Lighthouses once guided sailors, and now these historic and iconic structures can guide your East Coast adventure. Lighthouses have become a destination for coastal wanderers; places where you can go to catch a stellar sunset, rock hop along the shore, and soak up a bit of history. Before you go, here’s a short guide to light the way.
From Nova Scotia to Key West, lighthouses stand tall and proud along Atlantic shorelines. The concentration of East Coast lighthouses is in New England, particularly Maine and coastal Massachusetts. Since lighthouses are such great attractions, it's pretty easy to find maps like this one to help guide your adventure.
Some beacons are still in operation, but many stand simply to preserve history. A few date all the way back to colonial times, but you’ll find that many were constructed in the 19th century, which is considered the "Golden Age" for lighthouses.
Lighthouses and other navigational aids were crucial to the safety of ships traveling along the Atlantic Coast. As trading ships and fishing and whaling vessels navigated rocky coastlines and narrow harbors, lighthouses served as a beacon of reassurance and direction.
America’s first lighthouse was erected in Boston Harbor in 1716, decades before the American Revolution. Several colonies in New England followed suit and started collecting “light dues” from ships using their ports as a way of paying for the lighthouses’ operation.
In 1789, the young American government passed an act that assumed financial responsibility for lighthouses and navigational aids in the country. The responsibility was passed to the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, Alexander Hamilton. With the approval of President George Washington, Hamilton decided that “lighthouses should be as free as the air” and did away with the “light dues” that colonies had been imposing on ships. Since then, the management of lighthouses has bounced around government and even bounced back to communities as houses have been decommissioned.
Originally fueled by oil, lighthouses were tirelessly manned by keepers. For that reason, you’ll often find a small cottage near lighthouses that once housed the keeper. For months at a time, keepers would live in these dangerously exposed areas, risking their lives for the sake of keeping the lighthouse lit. With advances in electricity and lenses, keepers became unnecessary in the operation of lighthouses, but their stories live on.
Every trip to a lighthouse is made more interesting if you know its history. There are lots of resources and lighthouse fans out there, so a quick online search is probably all you’ll need to get the story.
Because they’re easy targets for vandalism, lighthouses aren't often open to the public; if you want to see the sweeping view from the top, research a lighthouse before you visit to see if tours of the structure are offered and when.
Lighthouses on the East Coast often serve as an icon for the communities that surround them, so it’s important to respect lighthouses and the area around them. Leave no trace!
Some lighthouses, like Saugerties Lighthouse in New York, are even run as bed and breakfasts! Though often pricey, the stay offers an insanely unique experience, so do some research and see if you can spend the night in your favorite lighthouse.