Lighthouses: Our First Public Infrastructure Project
By Nancy Spannaus
Aug. 7, 2019—On August 7, 1789 Congress approved legislation for the first public infrastructure project in the just-born United States—our lighthouses! The legislation created the U.S. Light House Establishment, and it mandated that state lighthouses be turned over to the Federal government, which was charged with managing and expanding the system. That act is currently celebrated every year by the National Lighthouse Museum located on Staten Island, New York, on August 7, which was designed National Lighthouse Day in 1989 by the U.S. Congress.
The celebration of our lighthouses highlights the role of Alexander Hamilton, whose economic genius and statesmanship played such a critical role in building our nation. Lighthouses were a crucial piece of public infrastructure for a nation so dependent upon the sea, serving both as navigational aids and as warning of dangerous conditions for ships approaching the shore. Many a ship had foundered, and soldiers lost, due to the hazardous conditions, and disorientation. The lighthouse keeper – and often his family – were charged with rescue duties as well. From his youth in the Caribbean, Hamilton was well aware of these dangers.
The Light House Establishment
According to an article in the Museum brochure by Wayne R. Goria, a historian who serves as a docent at the location:
The Light House Establishment brought locally funded light houses situated along the Atlantic coast under the rigorous authority of a centralized and efficient agency, now presided over by Hamilton, who served as its first Superintendent, even before he assumed office as Treasury Secretary on September 11th, 1789. Hamilton would continue to serve as Treasury Secretary until January 31st, 1795. As Light House Establishment Superintendent, Hamilton called for the construction of a navigational infrastructure consisting of two hundred and fifty light houses along the Atlantic coast. Cape Henry Light, often identified as “Mr. Hamilton’s Light,” was built at the entry point of Chesapeake Bay at Virginia Beach and it became America’s first public works project. Cape Hatteras Light was constructed on the hazardous Outer Banks of North Carolina where Hamilton had come close to losing his life in 1772.
To ensure that customs duties would be effectively and properly collected, Hamilton in August 1790, created the US Revenue Cutter Service that originally consisted of ten cutters. The eventual merging of the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life Saving Service, formed in 1878, long after Hamilton’s death in 1804, provided the basis of today’s US Coast Guard, formally established in 1915. Hamilton’s preeminent role managing both the US Light House Establishment and the US Revenue Cutter Service has encouraged some historians to describe him as the “Father” of the US Coast Guard.
A Little More History
A write-up by Wayne Wheeler for the United States Lighthouse Society provides us with more detail about Hamilton’s and Washington’s administration of the lighthouse network. I quote:
On August 7, 1789 the 9th Act of our first Congress, and the first Public works Act, provided for the transfer of the twelve existing lighthouses in this country from the individual states to the federal government and provided: “That all expenses which shall accrue from and after the 15th day of August 1789, 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 of 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 jurisdiction of same.”
The states, however, wary of a central government, dragged their heels and it wasn’t until 1797 (eight years after passage of the Act) that all lighthouses were turned over to the fledgling government. The twelve existing lighthouses were soon joined by four which had been under construction when we became a nation: Cape Henry, VA at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay (1791); Tybee, GA at the entrance to the Savannah River (1791); Portland Head, ME (1791); and Bald Head at the entrance to the Cape Fear River, NC (1796). Cape Henry is regarded as the first to be completed by the new government. By 1800 there were 24 lighthouses in the nation, all along the Atlantic coast.
The responsibility for lighthouses and other aids to navigation was placed under the Secretary of the Treasury, at that time Alexander Hamilton. He had appealed to President Washington: in keeping with our free country, lighthouses should be as free as the air and that this country should waive the lighthouse dues which had been imposed by the colonies and were standard at most ports of the world. George Washington agreed.
Local control of our lighthouses was assigned to the Collector of Customs of a port. Some Collectors had but one lighthouse to “manage”, while others had many under their control. And, because the collectors were politically appointed, the keepers were politically appointed. ….
It’s interesting to read about the involvement that our early leaders had with such trivial matters (for a Chief Executive) as appropriations for purchase of buoy chain and appointment of lighthouse keepers, it was surely a slower pace than today. The keeper of the Seguin Lighthouse in Maine wrote to President Washington requesting an extra allowance for clearing the land adjacent to his station. He received a letter dated Jan 24, 1797: “For the reasons assigned within, the allowance of $150 is approved by Go Washington.” On another occasion he made the following endorsement on a contract to furnish mooring chain for a floating beacon in Delaware Bay: “April 27th, 1798. Approved, so far as it respects the new chain; but is there an entire loss of the old one? Go Washington.” Earlier in 1796 President Washington signed an executive Act raising the annual rate of compensation for the 16 lighthouse keepers of the nation from $120 to $333.33.
Having read through Hamilton’s correspondence, I can attest to the fact that he was constantly consulting with President Washington on the details involved with maintaining and expanding this network, which was vital for the safety of U.S. shipping, its import tax base, and eventually, national defense. He had no question but that the Federal government had to ensure the functioning this infrastructure, just as it was for establishing land transportation and forging national unity by building a network of post roads. Over 20,000 miles of such roads were constructed by the Federal government over its first two decades.
Hamilton’s view on the critical importance of Federal public works was presented explicitly in his Report on Manufactures, and in his Opinion on the Constitutionality of the National Bank. He argued that the concept of the Federal government’s purview in “the general administration of the affairs of a country, its finances, trade, defence … ought to be construed liberally, in advancement of the public good.”
I’ve written much more about Hamilton’s views on the Federal government role, and the crucial positive role it played in the history of both our country, and other nations around the world, in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics. You can get a copy at www.iuniverse.com/bookstore.
 On his voyage to the American continent in 1772, Hamilton’s ship encountered a severe storm and nearly wrecked near this location.