America's lighthouses may have become merely decorative landmarks, but there was a time when they played a vital, life-saving role. Imagine that you've been at sea for two or three weeks. In that time you've made a slow but steady passage across a major ocean. You're on a final heading to a major port. You're making good time, but there is a strong winter storm driving in from the west, and it is blowing at three times the speed of your ship. The winds are building and so are the waves.
All that can be heard is the groaning of the ship and the rain thundering against the windows. The rain pours in sheets across the pitching deck, and every few minutes the foredeck completely disappears under another wave. The early December nightfall is coming fast, and in the last few minutes it has become clear to all on board that the vessel may not beat the storm.
There is no turning back at this point. Nor can the ship break north or south to avoid it. The storm is 400 miles wide. The ship is committed to making one port, to finding that single safe harbor on an otherwise unbroken coast.
Suddenly, the rain subsides for just a second, and an eager young mate with sharp eyes sees it -- a faint light just to the north. Coastal charts are hurriedly consulted. Someone looks again, this time with powerful binoculars. Yes, there it is -- the welcoming light. Half an hour later, your ship passes into the familiar safety of the vast harbor.
Such is the power of a lighthouse to guide a vessel and safeguard a crew after they have made a long journey across the lonely quarters of the open sea. Since the beginning of time, lighthouses have helped ships navigate the often dangerous coasts of the world. In the formative years of this nation, lighthouses were particularly important because the growth of the country was directly tied to commerce with other countries. Foreign trade with France and other friendly nations helped to sustain and save the fragile, young nation.
The first lighthouses in America naturally arose where coastal populations were concentrated and local businesses were growing. Lighthouse building began on the Atlantic Coast, particularly in New England, and then moved south across the Carolinas to Florida and the Gulf Coast, spreading through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
The next stage involved the Great Lakes, each the size of some small seas and each requiring the same forms of coastal lighting. In the mid-19th century, lighthouses began to appear on the Pacific Coast.
Eventually, lighthouses were built by the federal government on the new territorial possessions of Hawaii and Alaska. Later still, in the 20th century, lighthouses gradually became automated, with remote sensors and automatic timers replacing keepers.
Although today only one light station in the United States is permanently manned -- Boston Light -- lighthouses continue to be vital navigational aids along the coasts of U.S. lakes and seas.
The articles below celebrate 50 of the most scenic and historic lighthouses in the United States. In the following pages are saltwater lighthouses and freshwater lights, offshore lighthouses and harbor lights, gigantic 18-story behemoths and diminutive towers a child could climb. Each of these lighthouses was once, or perhaps still is, a faithful star in the night, a beacon that has guided in some lonely mariner from the dark, empty quarters of the sea.