7 Historic Lighthouses That Stand Guard Over Rocky Cliffs and Sandy Beaches
"It doesn’t matter where you go, people are drawn by lighthouses,” says Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit clearinghouse for lighthouse education and preservation efforts.
Part of the appeal, of course, is that lighthouses can often be found in the most dramatic settings on Earth—at the tip of narrow peninsulas, on rocky promontories, on remote islands. Plus, says Gales, lighthouses were built specifically with an altruistic purpose in mind—to save lives. “That’s what makes them different from most any other historic structures out there.”
Preservation efforts received a boost in 2000 when Congress passed the National Lighthouse Preservation Act, which enabled the federal government to transfer ownership of “excess” lighthouses to nonprofits and educational institutions at no cost. “The goal was to keep lighthouses open to the public and to keep them preserved,” Gales says. “That’s important because we believe that the next preservationists are going to be inspired by actually visiting a lighthouse. You can read about them all you want, but going out there and seeing one makes all the difference in the world.”
If you visit New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Lighthouse, you’ll get to see the oldest standing—and still operating—light in the country. Built with funds supplied by two public lotteries in the early 1760s, the light has marked the entrance to heavily trafficked New York Harbor since its whale-oil lamps were lit in 1764. Hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $35 million in damage to the Gateway National Recreation Area, where the lighthouse sits, didn’t disturb its tower or 1883 keeper’s house, which now houses a visitor center. “Whoever figured out where to put it, they found the sweet spot,” says Pete McCarthy, unit manager for Sandy Hook. “There was no flooding or damage to the lighthouse at all. It really is a tough old bird.”
Lighthouse settings don’t get much more awesome than the one at Hawaii’s Kilauea Point. The 52-foot-tall light, part of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, stands on the edge of a cliff 180 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Commissioned in 1913, the light guided ships approaching the island of Kauai, first landfall for vessels coming from the west. The U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees the operation of about 35,000 navigational aids around the country, deactivated the light in 1976, and the structure began a period of decline. In 2008, the Kilauea Point Natural History Association helped raise $1 million in private donations to accompany $1.5 million dollars in public funding initiated by Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. (The lighthouse was later renamed in his honor.) The money went to restoring the lighthouse’s interior metalwork, cleaning and stabilizing the lens, and repainting the interior and exterior.
Washington state’s Cape Flattery Lighthouse also lies seemingly at the edge of the world. Located on Tatoosh Island, just off the northwesternmost tip of the continental United States, the lighthouse was constructed in 1857 to aid ships entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Tatoosh Island is part of the Makah Indian Reservation, and the tribe has been working with the Coast Guard and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to ensure the preservation of the light and the keeper’s house, which has been abandoned since the 1970s. Part of the Trust’s National Treasures program, the structures will require several million dollars to preserve. Tatoosh Island is still used by the Makah people to gather natural resources and for marine research, but it’s not accessible to visitors. You can, however, view the light from the end of the spectacular Cape Flattery Trail in Neah Bay.
“You can read about [lighthouses] all you want, but going out there and seeing one makes all the difference in the world.”Jeff Gales, Executive Director, United States Lighthouse Society
The coastal views from Point Bonita Lighthouse, accessible via a half-mile trail through a mountain tunnel and across a suspension bridge, are almost as grand—if the weather cooperates. Even after workers completed construction in 1855, many boats ran aground by the Golden Gate straits due to San Francisco Bay’s notorious fog. In 1877, crews moved the light to its current location at a lower elevation to escape the bay’s high-forming mist. Today, an electric horn blasts twice every 30 seconds on soupy days.
The original lighthouse on Florida’s Pensacola Bay also required a do-over. When mariners complained that the 1824 lighthouse’s beam was too dim and partially blocked by trees on a nearby island, the Army Corps of Engineers built a new one a half mile west in 1859. Ten years later, the corps constructed a keeper’s quarters, and the tower’s daymark (lighthouse lingo for its paint scheme) received its distinctive look: white on the bottom to stand out against the trees and black on the top to increase visibility on cloudy days. Now part of a U.S. Coast Guard Station, the Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum is overseen by a nonprofit that recently completed a six-year, $2.75 million restoration.
Even if you’ve never been to Maine’s Portland Head Light (shown at top), you may have seen it before. The conical 80-foot tower and red-roofed keeper’s quarters (now a museum) is perhaps the most photographed in the nation. George Washington himself commissioned the construction of the lighthouse on a bluff south of Portland Harbor, then part of Massachusetts. These days, the town of Cape Elizabeth owns the circa-1791 light.
For a taste of the lighthouse keeper experience, book a room at Michigan’s Big Bay Point Light Station on the shores of Lake Superior. The 1896 redbrick duplex dwelling originally accommodated two families to watch over the light. After the light was electrified and the last keeper departed in 1941, the building languished. It was sold to private owners in the early 1960s and remained in private use until 1986, when then-owner Norman “Buck” Gotschall converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. Nick Korstad, who owns two other lighthouses, purchased the inn in 2018, repainting its exterior, repointing bricks, and renovating all the guest rooms. Next, Korstad wants to restore the tower’s original lantern, in place of the current flashing LED light. “It’s the romance of the beam sweeping through the trees,” he says. “That’s what people expect when they come to stay at a lighthouse.”
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Need more lighthouses? Check out our guide to 14 Must-Visit Lighthouses Around the U.S.