Alexander Hamilton: "Superintendent" of Lighthouses

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By Nicole Scholet 
August 7, 2014


Today is the 225th anniversary of the passage of the Lighthouse Act, or the "Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers." This act of Congress, passed on August 7, 1789 (the ninth piece of official legislation and first public works act ever passed by the US Congress), created the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE).

When it was created, the USLHE was placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Treasury. Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury shortly after the Lighthouse Bill was passed, and the USLHE became one of Hamilton's many duties. With meticulous attention to detail, Alexander Hamilton oversaw the development of the USLHE, for which he has been called the first "Superintendent" of Lighthouses. 

About the "Lighthouse Act"

What did this act entail? It directed that all existing lighthouses and other aides to navigation in the United States would be placed under federal jurisdiction and that the Treasury Department would pay for the upkeep of these structures. The act also made provisions for the creation of a specific lighthouse "near the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay." 

Here is the full text of the bill:

Photo Credit: MikeChurch.comPhoto Credit: MikeChurch.com

An Act for the Establishment and support of Lighthouse, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all expenses which shall accrue from and after the fifteenth day of August one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, in the necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers erected, placed, or sunk before the passing of this act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States: Provided nevertheless, That none of the said expenses shall continue to be so defrayed by the United States, after the expiration of one year from the day aforesaid, unless such lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers, shall in the mean time be ceded to and vested in the United States, by the state or states respectively in which the same may be, together with the lands and tenements thereunto belonging, and together with the jurisdiction of the same.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That a lighthouse shall be erected near the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, at such place, when ceded to the United States in manner aforesaid, as the President of the United States shall direct.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury to provide by contracts, which shall be approved by the President of the United States, for building a lighthouse near the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, and for rebuilding when necessary, and keeping in good repair, the lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers in the several States, and for furnishing the same with all necessary supplies; and also to agree for the salaries, wages, or hire of the person or persons appointed by the President, for the superintendence and care of the same.

Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That all pilots in the bays, inlets, rivers, harbors and ports of the United States, shall continue to be regulated in conformity with the existing laws of the States respectively wherein such pilots may be, or with such laws as the States may respectively hereafter enact for the purpose, until further legislative provision shall be made by Congress.

APPROVED, August 7, 1789 

[Source]

Alexander Hamilton and U.S. Lighthouses

1792 John Trumbull portrait of Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton1792 John Trumbull portrait of Secretary of Treasury Alexander HamiltonAs seen in the full text of the Lighthouse Act above, the act specified that it was "the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury" to oversee that the act's provisions be carried out. This included maintenance of all lighthouses and aides to navigation, as well as overseeing construction of the mandated lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Alexander Hamilton became the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury on September 11, 1789, little over a month after the Lighthouse Act was passed. Thus, Secretary Hamilton had to oversee the transition of responsibility for all existing lighthouses and other aides to navigation from the various states and municipalities to the federal government. 

Less than three weeks after assuming the Secretaryship, on October 1, 1789, Hamilton issued a Treasury Department Circular to the Collectors of the Customs asking them to report on existing lighthouses and other aides to navigation at the ports for which they were in charge. This was followed four days later by a circular to the Warden of the Ports for additional information.

By early January of 1790, Hamilton had received the responses to his circulars and compiled them in a detailed report for President Washington. This report included locations of the existing structures, estimated expense for their annual maintenance, proposed superintendents, and other recommendations. Hamilton devoted a great amount of energy throughout his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury to overseeing these aspects of the USLHE and more.

Cheryl Shelton Roberts, in a 2007 essay on Alexander Hamilton and lighthouses, explains the importance of Hamilton's role in overseeing lighthouses in the United States:

...Hamilton's strong interest in lighthouses, and in particular, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, derived from his belief that lighthouses created good trading conditions essential to create a prosperous economy for America. As first Secretary of the Treasury, serving for two terms in his beloved President Washington's cabinet, it was Hamilton who created and was the architect of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment while building the process he put in place for a national treasury and bank. In a very real sense, he was the first superintendent of America's lighthouses. Many of the letters exchanged between President Washington and Secretary Hamilton discussed the needs for lights to mark dangerous sections along the eastern seaboard. It was Hamilton who pushed for the enactment of the ninth act of the first congress that placed lighthouses under federal control, in effect taking them away from local and state authorities. The major shift was to build lights to warn of dangers like those at Diamond Shoals. Before Hamilton was put in charge, merchants at local ports and state-supported lighthouse projects were interested in harbor lights serving the immediate means of merchants with heavy investments in shipping, not those along the coast built in states other than to their interests as warning lights. Hamilton's plan thus put lighthouses at the forefront of building a network of guiding lights leading to and from major eastern ports as part of a plan to provide safe shipping to all ports as a common benefit.

[...] Hamilton also believed in the development of the country not only as an agrarian economy as it was in the late eighteenth century but also in the manufacturing arena. To do so, shipments of goods to and from the country were part of his vision to develop and populate the interior of the country. Though partisan politics put him at odds from time to time with John Adams, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr, he persisted to always defend his belief that America would become great only if it had a strong central government, leading the way to economical prosperity. As a fledgling nation, the concern on the part of local governments was who would pay the bill for building lighthouses. Through import and excise taxes, Hamilton did a brilliant job to persuade Congress, then reluctant to spend money on aids to navigation, to build the first federal lighthouses and established a national legacy. Aptly named: "federal octagonals" these were strong and robust structures of which nine of the eleven still stand. [Source]

As Cheryl Shelton Roberts pointed out, the majority of the early federal lighthouses still stand today, including the very first - the Cape Henry Lighthouse. 

About the Cape Henry Lighthouse

Cape Henry Lighthouse, completed in 1792. Photo Credit: Preservation VirginiaCape Henry Lighthouse, completed in 1792. Photo Credit: Preservation VirginiaThe Cape Henry lighthouse in Viriginia, opened in 1792, was the first lighthouse built and completed by the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE). It was also the first federal construction project under the US Constitution. This lighthouse fulfilled the specific mandate of the Lighthouse Act to have a lighthouse "near the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay."

Hamilton was very involved with the Cape Henry project, from requesting appropriations from Congress to purchase the land for the lighthouse from Virginia, investigating into the land's suitability for construction, overseeing the building contracts, and keeping up-to-date on the progress of the lighthouse's construction.

Preservation Virginia, which oversees the Cape Henry lighthouse today, describes its history:

In 1789, the newly formed government met to define and enact legislation that would benefit the nation. These leaders felt an urgent need to respond to the public demand for safe and navigable waterways. The construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse involved many of these leaders. By November 1789, the Virginia General Assembly provided conveyance of the land "lying and being in the County of Princess Anne at the place commonly called the head land of Cape Henry" to the new government "for the purpose of building a lighthouse." Alexander Hamilton contracted with John McComb, Jr. of New York on 31 March 1791. McComb had been the designer of the Government House, the planned residence of the President, in New York City.

The contract called for an octagonal structure with three windows in the east and four windows in the west rising 72 feet from the water table to the top of the stone work. The agreement also stipulated the design and construction of a two story house to be a residence for the keeper and for safe storage of the oil to be used for the light. McComb was to furnish all materials for each structure.

Using the Aquia stone remaining from the first attempted construction of the lighthouse, McComb revised his plans for the foundation and went 20 feet below sea level rather than the 13 feet originally specified. The base diameter also increased from 27 feet, 6 inches to 33 feet. McComb laid the eleven-feet-thick exterior wall in the circular design for the first four feet. The remaining 93 feet of the tower to the lantern, laid in Rappahannock freestone, rose forming an octagonal truncated pyramid. The lantern rose 13 feet high from its base to the top of the roof. McComb estimated completion of the project by 1 October 1792.

In early October, 1792, George Washington renewed his interest in the lighthouse and requested a list of applicants for the keeper. After review, Laban Goffigan, probably of Norfolk, became the first keeper to light the fish oil burning lamps of Cape Henry Lighthouse in late October. The new government completed its first federal work project and fulfilled its obligation to the sea travelers of the Virginia coast. The final cost of $17,700 exceeded the first estimate by $2,500. [Source]

An interesting side note: In addition to overseeing the construction of the Cape Henry Lighthouse, John McComb, Jr. later designed Alexander Hamilton's country home in upper Manhattan, "The Grange," which was constructed from 1800-1802. Both the Cape Henry Lighthouse and the Grange are open to the public today. 

"Hamilton's Light" - The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

First Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, completed 1803First Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, completed 1803One of the most iconic and well-known lighthouses today is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outerbanks of North Carolina. The original lighthouse was known as "Mr. Hamilton's Light," reflecting Hamilton's early role in establishing a lighthouse there.

"Having for a long time entertained an opinion that a Light House on some part of Cape Hatteras would be an establishment of very general utility to the navigation of the United States," Hamilton directed inquires into the optimal location for a lighthouse in the area, and in February of 1794, Hamilton submitted to the President of the Senate a "Report Relative to a Lighthouse on Cape Hatteras" with his recommendations. Hamilton's report was made into a bill by the Senate, which passed in May of 1794. The lighthouse itself, however, was not completed until 1803.

Lighthouses Today

The US Light House Service, 1910-1939The US Light House Service, 1910-1939The United States Lighthouse Establishment became the Lighthouse Board in 1852, which was superseded by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910. In 1939, the duties of the U.S. Lighthouse Service were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard - another agency whose foundations were created by Alexander Hamilton. Today there are approximately 680 lighthouses in the United States.  

Related features:

    2011 Alexander Hamilton: "Superintendent" of Lighthouses. (c) 2016 The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society
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