Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Forgotten Tombstone in Lighthouse History

By Timothy Harrison


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The tombstone of I.W.P. Lewis. He died on October ...
Photo by: Ron Janard

In the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts is the forgotten tombstone of man whose role in United States Lighthouse history is more than simply significant.

In the 1840s when many people started complaining about the quality of workmanship of the lighthouses and the high costs associated with them, as well as the quality of the Argand lamps used in them, the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment assigned Isaiah William Penn Lewis, who had been employed by the government as a civil engineer since 1836, to conduct an inspection of many of the lighthouses. Whether anyone ever called him by his first name of Isaiah is unknown, but in all of the documents and writings he refers to himself as I.W.P. Lewis. Interestingly, I.W.P Lewis was the nephew of Winslow Lewis, the man who was almost single handedly responsible for the building, suppling, and lighting of all of America’s lighthouses from the 1820s to the 1840s.

Over a period of years, I.W.P. Lewis visited almost all of the lighthouses in New England and gathered facts and obtained signed affidavits from just about anyone associated with lighthouses, and he submitted his report with the affidavits to Congress.

Because of the extreme importance of lighthouses to our nation in those day, the 1843 report, which was very critical of his uncle, lighthouse builder Winslow Lewis, the report created a major uproar and somewhat of a scandal that eventually led to the control of our nation’s lighthouses being taken away from Stephen Pleasanton, who for 32 years was the General Superintendent of Lighthouses. In 1852, Pleasanton was replaced by the newly created Light-House Board, which was comprised of some of the nation’s best naval officers, scientists, and inventors. Because of the work of I.W.P. Lewis and the report that he submitted to Congress that dramatically changed just about everything associated with America’s lighthouses, some have called him the “Father of America’s Lighthouse Systems.”

Strangely, there is no mention on the tombstone of I.W.P. Lewis of the significant role that he had in America’s lighthouse history. Perhaps the day will come when he will be honored with a U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Marker that will be placed at his tombstone.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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