In the winter of 1849, Maine newspapers were flooded with complaints from mariners about a local lighthouse whose beacons no longer burned after midnight. When confronted, the new keeper, who hailed from the center of the state, replied assuredly; “Well, I know they don’t, for I put ’em out myself then, for I thought all the vessels had got by by that time, and I wanted to save the oil.”

A Yankee desire to save pennies, political appointees with no knowledge of things maritime and no training required, were just a few of the problems facing America’s lighthouse efforts between the early national period and the Civil War, as documented by Eric Jay Dolin in “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse.” Then, of course, there were shoals, fog, storms and sundry acts of God.

While there have been a score of books on Maine lighthouses in the past few decades, this is by far the best national coverage since Francis Ross Holland’s “American Lighthouses: An Illustrated History,” from 1972. Dolin, whose earlier books include “Leviathan” (2007) and “When America First Met China” (2012), is a sure-handed researcher and a most enjoyable author. Though “Brilliant Beacons” updates and illuminates Ross Holland, don’t ignore the latter. They are deserving of the same shelf.

In the early days of the American republic, more than 90 percent of the federal budget came from custom house duties, making aids to navigation a top national priority. Indeed, Portland Head Light was begun by Cumberland County and completed under orders from George Washington. In its long history, the establishment would be overseen by various departments, including Commerce, Treasury, the civilian Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard. While Dolin offers the expected overview, flecked with vivid adventures of heroic rescue and endurance, he also provides what may be the most instructive anatomy of a federal bureaucracy ever penned. Anyone interested in the function, use and abuse of government, and its eventual return to sanity, should read this.

In colonial times, there were few lights along the American coast, frequent shipwrecks and a need to solve this very real human and commercial problem. Things started well enough following European models with towers, argand lamps and reflectors. However, in 1820, Stephen Pleasonton, fifth auditor of the Treasury, was appointed superintendent of lighthouses, a sinecure he would hold in cold hands until 1852. Early on, he teamed with Cape Codder Winslow Lewis, a manufacturer of reflectors who would gain a virtual monopoly over the next three decades as the number of beacons grew from 55 to 325.

The whole point of a lighthouse or a light system was to create a landmark, day and night, to save lives and cargo at sea and, increasingly, on lakes and rivers. For Pleasonton, it was the bottom line. He ran the cheapest light service in the western world, and the most dangerous. England and France made rapid advances in construction and improved lighting and training. In America, little was done, despite frequent complaints from numerous maritime interests, including Matthew C. Perry, commodore of the U.S. Navy, and Edmond Blunt, notable publisher of nautical charts in the American Coast Pilot. The development of the Fresnel lens in France and its adoption by most of the world led to a trial or two in America, with Pleasonton pronouncing it too expensive.

Just prior to the Civil War and the destruction or darkening of many lights, Pleasonton was fired and the United States started to catch up with the rest of the modern world. The new Fresnel lens used less whale oil than the old reflectors, but the cost soon led to the search for illuminates including lard, kerosene and eventually electricity. In 1910, a commissioner of lights was appointed. In 1918, the man who held the position, George R. Putnam, established “the first retirement system enacted in the United States for Federal Service Workers.” These were the days of the classic keepers. On the 150th anniversary of the service, President Franklin Roosevelt put the service under the Coast Guard, which did a superb job through the post-World War II era. By 1990, all American lights except Boston Light, were automated. Newer optics, navigation and radar improvements changed the game. Lighthouses seemed to be an endangered species of architecture, but Dolin unfurls the story of involved citizens, grants and the historic preservation movement that saved most of the classic lights. Maine, as he notes in both text and a helpful appendix of current lighthouse organizations, has played a key role in that ongoing mission.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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