Early U.S. Lightships, A thru ZZ


Although in 1792 the records mention three floating beacons in the Chesapeake Bay, and although from that time forward, many forms of unmanned small craft equipped with lights were used as aids to navigation, what is commonly known today as a light vessel or lightship probably did not come into being in this country until 1820.

It all began in 1819 when Congress appropriated money for two light vessel is, one to be stationed at Wolf Trap Shoal, and the other near Willoughby Spit - both in the Virginia area of lower Chesapeake Bay. A contract was awarded Sep 2, 1819 to James Poole of Hampton Virginia for construction of a vessel "of '70 tons burthen, copper fastened and coppered. .. .a cabin with at least four berths... .apartment for cooking, spars, a capstan belfry, yawl and davits."

This lightship was placed off Willoughby Spit, Virginia in the summer of 1820, but took such a beating it was soon moved to a less exposed location near Craney Island in the Elizabeth River off the port of Norfolk. Also in 1820, three more lightships were authorized for Southern waters and in 1822, appropriations were made for the first light vessel for New York Harbor off Sandy Hook.

In 1823, an expenditure of $25,000 was authorized for a vessel of "not less than 250 tons" to be stationed off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to mark Outer Diamond Shoal. This vessel was built by Henry Eckford and took station in 1824, serving intermittently until 1827 when it was blown ashore and later broken up for salvage. The Diamond Shoal station was not marked again by a lightship until 1897 - 70 years later.

From this modest beginning, advantages of the lightship became apparent and their construction arid use developed rather rapidly, particularly after 1837 when Congress divided the Atlantic Coast into six, and the Great Lakes into two, Lighthouse Districts with a Naval officer detailed to each District. This permitted a decentralized and more objective assessment of needs for navigational aids, which would be responsive to local interests.

Prior to 1867, there was no uniform or permanent method for identifying individual lightships. It is quite obvious from early records that these vessels were referred to invariably by name - usually that of the station, locality or hazard where they were positioned, but in a few cases by the name of a prominent citizen. "Willoughby's Spit". "Galveston", "Pleasonton", "the Rattlesnake Shoal light vessel", "Succonnessett", and "the Relief" are typical examples of early references to these first lightships. Use of names persisted until 1867.

Although it has been said that these early vessels were identified alphabetically, and also it has been said that numbers were used to identify them, official records provide no basis for this belief. No case has been found in early records or correspondence prior to 1867 where lightships were identified or referred to by either a letter or number designation.

The number sometimes related to early lightships may have been erroneously derived through association with the sequential numbers used in early versions of Light Lists published by the Treasury Department. At the time, "floating lights" were listed (and numbered) consecutively from North to South along the Atlantic Coast then East to West on the Gulf Coast followed by those on the Great Lakes. It is contended that the numbers used were not related to vessel numbers, but simply identified the vessel's position on the List - an index or reference number much the same as the "light list numbers" found in present day Light Lists.

With respect to the alphabetical designations, here again no case has been found in early correspondence or records where a lightship was identified by letter(s). Instead, there is good reason to believe that the letter designations were applied much later, long after the fact, and that only names (primarily station names) were used into the 1860's. Also, it will be seen that the alphabetical designations follow no geographical or chronological pattern; some letters of the alphabet were apparently not used; and some vessels known to have been in the inventory, were not labeled at all. It is unlikely that such an unsystematic procedure would have resulted, had alphabetical designations been universally applied in early times.

Use of names was probably adequate at the outset. However, when it was later found necessary to transfer a vessel to a different station, or to replace a vessel with a new ship, the names became a highly confusing means of identification which went from bad to worse upon transfer and exchange of vessels on a regional basis.

Such movement required either renaming the vessel by the gaining District, or maintaining the original name. As an example of the latter, one vessel served as Relief in the Second District for a year, then was stationed on Succonnessett Shoal in the Second District for seven years, and next transferred to Relief duty in the Third District for five years. During this entire period the vessel was identified in the records as "Relief Succonessett".

These are reasons why it is difficult to trace the early vessels chronologically, and why so little is known of their use and distinguishing characteristics. Information exists, but there is no means for associating it with the proper vessel.

Recognizing the problem, albeit belatedly, the Lighthouse Board in 1867 adopted a standard and permanent numbering system which was applied to all existing lightships, and subsequently applied to all lightships built thereafter. This action benefited the existing and future situation, but did nothing to assist in accounting for the earlier ships. Over the years, records are replete with correspondence from the Lighthouse Board requesting historical data from District Inspectors. The replies in most cases are sketchy, giving the date the vessel was acquired from another District, supposition as to where it was used earlier, but failing to provide factual information on its origin.

A typical case is found in the 1874 correspondence where the Inspector, Third District in responding to a request from the Lighthouse Board for a history of "Relief Vessel No. 17", stated that "previous to 1867, accounts of vessels and stations were not kept... the vessels had no permanent numbers.. ..correspondence of this office referred rather to the station than to the ship... .makes material for forming their history scant indeed"

Much later, in 1938, the Bureau of Lighthouses compiled a list of lightship stations and lightships for inclusion in a proposed publication concerning vessels of the Lighthouse Service. This was based on an earlier list published in 1927. By letter dated April 6, 1938, the Commissioner of Lighthouses sent a copy of the listing to all District Superintendents asking that the information be carefully checked and corrected as necessary. One paragraph in this letter stated that "Early ships which were not numbered have been assigned an arbitrary letter for purposes of this listing." This would appear to be the first use of letters to designate early lightships.

Examination of early records and correspondence supports the premise that lightships were identified solely by name until 1867, and that alphabetical designations were not applied to lightships until much later, probably in the 1930s. At that time, the alphabetical designation appears to have been used as a device for accounting convenience to cover gaps, conflicts, and conjecture in the records pertaining to early lightships. In summary, it appears that when faced with the need to differentiate among a group of light vessels whose history could not be effectively traced, and whose characteristics and use were subject to question, someone arbitrarily assigned alphabetical designations in order to account for a vessel's existence and presence at known locations. Although there is no absolute proof, this presentation adopts that point of view.


Tonnage: 72; wood hull

Stations: 1838-1859: St Helena Bar (SC)

1859-1868: Combahee Bank (SC)


Funds appropriated: 1820

Tonnage: 120; wood hull

Station: 1821-1861: Smith Point (VA)

Note: Sunk by Confederate forces, 1861


Funds appropriated: 1819; contract awarded Sept 2, 1819

Built: 1819 by James Poole, Hampton VA

Tonnage: 70; wood hull, copper fastened and sheathed

Stations: 1820: Willoughby's Spit (VA)

1821-1859: Craney Island (VA)

Notes: The first U.S. lightship. Placed at the northern extremity of Willoughby Bank, a shoal making out from Willoughby's Spit, however the vessel was unable to endure sea conditions at this location and was shortly moved to a position off Craney Island in the Elizabeth River off the port of Norfolk.


Station: 1854-1860: Frying Pan Shoal (NC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Station: 1854-1860: Rattlesnake Shoal (SC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate Forces


Cost: $12,774.63

Illumination: Records show red lights on both masts at 36 and 45 feet, however,

the 1854 Light List gives 2 fixed white lights at 30 and 45 feet

Stations: 1849-1859: Ship Shoal (LA)

1860-?: Relief (VA)

Notes: This was the former Revenue Cutter MCLANE converted to lightship service. Referred to in the records variously as "Ship Shoal" and "the Pleasonton". Ship Shoal station was located inside the shoal at the west end.


Station: 1865-1866: Cross Rip (MA)

Notes: Dec 28, 1866, parted moorings during a gale and after being carried to

sea, was abandoned in sinking condition on Dec 30. Benjamin F Gardner, Master;

Charles N Thomas, Mate. Said to have been identical to "H".


Built: 1828 at New York

Cost: $8,000

Length: 76'; Beam: 21'6"; Tonnage: 115

Illumination: Single 10-wick compass lamp at 38 feet

Station: 1828-1864: Cross Rip (Tuckernuck Shoal) (MA)

Notes: Said to have been named PRESIDENT when launched. Referred to as "Tuckanuck Shoals lightboat". In 1841, 14,885 vessels were logged as passing the vessel. Criticized for being absent from station for lengthy periods. Blown ashore and wrecked at Cape Poge, Martha's Vineyard in 1864


Nothing found


Nothing found



1839-1855: Martins Industry (SC)

1855-1859: Calibouge Sound (SC)


Tonnage: 41; wood hull

Station: 1835-1849: Bartlett Reef (CT)

1849-?: Eel Grass Shoal (CT)


Tonnage: 41; wood hull

Stations: 1826-1855: Wade Point Shoal (NC)


Built: 1823 at New York

Length: 72'; Beam: 20'; Tonnage: 110 displ, 120 gross

Illumination: Two oil lamps, each with 12 cylindrical wicks, One lamp on

foremast at 42 feet, the other on mainmast at 45 feet

Fog Signal: 450 lb hand operated bell

Stations: 1823-1850: Brandywine Shoal (DE)

1851-1854: Minots Ledge (MA)

1855: Relieved Cross Rip (MA)

1855: Relieved Five Fathom Bank (NJ)

Notes: Sister to "X". Referred to as "lightboat Brandywine", "old Brandywine"


Tonnage: 54; wood hull

Station: 1835-1861: Bowlers Rock (VA)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Tonnage: 125; wood hull

Station: 1848-?: Tybee Island Knoll (GA)


Built: 1821

Tonnage: 120; wood hull

Station: 1821-1847: Willoughby's Spit (VA)

Note: Replaced "C" after it was moved to Craney Island station


Tonnage: 400; iron hull

Illumination: Fitted with two lights

Station: 1847-1867: Willoughby's Spit (VA)

Retired: Aug 1867

Notes: Former Revenue Cutter SPENCER converted to lightship service following the Mexican War. Retired from lightship duty when hull plating found to be too thin at waterline


Appropriation: Used same 1819 appropriation as "C"

Built: 1820

Station: 1821- ?: Wolf Trap Shoal (VA)


Built: 1856 at Philadelphia Navy Yard

Length: 81'6"; Beam: 21'6"; Depth: 10'6"; Tonnage: "about" 150; wood hull

Stations: During the period 1856-1861, used on both Wolf Trap (VA) and York

Spit (VA)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces, 1861


Station: 1834-1861: Windmill Point (VA)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces, 1861


Station: 1863-1864: Fishing Rip (SC)

Notes: Former schooner ASCENSION, a Civil War prize purchased from USN May 1863. Commandeered by USN during period Jul 5, 1863 - Mar 1864, then returned to station. Found rotten, and worm damaged then retired 1864. Later used for storing lighthouse supplies.


Tonnage: 400; iron hull

Station: 1847- 1860: Merrills Shell Bank (MS)

Illumination: Single lantern on mast amidships

Notes: This was the former Revenue Cutter LEGARE converted to lightship service

in 1847 after the Mexican War. Sunk by Confederate forces 1860


Built: 1823 by Henry Eckford at New York

Length: 72'; Beam: 20'; Tonnage: 120; wood hull

Station: 1823-1845: Upper Middle Shoal (Cross Ledge) (DE)

Illumination: One oil lamp 45 feet above water Fog Signal: 450 lb. hand operated bell

Notes: Sister to "N". Hull painted straw color. Referred to as "Upper Middle No. 2" (being one of two lightships then in Delaware Bay). There is reason to believe that this vessel may have been rebuilt and enlarged on 2 occasions and later designated LV 19.


Station: 1857-1861: Dames Point (FL)


Built: 1847, at Washington (DC)

Length: 78'; Beam: 20'; Tonnage: 155; wood hull

Illumination: Fitted with 2 lights

Station: 1847-1860: Vineyard Sound (MA)


Station: 1825-1841?: Carysfort Reef (FL)

Notes: Was the vessel CAESAR. May have been converted to a bell boat in 1841 but a conflicting report indicated it may have been retired in 1830 due to "excessive rot." Her commanding officer was a "Capt. Walton" who also served as CO of "BB." The capture of the slave-ship GUERRERO by HMS NIMBLE near the lightship's position occurred on 19 December 1827. The slave ship grounded on a nearby reef and was a total loss. Forty-one of the slaves aboard perished but 121 were rescued and later repatriated to Africa.


Tonnage: 225; wood hull

Station: 1841-1852: Carysfort Reef (FL)

Notes: Said to have been named FLORIDA. Possibly the former Federal sloop USS FLORIDA, used earlier in the area as a survey vessel. Her first commanding officer, "Capt. Walton," had served as the CO of "AA." He was killed by Seminoles when he went for supplies ashore in 1837.


Nothing found


Tonnage: 72; wood hull

Station: 1825-1861: Lower Cedar Point (MD)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Tonnage: 72; wood hull

Station: ? -1859: Upper Cedar Point (MD)


Station: 1831-?: Brant Island Shoal (NC)


Station: 1863: Brant Island Shoal (NC)


Tonnage: 125; wood hull

Station: 1828-1862: Neuse River (NC)


Nothing found


Tonnage: 145; wood hull

Station: 1825-1861: Long Shoal (NC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Station: 1864-1867: Long Shoal (NC)


Station: 1821- ?: Upper Cedar Point (MD)


Tonnage: 12; wood hull

Station: 1835-1861: Roanoke River (NC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Tonnage: 145; wood hull

Station: 1838-1854: Northwest Passage (Key West) (FL)


Nothing found


Station: 1846-1853: Sand Key (FL)


Tonnage: 72; wood hull

Station: 1836-1861: Harbor Island (NC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Tonnage: 72; wood hull

Station: 1835-1861: Roanoke Island (Croatan) (NC)


Tonnage: 70; wood hull

Stations: 1827-1859: Nine Foot Shoal (NC)

1859-1861: Upper Cedar Point (MD)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces 1861


Station: 1852-1859: Okracoke Channel (NC)


Station: 1851-1870: Horseshoe Shoal (NC)


Built: 1822/23 at New York

Cost: $17,702

Length: 90'; Beam: 23'; Tonnage: 154 (also shown as 195); wood hull

Station: 1823-1829: Sandy Hook (NY)

Note: Said to have been the first lightship equipped with reflector-type lamps.


Built: 1837

Cost: $15,900

Length: 98'6"; Beam: 24'6"; Depth: 12' Tonnage: 230; wood hull

Illumination: Two 4-sided lanterns using sperm oil compass lamps. Foremast lantern at 37 feet and main lantern at 48 feet. Visible 4 miles "under ordinary circumstances"

Station: 1839-1854: Sandy Hook (NY); position given as 48-26-20 North, 73-55-00 West, Sandy Hook Light bearing W x N distant 6 1/2 miles

Notes: Henry P. Lunt, her Master in 1850 reported vessel had broken adrift 18 times in 13 years resulting in absences from station of from 5 weeks to 4 months


Appropriation: $12,500

Built: 1849

Cost: $11,000

Design: Wood hull; 2 masts; daymark on mainmast only; schooner rigged

Tonnage: 149

Illumination: Single lantern having one oil lamp with 9 wicks, 35 feet above water

Fog Signal: Hand operated bell

Station: 1849-1870?: Galveston (TX)

Notes: Original station position given as 29-20-50 North, 94-43-30 West; hull color "sandy yellow". Sister to Atchafalaya Bay lightship. Withdrawn from station 1853 to serve as quarantine ship during a summer "epidemic". In Mar 1859 Congress appropriated funds for construction of range beacons to replace the lightship which was "so much decayed as to be unworthy of repairs authorized by Congress". Even though the range lights were placed in operation in 1860, the Lighthouse Board did not discontinue the station "until Congress could again pass upon the case". How long this vessel remained in service is unclear, but the aging LV 28 was transferred from Bowlers Rock (VA) and placed on the Galveston station in 1870


Built: 1832 at Detroit (MI)

Cost: $7,350; said to have been built by Oliver Newbury and christened LOUIS MOLANE

Length: 47'; Beam: 17'9"; Tonnage: 61; wood hull

Station: 1832-1851: Mackinaw Straight (MI)

Note: Constructed with copper sheathed bottom. Despite the builder's claim that this was unnecessary in fresh water, it was decided that costs involved in a contract change would exceed the cost for copper sheathing


Built: 1820

Station: 1820-1823: Northeast Pass (LA)

Note: Referred to as the Aurora Borealis. Stationed near Franks Island Lighthouse while it was being rebuilt. Ongoing research has indicated that this lightship was positioned outside the Northeast Pass entrance, thereby making it the first U.S. lightship on an "exposed" station. The 1822 edition of The American Coast Pilot by Edmund M. Blunt noted:

"A vessel with a floating light is moored by a chain and anchor, 1 1/4 mile due south of the bar of the N. E. pass of the Mississippi, between Wallace's and Bird islands, in lat. 29° 8' 40" N. and 5 miles E. by N. 1/2 N. of the block-house at the Balize, and 1 3/4 mile E. by S. 3/4S. from the unfinished lighthouse on Frank's island, which station she will not leave unless driven by stress of the weather. By day she will be known by having a white flag with a red cross hoisted upon her mainmast. By night her lantern will be hoisted 45 feet above the level of the water upon her mainmast. A large bell is suspended near the windlass of this light vessel, which will be kept tolling during foggy weather both night and day; this bell may be heard 6 miles with the wind, and 4 miles against it, in moderate weather."


Built: 1823 by Henry Eckford at New York Tonnage: 300; wood hull, iron fastened, copper sheathed; fitted with two 3000 lb mushroom anchors, each with 120 fathoms of chain

Illumination: Two lanterns 3 ft square x 5 ft high, each having oil compass lamps with 12 wicks

Station: 1824-1827: Diamond Shoal (Cape Hatteras) (NC)

Note: Blown ashore and wrecked near Okracoke Inlet 1827


Station: Janes Island (MD); vessel sold 1867


Built: 1849

Cost: $7,992.79

Station: 1849-1858: Atchafalaya Bay (LA)

Illumination: Showed single light 35 feet above water

Notes: Said to have been a sister to "XX". Hull color "sandy yellow"


Tonnage: 140

Station: 1826-1861 Royal Shoal (NC)

Note: Removed, sunk or destroyed by Confederate forces


Ballou's Pictorial of 1853 shows a Diamond Shoal lightship with hull shape similar to "W" and having three masts, 2 with lights, 1 with riding sail. However, official records do not show any lightship on that station during the period 1827-1897)


Blunt's American Coast Pilot of 1837 lists a "floating Light vessel" with one light marking Fourteen Foot Bank (DE) in 1837, stating that the vessel was placed on station from March to December. Since there is no record of a vessel on Fourteen Foot Bank at that time, it may have been a private aid.

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