Digest>Archives> March 2002

Collecting Nautical Antiques

1852 Report Light-House Board

By Jim Claflin


Much of the history of the early Light-House Establishment can be found in local bookstores in early Congressional documents. On May 8, 1792 the federal office of Commissioner of Revenue was established and the control of each of the states’ lighthouses was now placed within this federal jurisdiction. By 1802 this office was abolished and control of the new nation’s lighthouses fell upon the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. During these first thirty years of government control the numbers of lights had increased from eight to fifty-five, and each was built to meet a pressing local want and without reference to any overall system.

This new Fifth Auditor, Stephen Pleasonton became known as the General Superintendent of Lights and served from 1820 until 1852. During this time the Light-House Establishment was increased from fifty-five to 325 lighthouses and lightships, with numerous other aids. Pleasonton executed the orders of Congress, but he also had certain discretionary powers as well. Light-Houses were kept in repair by contractors who maintained the apparatus as well as delivered illuminating oil and supplies. However, as the numbers of lighthouses increased so did the difficulties in caring for and managing the structures and apparatus. In addition, contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder regardless of qualifications, and with only limited inspections by local officials, quality of materials and facilities fell into decline.

As time went on complaints from shipmasters relative to the efficiency of the nation’s lights began to increase. The Messrs. E. & G. Blunt, publishers of Blunt’s Coast Pilot, were among the more prominent complainants and forwarded to Washington numerous details of inefficiency or ineffective lights. On February 2, 1838 the Senate published Senate No. 159. Report From The Secretary Of The Treasury... Transmitting A Communication From Captain M.C. Perry, In Relation To The Light-House Establishment Of The United States. This report proposed the establishment of a board of 4 or 5 Navy Captains, with an engineer to examine and report on the condition of the Light-Houses annually. Complaints continued to be received by Congress and by March 1838 Senate Document No. 258 presenting “... arguments of Mr. E. and G.W. Blunt to the effect that the U. S. Light-Houses were greatly inferior to those of Great Britain and France, that the system of superintending them and their management was bad and that the Establishment was kept up at greater cost... This document served to rebut Mr. Pleasontons’ reply to a report made in November 1837 and included testimony, examples as well as table of limits of visibility of existing U.S. lights.

Among other things, Blunt charged that the establishment had increased beyond the ability of any single individual in Washington to superintend it. In addition they noted that the annual sums appropriated by Congress were not judiciously or energetically used. Too much reliance on the contractors without proper inspection or control fostered poor workmanship and dishonest practices.

As criticism continued Pleasonton began to find himself on the defensive more and more. On January 19, 1844 Congress published their Document No. 62. Light-Houses. Letter From The Secretary Of The Treasury Transmitting Fifth Auditors Report Relative To Light-Houses And Lights. In this 131 page report, Pleasonton replies to previous criticisms of the Light-House Establishment and particularly those lights on the coast of New England. Pleasonton offers testimony as well as many observations of ship owners, pilots, etc. in respect to the efficiency of the lights on the coast of the United States. In defense, he includes a complete listing of U.S. lighthouses with specifications, as well as a list of the light-houses of the British Islands, and their characteristics.

In 1845 Secretary of the Treasury R. J. Walker detailed Navy Lieutenants Thornton A. Jenkins and Richard Bache to Europe to examine their systems and to procure information which might improve this system. After a year of research they returned and issued a detailed 278 page report calling for a complete overhaul of the nation’s lighthouses. Among other things they called for a complete reorganization of the Light-House Establishment and the appointment of an engineer and district superintendents.

Congress received this report and on March 3, 1851 appointed a board “of proper persons” to inquire into the condition of the establishment and make a detailed report and program to guide future legislation. After detailed investigation the board issued their elaborate 760-page report on January 30, 1852. Published as both Senate Ex. Doc. No. 28 and H. R. Ex. Doc. No. 55, this report was entitled Report Of The Officers Constituting The Light-House Board...To Inquire Into The Conditions Of The Light-House Establishment Of The United States, Under The Act Of March 3, 1851.

The report was illustrated by over 40 large fold-out plates as well as numerous woodcut engravings. The examination extended into the construction of towers, dwellings and illuminating apparatus and included a careful investigation of the manner in which keepers performed their duties, the ability and fidelity of inspectors; the mode of supplying the establishment with oil and other stores, and much more. The report contrasted our methods and equipment with those of Great Britain and France. Of special significance was their recommendation of the adoption of the Fresnel lenticular system of illumination apparatus in place of the old system of Argand lamps and parabolic reflectors.

Shortly after the release of this report, Fifth Auditor Pleasonton rebutted this report in H. R. Report No. 88. Letter From The Secretary Of The Treasury Transmitting A Communication From The Fifth Auditor Of The Treasury Respecting The Light-House System Of The United States, In Reply To A Report Made To The Congress By The Light-House Board. March 23, 1852. In this 82 page reply Mr. Pleasonton defends his administration and attempts to answer several of the criticisms contained in the 1851 report, as well as show the merits of the Light-House Establishment - but times had changed and the die was cast. The 1852 report would become the basis for the complete re-organization of the Light-House establishment and was the basis for the permanent establishment of the “Light-House Board.”

This 1852 Report Of The Officers Constituting The Light-House Board... was published in two forms : Senate Executive Document. No. 28 and House of Representatives Executive Document No. 55. They were generally published individually and can still be found in their original bindings, or sometimes in disbound form. I have occasionally found them in their original half-calf binding complete with marbled endpapers and gilt embossed spine, or sometimes in the plain brown binding of the Government Printing Office. In either form if complete with all of the pages and plates, expect to pay in the $500-$850 range. As high as this might seem, keep in mind that this report would be the basis for the complete reorganization of the Light-House Establishment and would serve as the plan for the next 150 years. Of the many documents and reports on the subject, this surely is one of the most important and interesting of all. The other reports noted can still be found as well, usually in the disbound form. These make great reading and are well worth the search.

Next time we will take a look at some Light-House Establishment clocks. Please continue to send in your questions on the subject or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 30 Hudson Street, Northborough, MA 01532, or by calling 508-393-9814. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the March 2002 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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