new tower was constructed in a safer spot.

This tower survived two hurricanes, but then faced destruction during the Civil War in 1865.  The Confederate Troops removed the lighting apparatus to prevent aiding Union ships patrolling the Apalachee Bay and the St Marks River.  The area, however, was shelled by the surrounding ships. Upon its repair in 1866, it was fitted with a new fourth-order Fresnel lens.  Over the next 25 years, the tower was raised to 82 feet above sea level and was automated. 

A new solar powered beacon was added to the lantern during a 2000 renovation.  Both this beacon and the Fresnel Lens were removed during 2014, and the lighthouse went dark for the first time since the Civil War.  The tower recently underwent a major renovation and is again shining over the Apalachee Bay.

st marks lighthouse

The keeper’s house is open for tours on the first Friday and following Saturday of each month.  Additionally, it may be visited every Tuesday.  The fee is $2 for any person over the age of 12.  The lighthouse tower may not be climbed.

Just as with the Sodus Bay Lighthouse, technically St Marks lighthouse also is not located on the East Coast.  It is in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida’s panhandle.  But due to the peaceful, surrounding nature, it was another lighthouse I could not ignore.  I really enjoyed visiting the wildlife refuge on my road trip across the USA.

In summary, above are some of my favorite lighthouses on the East Coast.  They are all great places to visit individually or while on a scenic drive. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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