The evolution of lighting at the Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod in Massachusetts has continued with a new light-emitting diode (LED) beacon that was recently installed in the lantern of the historic tower. The new modern beacon does not rotate, but instead flashes a light out to sea every five seconds. The Coast Guard says that it will use less energy and require less maintenance than the previous VEGA beacon that was in the lantern.
But many lighthouse aficionados and historians question the need for LED beacons that significantly alter the historical integrity of lighthouses, especially at a time when many Coast Guard officials say that lighthouses are no longer needed. Lighthouse aficionados and many historians also point to the strict historical guidelines that new owners or license holders of lighthouses are required to abide by when caring for lighthouses, while the federal government continues on its quest to remove historic Fresnel lenses from towers in favor of the LED beacons, thereby depriving future generations of the full impact of the historical significance. And others argue that even the plastic Vega beacons, although not liked in comparison to the lights they replaced, provided the current generation a more ardent understanding of the romance and history of a lighthouse than an LED beacon can ever provide.
The Beginning of Highland’s
The first Highland Lighthouse, built in 1797, was the first lighthouse in the nation to have a flashing light which was a rotating eclipser that revolved around a spider lamp once every 80 seconds and the light would be hidden from view for 30 seconds during each revolution.
The next step in the evolution of lighting at Highland Light came in 1811-12 when the light apparatus was replaced by lamps and reflectors that had been patented by Winslow Lewis.
In 1831, a new tower was built to replace the earlier and original tower at Highland Lighthouse. Changes in the evolution of the lighting at Highland Lighthouse came about again in the early 1840s when I.W.P. Lewis, the nephew of Winslow Lewis, installed a similar but more efficient lighting apparatus based on an English design. This called for major alterations to the poorly constructed 1831 tower.
A writer for The Atlantic Monthly who visited the Highland Lighthouse at the time wrote, “The light consisted of fifteen argand lamps, placed within smooth concave reflectors twenty-one inches in diameter, and arranged in two horizontal circles one above the other, facing every way, excepting directly down the Cape.”
He mentioned to the lighthouse keeper that it was a pity that some poor student did not live there to profit by all that light, to which the keeper replied, “Well, I do sometimes come here to read the newspaper. The writer then continued by writing, “Think of fifteen argand lamps to read the newspaper by! Government oil! – light enough, perchance to read the Constitution by! I thought he should read nothing less than his Bible.”
A New Tower Signals New
Eventually the poorly constructed 1831 tower was demolished, and in 1857 a new, 66-foot-tall, tower was built for Highland Lighthouse. It was equipped with a magnificent first order Fresnel lens in its lantern; however, in a devastating storm in November of 1898 this lens was damaged beyond repair.
The Temporary 3rd Order Lens
While the government awaited funds for a new first order Fresnel lens to be ordered and installed, a temporary wooden tower was built and a 3rd order Fresnel lens was installed in its lantern room to thereby act as the official Highland Lighthouse. This temporary wooden tower stood through most of October of 1901 when it was sold at auction and removed.
The Second 1st Order Lens
In 1901, workmen spent a great deal of time installing a brand new 1st order Fresnel lens made by Barbier, Benard, & Turenne, which was actually larger than the earlier first order Fresnel lens that was previously in the tower and had been damaged beyond repair in the 1898 storm. The new lens had 192,000 candlepower, and it was lighted for the first time on the evening of October 10, 1901. In 1932, when a new electric light was installed to light the Fresnel lens, its candlepower was increased to 4 million, reportedly at that time, making it the most powerful light on the New England coast.
Lens Destroyed in Evolution
to Aero Beacons
In 1946, the Coast Guard decided that the 1st order Fresnel lens was not cost effective, and they decided to replace it with a Crouse-Hinds, double-drum, rotating DCB-36 aero beacon. At that time, apparently rather than carefully dismantling and crating the lens so that it could be saved for future generations, which would have taken more time and money than they wanted to spend, the historic lens was destroyed, meeting the same fate as other destroyed Fresnel lenses, as was the case with the lens that was at the Monhegan Island Lighthouse in Maine. A piece of Highland’s first order Fresnel lens was saved and is now on display at the Highland Lighthouse and Museum.
Interestingly, when the Highland Lighthouse was automated in 1987, in what was also described as another cost saving measure; the DCB-36 aero beacons were removed and replaced with a Crouse-Hinds DCB-224 aero beacon.
The Vega Evolution
In the 1990s, the Coast Guard started installing Vega VRB-25 rotating beacons in many lighthouses across the country. Although most historians and lighthouse enthusiasts did not like the cheap-looking plastic lights, at least they rotated, allowing the romance of the sweeping beacon to continue. Such was the case in 1998 when the DCB-224 aero beacon was removed from Highland Lighthouse and replaced by a Vega VRB-25 rotating beacon.
The Last Evolution
Now, in 2017, the lantern of Cape Cod’s Highland Lighthouse, as is happening with others, lost its last symbol of the true romance and allure of the lighthouse when the Vega VRB-25 rotating beacon was removed from the lantern and replaced with a nondescript, ugly, and unromantic LED beacon.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2017 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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