Lighting the Way

By Kirsti Scott

lighthouse by jordan hill

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Outer Banks, Bodie Island, North Carolina (Jordan Hill).

There’s something irresistible about lighthouses.

Usually perched on the edge between water and land, these solitary structures are a symbol of safety, hope, guidance, and resilience. National Lighthouse Day is celebrated in the U.S. every year on August 7th. It’s a great day to celebrate the history of lighthouses around the world, and if you live near one, a great day to visit—and maybe climb—your favorite lighthouse. Many lighthouse groups offer special activities, including tours and cruises, to help showcase the history of these nautical watchtowers.

View some of the favorite lighthouses of our readers.

Visiting a lighthouse

Many lighthouses are open to the public and you can visit on your own or take a tour. There are even lighthouses where you can spend the night, getting just a taste of the life of a lightkeeper. If you climb to the top, you’re almost guaranteed a dramatic view, a vision across the glittering water to the horizon. Up top, you can escape the normal busyness of life and find harmony, contemplation, and peace. Living in a lighthouse as the keeper could be a lonely life, but a quick visit can be more like a brief escape from down-to-earth life.

While lighthouses stand for strength and stability, the land on which some lighthouses were built is less stable. In June 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was relocated over the span of 23 days about 2,900 feet from where it originally stood due to shoreline erosion. With computerized navigation systems, many lighthouses may not be long for this world. Some have already been decommissioned, and with the lights slowly blinking out, it’s a great time to visit a lighthouse while you still have the chance.

Lighthouses through history

300–280 BC: The first known lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt, was built by Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II. Standing about 450 feet high, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, finally falling into complete ruins in the 1300s.

20 BC: The oldest existing lighthouse in the world that was never rebuilt is the Roman lighthouse La Coruña in Spain.

AD 40: The Roman Pharos at Dover Castle is the most-complete standing Roman building in England, and it’s one of only three lighthouses to survive from the whole history of the former Roman empire.

AD 200–455: Located in the ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya, the Lighthouse of Leptis Magna once stood over 100 feet high.

1716: The first lighthouse in America was built in Boston on Little Brewster Island, destroyed by the British, and reconstructed in 1784.

1764: The oldest existing lighthouse in America is still in operation in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

1808: The oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes is the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on the Toronto Islands, Toronto, Canada.

1818: The first American Great Lakes lighthouses were in Buffalo, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

1854: The first American-built West Coast lighthouse was on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California.

1886: The first American lighthouse to use electricity was the Statue of Liberty, New York.

Most lighthouses are now automated. Boston Light is the only official lighthouse in the U.S. still with a keeper. Other light stations have people living in them, usually Coast Guard families living in the old keepers’ houses or caretakers who live there to maintain and protect the property.

Parts of a lighthouse:

parts of a lighthouse identified

Learn more about lighthouses

beachcomber articles about lighthouses

See some of our favorite lighthouses, learn about life as a lightkeeper, make a lighthouse-themed craft, and more. Articles ›

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2023 issue.

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