Extract of the

Report of the Fifth Auditor, in relation to the execution of the act of 7th July last, for Building Light-houses, Light-boats, & c.

The 1838 Inspection Report is probably the best overall source as to the condition of this country's lighthouses, lightships, beacons and buoys in that period. The inspection was ordered by Congress in an act passed on June 7, 1838. What follows is an excerpt from Document No. 24, 25th Congress, 3rd Session, House of Representatives, Treasury Department. I have tried, as closely as possible to duplicate the original layout of the document. I have left the spelling and punctuation as they appear in the original document, including errors.----kmr

25th Congress,
3rd Session.
Document No. 24. Ho. of Reps.
Treas. Dept.


A Report of the Fifth Auditor, in relation to the execution of the act of 7th July last, for Building Light-houses, Light-boats, & c. December 13, 1838
Read, and laid upon the table
Treasury Department, December 12, 1838

Sir: Herewith I have the honor to transmit to you a communication from the Fifth Auditor of this Department, accompanied by documents and reports, setting forth what has been done under the act of the 7th of July last, entitled ôAn act making appropriations for building light-houses, light-boats, beacon-lights, buoys, and making surveys for the year 1838.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Secretary of the Treasury.

Hon. J.K. Polk
Speaker of the House of Reps.


Report of Lieutenant William D. Porter, United States navy, upon the condition, usefulness, and modification of the system of erecting, superintending, and managing the light-houses, light-boats, buoys, and beacons; in compliance with the 3d section of an act of Congress passed July 7, 1838, entitled ôAn act making appropriations for building light-houses, light-boats, beacon-lights, buoys, and making surveys for the year 1838.

SIR: As the lights along our Atlantic coast and within our numerous lakes, bays, and harbors, have become too numerous for one person, without assistance, (however industrious or intelligent he may be,) to supervise or bring into a proper system of successful operation, under a judicious and economical arrangement, it therefore appears to me that the inconveniences and dangers which may have arisen from a defect of this nature may be obviated by creating a department exclusively for this purpose and unconnected with any other, having at its head an officer with suitable qualifications, with others under him attached to different districts, who, by furnishing to the head of the department all necessary information, and acting in obedience to his orders, will give uniformity and efficiency to the whole system. By the adoption of this the head of the department will be enabled to give authentic, prompt, and extensive information to all interested for the security of life and property exposed to the dangers of the ocean and in the inlets on our coast. I offer the foregoing suggestions to create a department, on the ground of the established fact, that nothing so much tends to the able performance and despatch of duties as a judicious division of them among officers of activity, zeal, and intelligence. It is by these means that prompt, certain, and full information can be obtained and disseminated by a department so organized. It would be out of place in me to offer any detailed plan for organizing the department aforesaid, inasmuch as it will belong to others, whose elevated station, experience, and superior qualification, are much better adapted to the undertaking. It may, however, be permitted for me to suggest that the head of such a department might have not only the supervision and direction of the light-houses, light-boats, beacon-lights, buoys, &c., and the officers appertaining to the same, but that, in addition thereto, it should be his duty to make contracts with the various individuals within the range of his authority, who, it may be necessary to employ to meet the objects of Government, and benefit and secure that portion of our commercial and maritime interests for which it is especially intended; that he should have the settlement of all accounts with those having relations with the department; and in all cases where repairs or new light-houses, light-boats, buoys, &c., may be required, that plans and proposals for the same shall be submitted to him for his consideration and decision, under such regulations as Congress may prescribe. In order that the head of the department may have every light to enable him to make a judicious selection of sites &c., it would be very advisable to have associated with him in these duties a skillful engineer and optician. Under the system herein proposed, frequent inspections of the light-houses, light-boats, beacon-lights, and buoys, would be advisable. I therefore, recommend that, if this plan, in whole or in part, be adopted, vessels of a light draught of water be purchased or built, and placed under the command of the district inspectors: these vessels could be constantly and profitably employed, when not otherwise engaged, in delivering all the articles necessary for the light-houses, light-boats, beacon-lights, placing and replacing the buoys. By this arrangement the department will not have to acquire information from irresponsible persons, or rely upon the representations of contractors, light-house or light-boat keepers, petitioners, and owners of lands, whose views are seldom elevated above selfish considerations.

The present system, of placing different districts under the care of the collectors of customs, was, perhaps, suitable to the state of things at the period of its adoption, and was possibly a useful modification of the plan which preceded it; but the increase of commerce, and the changes produced by time, place the existing system in the same relation to the present times as the ancient one bore to the period of the last modification. The prematurely dilapidated and decayed condition of some of the light-houses and light-boats evidently manifests a defectiveness either in the manner of contracting for them, or a want of skill in the architects or constructors. The principle which has heretofore prevailed, of giving the contract to the lowest, without taking into consideration the best applicant, though it may appear to be founded upon the principals of economy, will not always prove to be the most advantageous. The anxiety of individuals to secure the contract may induce them to offer terms which cannot be honestly complied with without a less; to save which, the work must be either slighted, or unsuitable materials must be employed. It may be thought that a departure from the principal of giving the contracts to the lowest bidder would open a door to favoritism; but I would suppose that little apprehension of this kind could exist with regard to a department conducted by individuals, who owe their situations to irreproachable character and acknowledged talents. But, in either case, whether the contracts be given to the lowest or best bidder, I esteem it important that the Government should construct and build the light-houses, boats, and beacons, under the inspection of competent engineers and architects. The contractors are generally bound down to so low a sum in the building, &c., that they are compelled, to save themselves from loss, to use materials of the cheapest, and generally of the worst kind. I, therefore, recommend that the present system of contracting for the erection of light-houses be abolished, and their erection placed under the management of a competent engineer. I will here take occasion to observe, that the main tower erected on Cape Henlopen, years previous to the American Revolution, is at present strong and solid, without crack or flaw in the workmanship, and still exhibits evidence of continued durability; whereas the tower at Fire island inlet, built apparently after the model of that at Henlopen, is of modern date, has undergone several repairs , and is yet leaky.

The essentials in building light-houses are economy, durability, and usefulness. The first and second essentials cannot be obtained in the highest degree under the present contract system: this is fully proved by the condition of the modern buildings. The last and greatest object has also failed, as the object of a light is not only to be seen at the greatest distance the rotundity of the earth will permit, but to be seen at that distance distinctly: this object has not been attained. Few of the light-houses in the fourth district can be seen distinctly as far as the rotundity of the earth will admit.

The following important lights can be seen at the distance herein mentioned, but not so distinctly as to free the mind of the observer of all uncertainty with regard to the identity of the light: Sandy-Hook light, 13 miles; Neversink light, 20 miles; Cape-May light, 12 miles; Cape-Henlopen light, 18 miles; Cape-Henry light, 16 miles.

I do not attribute the defects in our lights to an insufficient number of lamps, but to the manner in which the lamps and reflectors are arranged, without an accurate observance of optical principals. There are cases in which some lamps may be usefully and economically dispensed with; in other cases, the reflectors are too remote from each other to produce a proper and powerful condensation of light. The lanterns generally in the light-houses in this district are sufficiently large, but, in consequence of being badly lighted, and the interior surface of the dome, stanchions, and sashes dark, the rays of light are absorbed and not reflected. The crossbars of the sashes also stand in too high relief from the plane of the glasses, whereby a considerable quantity of the rays of light are obstructed; the surfaces of the glasses are also in many cases very uneven, which refracts the light as to weaken its effect upon the eye of the observer.

The light-boats in the bays and rivers of this district do not appear to me to be constructed upon the best plan to defend them from the floating ice. I would, therefore, invite attention to the plan of a vessel invented by Commodore James Barron, the bottoms of which are solid, and would effectually resist the heavy and sharp bodies of ice which they must occasionally encounter; and they would not be injured by the ordinary accidents which lighter vessels could not resist.

I respectfully refer you to the letter (accompanying this report) of the superintendent of the Delaware breakwater, addressed to me, on the utility of a fog-bell on the breakwater; which letter is fully in accordance with my views. I would recommend its erection about the centre of the works, so that its warnings may be simultaneously heard at either extremity of the breakwater. I also recommend that a beacon-light be erected on the eastern extremity of the works; and to designate it from the beacon-light on Cape Henlopen, it would be proper to have it a colored light. After its erection, the present small light on the superintendent's dwelling can be dispensed with.

I also suggest the utility of a beacon-light on Drum point, which forms the mouth of the river Patuxent. The necessity of a light at this point is very great, as all vessels bound up or down the Chesapeake put in at this place during the winter, to seek protection from the floating ice; and as the entrance is formed by a low sandspit, which cannot be seen at night, vessels are often obliged to anchor outside the above-mentioned point until daylight, and, in consequence, are often driven on shore in heavy and adverse winds.

The present sites for light-houses in the fourth district have been judiciously selected: and when the light-houses on Sharp's Island, in the Chesapeake bay; the light-house on Reedy island, in the Delaware river; the light and beacon at South Amboy, New Jersey; the beacon-light at the Corner-Stake, (so called,) between Elizabethtown point and Shorter's island; and the small light on Shorter's island, with the lights I have recommended, shall have been completed and properly attended to, a central link will be formed in the chain of lights along our coast, which will give the advantages and security to our navigation which are contemplated. The buoys that have been heretofore placed appear to me to be very useful at the different points and shoals which they are to designate; and I have found all those generally in good order that have been placed under the charge of the commanders of the revenue-cutters, for which duty they receive an extra compensation of $300 per annum. The buoys at Assateaque inlet are in bad order, and not generally placed in such a manner as to designate the course of the channel. The light-boats, and some of the light-houses, from their location, could render great serve to vessels in distress during the winter months, and after heavy storms at other seasons of the year, if supplied with proper life-boats, and crews to man them. By this arrangement, many lives would be saved, great distress alleviated, and the revenue saved to the country would sufficiently cover the expenses of boats and the wages of extra men. In adopting this suggestion, it will be necessary to increase the crews of the light-boats to ten men, and, at the same time, employ as their keepers seamen who have a knowledge of the management of boats in bad weather. Heretofore, most of the light-boats have been kept by men (landsmen) who have farms within their vicinity, and who have either employed others at low wages to attend their duties, or wholly neglected them. It appears to me that it be to the interest of the Government, and to all who may be concerned, to place the light-boats and houses under the care of old seamen, or warrant officers of the navy or revenue service, who, by long and faithful services, have become too old for more active duty. Men who have for a long time followed the sea, appreciate the advantages of good lights; they would feel it a duty they owe to their brother mariners to keep their lights in good order. In my visit of inspection, I always found it the case that light-houses or boats kept by seamen or pilots were in good order. It is to the hardy, industrious, and much-neglected mariner that our country is indebted for much of its prosperity and luxuries in times of peace; and during the wars in which we have been engaged, they have always been foremost in their country's defence. By their untiring industry and indefatigable perseverance we are enabled to defray a great portion of the expenses for the support of the different branches of our Government. The mariner, from his occupation, is entirely cut off from a direct representation in the legislature of his country. Mostly on the bosom of the boisterous ocean, he is an exile from his country, wife, children, and friends; yet this very separation endears him to the land of his birth, and feels as great an interest in the prosperity , happiness, and independence of his country, as the wealthy merchant or extensive landholder. The merchant who trust his frail bark to the guidance of the honest and industrious mariner, indemnifies al of his own losses by insurance. He feels no the lost of property by sea, but looks to his policy to meet all disasters; he feels not the distress of the hardy and honest sailor. If his vessel is captured or seized by foreign Powers, or fire destroys his landed cargoes, he has a remedy by an appeal to Congress to indemnify his losses and remit his duties. Not so with the mariner: with the loss of the vessel, his small and hard-earned income ceases, or he is discharged in a foreign country upon a stipend of 20 cents per day, and that often denied by the Government agents abroad. If he is lost with the vessel, his widow and orphans tell a tale of wo, which is seldom heard beyond a prison or alms-house. Much can be done to alleviate the distressed seamen, by having life-boats stationed at places herein designated: the Wolf-trap light-boat, Willoughby's-spit light-boat, light-boat on Five-fathom bank, Cape Henry, breakwater, Cape Henlopen, Fire-island inlet, and on board the boat off Sandy Hook. Andy by having the lights on our coast well arranged, and conducted under a proper system, the mariner hails with joy the beacon that directs him to his home and friends; he looks to it as his ôpillar of fire by nightö and ôcloud by day,ö to direct him into a safe haven; he feels that he is safe when he makes a well-known light. But how frequently do we hear of shipwrecks, loss of lives, and great distress on our coast, during the inclement season of winterûmany, no doubt, in my mind, caused from mistakes of lights, and sometimes by having them extinguished for some trifling repairs. This evil should be altered by an act of Congress; and no light should be extinguished for any repairs, without at least six months' notice in every important commercial paper throughout the Union; and, also, the Government commercial agents abroad should be directed to disseminate such information within their agencies.

Having, in the foregoing report, exhibited my views, and given my observations upon what I conceive to be an advantageous modification of the present system for managing the light-houses, light-boats, & c., it only remains for me to report the actual condition of the same, grounded on personal inspection, as fully and accurately as could be done within the time limited.

Report upon the condition of the light-houses and light-boats within the fourth district.

Cohansey light.--Light on keeper's dwelling; burns eleven lamps with spherical reflectors. The house badly built; the walls crumbling; cistern leaks. Badly kept.

Egg-island light.--Light on keeper's dwelling; burns ten lamps with parabolic reflectors. The lamps badly constructed; house negligently built, and materials bad; several panes of glass in the lantern broken; the walls beginning to crack.

Light-boat No. 2, Delaware bay.--Very old; rotten in the upper works; lantern leaks.

Brandywine light-boat.--Fifteen years old : very much out of order; requires thorough repairs. The cause of the rot in our light-vessels can be generally attributed to the following causes: want of care of proper ventilation, and the mephitic vapor arising from bilge-water. All the causes can be obviated by the use of the common windsail (or tin or copper ventilator,) and the inverted bellows, as used on board of the vessels in the navy, which had proved of decided benefit in expelling the noxious vapors a rising in a ship's hold.

Five-fathom light-boat.--Has two lanterns. Boat decayed and leaky.

Cape-May light-house.--Revolving; burns fifteen lamps; the foundation appears to be settling; stucco on the tower bad. Keeper's dwelling cracked along the chimneys; foundation settled.

Hook light-tower.--Burns twenty-one lamps, with spherical reflectors. The light-tower supposed to be about eighty-years standing; in good order.

Beacons at the Hook.--Two, made of wood; one lamp each; no reflectors. These beacon-lights are too small and inadequate for their intention; they leak at every joint. These beacons, situated at the vomitary of the great American emporium of trade, should be well built, and brilliantly lighted; but their utility is nearly lost, in their bad construction and miserable lighting apparatus.

Highlands of Neversink.--The revolving light burns fifteen lamps, with parabolic reflectors; the works slightly out of repair; the window-sills and many of the beams rotten; silver burnt off the reflectors. The Highland stationary light burns six lamps with parabolic reflectors; the beams under the floors rotten; tower leaks in many placed; the light shows badly towards the north. Keeper's dwelling in good repair.

The light-boat off Sandy Hook broke adrift from her moorings in a gale of wind on the 12th of September, and arrived in New York on the 14th of the same month. On the 14th of October she had not been sent back to her station; and, from an advertisement in the New York American of October 14, 1838, offering a reward of $500 for the moorings, the period of her return to her station is not known. This vessel is in good order.

Barnegat light-house.--Burns eleven lamps, with parabolic reflectors placed on two parallel circles. The materials of which the tower and dwelling at this place are built appear to have been originally bad. The bricks are soft and crumbling to pieces; the mortar was mixed with sand containing saline particles, and is now crumbling and falling out from the interstices of the bricks; the tower leaks in every direction. From an examination I made, I was convinced that both the dwelling and tower were filled in with dry sand; the stucco on the tower has fallen off in many places.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieut. U.S.N.

Philadelphia, October 14, 1838

SIR: I have the honor to inform you that, while on my visit to inspection at the Hook light-house and beacons, I discovered that the contractor for building the keeper's house at the above-mentioned place was using the saline sand from the Hook, and not "inland sand," according to contract. I requested the superintendent (who was the keeper of the light) to inform the Department but, as he appeared to think it would be an unauthorized interference on his part, I feel it my duty to make this statement of the non-fullfillment of the contract.

I have the honor to be, very respectively, your obedient servant,


Hon. Levi Woodbury,

     Secretary of the Treasury

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