Lighthouse Frequently Asked Questions


I am adding this section due to the number of messages I get asking specific questions. It's not that I don't appreciate the questions, I am creating this section for the people that have questions and don't ask them. If you have a lighthouse question, e-mail it to email me, it may be featured here in the future.

Q.   Why are lighthouses painted differently? Do these designs represent something?
A.   Lighthouses are painted different colors and designs to make them daymarks. So, if you were a Mariner out at sea during the day, you could look for the lighthouse. Let says for instance that you were off the coast of NC and you saw black and white swirling stripes down the lighthouse, you would then know that you were by Cape Hatteras. Or say you saw a lighthouse that had black and white diamond shapes on would then know that you were farther south by Cape Lookout.

Q.  If lighthouses are painted different to distinguish them during the day, how can you tell them apart in the dark?
A.  Similar enough, each lighthouse also flashes a different sequence of light for the exact same reason. Cape Hatteras flashes a white light every 7.5 seconds. (The light actually rotates, but it gives the appearance of flashing from a distance.) Cape Lookout flashes a white light every 15 seconds. So, by scanning the horizon for the lighthouse, and then watching the light, you were able to figure out where on the seaboard you were.

Q.   Why is the coast off of Cape Hatteras called "The Graveyard of the Atlantic"?
A.   It is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic because there has been a substantial number of vessels lost (over 2300 since the early 1500s) in that particular area to the Diamond shoals. From what I have read, two different "rivers" flow right past there. There is the cold Labrador current from the North and the warm Gulf Stream current that flows up from the South. Mariners knew that these currents helped move them along, so depending on which way they needed to go, they would try and get into that prospective current. It just so happens that those current pass dangerously close to the Diamond Shoals.

Q.   Is there such a thing as the "Graveyard of the Pacific?" And if so, where is it?
A.   Yes, there is a Graveyard of the Pacific. It is in the Pacific Northwest where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Given that the Columbia River is the second longest river in the US at over 1200 miles long. By the time the current reaches the Pacific, it crashes creating a hazardous bar that mariners must cross. Due to this fact, the area has become known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

Q.   Are there any more manned lighthouses in the US? Or are they all automated?
A.   There is one last "manned" lighthouse in the US, that happens to be the very first lighthouse ever built on US soil. It is that of the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island.

Q.   How is the power of a lighthouse rated?
A.   The power of a lighthouse's light is usually rated in nautical miles. In other words, how far out to sea a light can still be seen. An example of this would be 20 nautical miles. Some of the more recent lighthouses are being rated in candlepower.

Q.   Which lighthouse is the brightest in the world?
A.   I am receiving conflicting information. The two that I hear about are: A French Lighthouse on the English Channel and the New Cape Point Lighthouse in South Africa.

Q.   Which lighthouse is the brightest in the United States?
A.   Oak Island lighthouse in North Carolina. When all of its lights are lit, it produces an astonishing 14 million candlepower and can be spotted at about 24 miles out to sea.

Q.   Which lighthouse is the tallest in the United States?
A.   The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina at 193 feet.

Q.   Which lighthouse is the tallest in the World?
A.   The Île Vierge Lighthouse in France at 271 feet. Although some other structures claiming to be lighthouses are taller, the Île Vierge Lighthouse is the tallest "traditional" lighthouse.

Q.   Why is it that when I read about a lighthouse, one book will say its 153 feet tall, and another will say 160 feet tall?
A.   The reason there are usually several different listed heights when talking about a lighthouse because there are several different ways to take the measurement. The height of a lighthouse is usually measured from the ground to the top of the lantern room. This can sometimes include a lightning rod, which can add upwards of 3 to 6 feet onto the height.

The height of the "Light", sometimes also called a focal plane is the distance from the water's surface to the optic's focal plane. The focal plane is an imaginary line drawn straight out from the middle of the optic. This is the usual way lighthouses are measured.

Q.   What are lighthouses made out of?
A.   Lighthouses were made out of many things. Back in the late 1700s to the early 1800s, most were made out of wood. These types of towers traditionally did not last too long. Most were lost to fire, gale winds, or huge waves. The more popular building materials, the ones that have withstood the test of time are brick, iron, and even reinforced concrete.

Q.   What is Florida's most powerful lighthouse?
A.   The Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse has a 2 million candlepower beacon and can be spotted 25 miles out to sea. It is also the last Florida lighthouse to be built on shore. It was built in 1907.

Q.   How many lighthouses are there in the US?
A.   It is estimated that there is about 680 lighthouses remaining in the US.

Q.   How many lighthouses are there in the world?
A.   It is estimated that there are 17,800 lighthouses in 250 countries throughout the world.

Q.   What is the oldest lighthouse in the US?
A.   The Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island. It was built in 1716, but then heavily damaged in the American Revolutionary War. In 1783, it was renovated and put back into service. Since it was renovated, it is not the oldest original lighthouse, that question is answered below.

Q.   What is the oldest "original" lighthouse in the US?
A.    The oldest original lighthouse in the US is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey. It was built in 1764, and is still flashing it's light today.

Q.   What was used to make the "light" in the lighthouses before electricity?
A.   Several different types of liquids were used burned in the lens including whale oil and kerosene. In one case, natural gas was used since it was near a natural gas spring. This lighthouse was the Barcelona Lighthouse in the Southern Tier of New York.

Q.   Which state has the most lighthouse in the U.S.?
A.    Michigan. It has over 120 lighthouses.

Q.   How many states in the United States have lighthouses?
A.    37 states contain lighthouses.

Q.   When was the first documented use of range lighthouses?
A.    The first documented use of range lights was at Newburyport Harbor (Plum Island Lighthouse).

Q.   Which coast has more lighthouss? East Coast or West coast?
A.    The East Coast, which has 391 lighthouses. The West Coast has 94.


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