Written by Walter T. Ham IV
When the Boston Lighthouse was first lit 300 years ago today, sailors called on New England ports in wooden ships, pirates roamed the Atlantic Coast and the 13 colonies were under the British crown.
The light, which still guides mariners around Boston Harbor’s shoals, was the first of thousands of American Aids to Navigation (ATON) that have saved lives, protected property and enabled prosperity for the last three centuries.
Located on Little Brewster Island, Massachusetts, nine nautical miles from Boston, the lighthouse was first lit on Sept. 14, 1716, using tallow candles. Today, the Boston Light has two 2 million candlepower lights that can be seen from 27 nautical miles away.
Coast Guard Auxiliarist Sally Snowman is the Coast Guard’s only remaining assigned lighthouse keeper. In 2003, she became the 70th Boston Lighthouse keeper and the first female to hold the position.
Snowman said the city and the region have grown because of the light.
“Massachusetts prospered with Boston Harbor emerging as an international port in the 19th century,” said Snowman, a Weymouth, Massachusetts, native who earned doctorates in education and metaphysical science. “For this to have occurred, the entrance to Boston Harbor needed to be properly marked to reduce the significant loss of life and cargo due to shipwrecks occurring on the ominous ledges. Boston Light was built as the first major Aid to Navigation in colonial America to the mark the entrance and continues to provide this service today.”
The Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park offers weekend tours of the Boston Lighthouse in the summer.
During tours, Snowman dresses in formal clothes from 1783, the year that the Boston Lighthouse was rebuilt. British forces destroyed original structure during the Revolutionary War.
As a part of her duties, Snowman manages more than 70 volunteers and maintains the lighthouse, keeper’s cottage and other buildings on the three-acre island.
“My favorite thing about working as the lighthouse keeper is the diversity of the job, which is also its uniqueness, requiring the ability to multitask and changing the scheduled agenda as quickly as the New England weather,” said Snowman.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964, Boston Light is one of nine lighthouses honored in the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Lighthouses from the Coast Guard’s nine districts have elevators named after them in the headquarters.
The storied landmark is located in the 1st Coast Guard District, the Boston-based command that covers northeast waterways from New Jersey to Maine.
On August 7, 1789, with the ninth law it passed, Congress created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment to provide “support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, (and) buoys.” The service would later be called the U.S. Lighthouse Service or Bureau of Lighthouses.
After 150 years of keeping the lights shining, the Lighthouse Service was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939.
Managed by the Coast Guard Office of Navigation Systems and maintained by Coast Guard cutters and ATON teams around the nation, Aids to Navigation enable navigators to determine their position, chart a safe course and steer clear of hazards.
From the lone Boston Light, the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation system has grown to include more than 48,000 federal buoys, beacons, and electronic aids that mark the more than 25,000 miles of waterways that make up the U.S. Marine Transportation System.
In addition to protecting mariners and the waters they traverse, the Coast Guard also keeps America’s economy on course.
With the majority of trade flowing into the U.S. from the sea, the Coast Guard ATON system safeguards the marine cargo
transportation that generated $4.6 trillion of economic activity and accounted for more than a quarter of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2015.
“More than 73 million Americans are involved in maritime commerce, commercial fishing and recreational boating on our waterways, and we help them to get home safely,” said Capt. Scott J. Smith, the chief of the Coast Guard Office of Navigation Systems. “Our vast Aids to Navigation system started with the Boston Lighthouse and we celebrate its enduring contribution to our nation, our economy and our maritime heritage.”