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Recourse Guide for Lighthouses, Lightships & Lifesaving Stations

Written by: John Maguire

Navigating large bodies of water has always been a challenge, especially during times of low visibility. Whether sailors are on the water at night or in foggy or stormy conditions, they need to know where land is as well as where any dangerous reefs or rocky areas are. Lighthouses, lightships, and lifesaving stations have long been tools used to help sailors navigate waters. Water travel is safer thanks to these sentinels.


Lighthouses have been in use for thousands of years. The first known lighthouse dates back to ancient Egypt. In the United States, lighthouses continue to shine their beacons out over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and many other bodies of water. By day, lighthouses painted in bold colors and patterns would help sailors know where they were. At night, lighthouses flashed lights in coded patterns to indicate positioning. Some lighthouses are also equipped with fog horns or other noisemakers so sailors can hear as well as see warnings.

  • Lifesaving Lighthouses (PDF): Lighthouses have been used for thousands of years to help sailors avoid dangerous coastlines.
  • Lighthouse Lenses: Lighthouses are equipped with converging lenses to concentrate the light beams so they can be seen for many miles.
  • How Do Lighthouses Work? Lighthouses began with the idea of using an enclosed lantern as a beacon, and over the years, technology has resulted in many improvements to the lighting system.
  • What Is a Lighthouse? (PDF): With help from the beacon at the top of a lighthouse, sailors can see where the shoreline is at night.
  • Understanding What Lighthouses Are and How They Work: Lighthouses vary in height depending on the area and the climate of the location.


Lightships are illuminated ships that have been used in areas where it was impossible to build a lighthouse. Lightships would be anchored off the coast near areas of shallow water, sandbars, shoals, or harbor entrances. They had bright lanterns installed at the tops of their masts to illuminate them. A lightship crew might stay in place aboard the ship for several months before rotating back to land again. Lightships are less common today, with many having been replaced by floating buoys with warning systems installed on them.

  • What Is a Lightship? A lightship is a boat that serves as a lighthouse to help keep ships safe.
  • Lightship History: Lightships were used between 1820 and 1985 in the United States, and they would sometimes cruise to where they were needed.
  • A History of Lightships: The Coast Guard was responsible for maintaining and staffing lightships until they were eventually retired.

Lifesaving Stations

Lifesaving stations were special stations built along coastlines that were designed for several purposes. These stations were used to store equipment that would be used if boating accidents occurred nearby. Lifesaving stations might also have had bunkers to house crews that would respond in the event of accidents. Lifesaving stations were prevalent during the 1700s and 1800s, and they were often built in remote areas. Those manning lifesaving stations were initially part of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which was created to oversee and staff the stations. Eventually, the Life-Saving Service was absorbed into the entity that would become the U.S. Coast Guard. While many lifesaving stations no longer exist, several have been restored as points of interest for visitors.

Famous Lighthouses, Lightships, and Life-Saving Stations