From Sea to Shining Sea: Lighthouses of America in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Maine – Owls Head (NAID: 45691056, Local Identifier: 26-LG-4-59).

One of the things I love most about working at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is that I can always look at records about lighthouses, structures that I have always loved – I spent nearly every summer growing up at my grandmother’s house in Maine and we visited many lighthouses – and were within walking distance of the Owls Head lighthouse shown in the image above. A file for the Owls Head Light Station (NAID 88686508) is located in the records of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), NAID 20812721, a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service. When I started working at NARA, I soon learned that there were thousands upon thousands of records in the holdings related to lighthouses. 

When processing the records of the NRHP I was prepared to spend a little more time with the file for the State of Maine (NAID 79352839) when it crossed my desk. I also learned early on that the National Park Service had categorized many of the lighthouses across the country within the file for Alaska (NAID 73224634). For example the NRHP file for the Sentinel Island Light Station (NAID 75325041) is included in the series, an image of it is shown below.

There are more than 1500 files pertaining to Lighthouses and Lightships in the NRHP records – the search results may be found here.  A word about lightships – while most of us are familiar with a lighthouse – a lightship served a similar purpose, though it was a vessel that could be moored or anchored in a location that may not have a lighthouse to warn or guide ships at sea. The NRHP file for the Lightship Columbia is accessible at Oregon NHL Lightship Wal-604, “Columbia” (NAID 77848606).

As you might expect, there are NRHP files for lighthouses in most states that border water – yet there is one state in the United States that does not border an ocean that holds the record of having the most lighthouses of any state in the union, this is Michigan, and an example can be seen in the file for Michigan SP Fort Gratiot Lighthouse (NAID 25340513).

Map of the United States Showing the Positions of Military and Naval Establishments of Lighthouses, Floating Lights and Beacons, the Routes and Positions of Internal and Harbour Improvements, 1830. (NAID 78117681, Local ID: US 38).

Within the NRHP files you can find files related to lighthouses in nearly every state of the Union. Maine, with its craggy coastline, has fifty-seven active lights in the state. New Hampshire has only two lighthouses, both of which sit on the small portion of its border with the Atlantic Ocean, including the Portsmouth Harbor Light (NAID 75325147), the file of which may be found in the “Lighthouses of the United States Multiple Property Submission for Alaska” (NAID 75325221).

Even states that do not border a significant water border have lighthouses, including Nebraska – where a faux lighthouse was built at the Linoma Beach recreation area in Sarpy County (NAID 73921340).

Among the many lighthouses that can be read about in the NRHP files for the State of New York, one can learn about the original site and construction of the Montauk Light, (New York SP Montauk Point Lighthouse, NAID 75322190), which was surveyed by George Washington.

Misc – Montauk. (NAID 45709945, Local ID: 26-LG-69-38).
North Carolina – Cape Hatteras. (NAID 45693851, Local ID:26-LG-22-97).

You can also learn about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (NAID 47719909) which is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and the second tallest in the world, which is helpful as it sits protecting the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Whatever sort of lighthouse you fancy: tall or short; ship or house; screwpile or plug, you can find much more information on lighthouses of the United States in the custody of the National Archives, specifically the National Register of Historic Places files! You don’t even need a flashlight, let the lighthouse beacon guide your way.