Digest>Archives> May 2006

The Lighthouses of Philadelphia

By Rick Hasselberg


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Visitors inspect a first order Fresnel lens, ...

Better late than never. Funding for the U.S. Treasury Department's participation in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition could not be assured. Organizaers were not sure how to proceed. Time was running out.

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The Lighthouse Board's centennial exhibit ...

In March 1871, an Act of Congress declared that the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be celebrated “by holding an International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine” in the city of Philadelphia. The U.S. Centennial Commission was established and charged with overseeing the event. Invitations to participate were extended to nations throughout the world. Of course, U.S. industry and government departments were expected to participate and

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Reproductions of early postcards of Ship John ...

display their finest.

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The "Iron Light House" already painted white and ...

Unfortunately, the same Congress that encouraged government participation could not decide how much it should provide when the various agencies presented their requests for special funding in order to assemble, display and staff their exhibits.

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Artist's conception of the proposed "Liberty ...

The official catalogue of the U.S. International Exhibition of 1876, which contains an otherwise exhaustive list of all items assembled

for the Exhibition, needed only one sentence to describe the

U.S. Treasury Department's contribution:

“Owing to want of official appropriation by Congress for defraying the expense of the participation in the Exhibition by the Treasury Department, no definite arrangements have yet been made for contributions from it.”

Thousands of maps and guide books printed in time for the opening of the Exhibition contained little or no information about the fine displays which would eventually be provided. Although embarrassingly late, Congress came through with an initial $500,000 appropriation, later supplemented by an additional $1 million, to fund the U.S. government exhibit. (That equates to about $25.5 million in today's dollars.)

Once funded, the Lighthouse Board went to work. A first order and a fourth order Fresnel lens were delivered and set up for display.

Scale models of several lighthouse designs were exhibited, including traditional brick-and-mortar designs, and two of George Meade's Florida reef lighthouses (Sombrero Key and Sand Key). Models of inland and coastal range lights were also exhibited. Examples of modern lighting apparatus (lard oil and petroleum fuel were currently in use) and parabolic reflectors were set out for display. Visitors to the Lighthouse Board's exhibit were extremely impressed. James D. McCabe, one of several chroniclers of the Exhibition, was particularly enthused with the Board's huge first order Fresnel lens.

“This beautiful piece of workmanship stood over 15 feet from the floor, and was covered with prisms which gleamed like the fabled gems of the Orient. . . The detail of these lanterns is so complete that even the few rays which do not pass through the prism, are reflected at such angles as to make them parallel with those refracted; so it will be seen that not a single ray or portion of a ray is lost. The effect is, of course, to give forth a gleam which no sailor near a dangerous coast could fail to see, and warning him in time, must be often blessed as the halo above the forehead of a guardian angel.”

Lighthouse Statistics

The Lighthouse Board reported that as of the Centennial Exhibition, there were 953 lights and 53 steam fog signals stationed on the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes and river systems.

*Stake-Lights (also known as “post lights”) were small navigation lamps that could be quickly repositioned as river currents and shipping channels shifted. Each day, the keeper in charge would sound the river and reposition the stake-lights as necessary to identify safe passage routes along the river.

The “Syren”

The “Syren” (or Siren) also produced quite an impression at the Exhibition. J. S. Ingram, in his chronicle, described the huge steam-driven device being used to announce the opening and closing of the fairgrounds and to signal each hour:

“When it sounded, there was no mistaking the hour. Those who were in the fog about the time of day could immediately take their bearings; those who were in its immediate vicinity were not left in doubt for an instant, and people 25 miles away listened to the song of the siren with a feeling not unmixed with awe.”

Frank Lesley's Register reported that “The steam fog signal . . . makes itself heard at various times during the day, producing a voluminous and not very pleasing sound, which generally attracts the attention of all new comers, and occasions considerable questioning as to its nature and intention.”

James D. McCabe reported, “The Syren was . . . an enormously long horn blown by steam. It emitted the most deafening sound which was heard from a distance of 35 miles.”

The Iron Lighthouse

One lighthouse not yet listed among the statistics above was an iron caisson lighthouse which the Lighthouse Board added to its centennial exhibit during the final weeks of the Exhibition. The steel superstructure was 45 feet high, attached to a wooden base that was painted to appear as a steel caisson resting on a rock foundation. The lighthouse on

display was one of the two identical superstructures being constructed for service in offshore, hazardous ice-flow environment.

What became of the Iron Lighthouse?

Historians and lighthouse authorities disagree as to what actually became of the iron superstructure exhibited in Philadelphia. Many authorities, including at least two who were actually present at the Exhibition in 1876 and who interviewed U.S. Lighthouse Board personnel, assert that the “Iron Lighthouse” now resides in Long Island Sound, at Southwest Ledge off, New Haven, Connecticut.

The Smithsonian Institution was charged with archiving many of the donated artifacts and maintaining the official history of the Exhibition. According to Smithsonian historians, the lighthouse on display in Philadelphia was the “Southwest Ledge Light, New Haven Harbor (the entire lighthouse was exhibited in Philadelphia; (and) erected on site in 1877).”

James D. McCabe, in describing the lighthouse's fogbell, also reported on the lighthouse's intended location:

“The bell was intended to be struck first three times, then twice, and then once, this being the signal adapted from one of the shoals of Long Island, to which the lighthouse was removed after the close of the exhibition.”

Despite the assertions of those actually present, other authorities are equally certain that the “Iron Lighthouse” now resides at Ship John Shoal in Delaware Bay. These authorities cite official Lighthouse Board reports as their basis for conclusion. One such report, written in 1877, discusses the status of construction at Ship John Shoal:

“The temporary dwelling for keepers in use for the past two years has been removed and the iron superstructure, which was part of the lighthouse exhibit at the International Centennial Exposition, is now being placed in position.” So, who's right?

Jim Gowdy and Kim Ruth give the most complete explanation of what actually happened to the exhibited lighthouse in their book, Guiding Lights of the Delaware River and Bay.

According to Gowdy and Ruth, two nearly identical superstructures were being constructed under government contract by the firm of Ramsey and Carter. The first unit completed had been slated for Ship John Shoal, but because the foundation for Southwest Ledge was completed first, the first superstructure was sent there.

In his book, Lighthouses of Connecticut, Jeremy D'Entremont

provides closure regarding which of the two superstructures stood on Belmont Avenue during the summer of 1876. The superstructure for Long Island Sound's Southwest Ledge Light was already in place, resting on its foundation during the summer of 1876. It officially went into service on January 1, 1877. Obviously, the lighthouse sitting in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park until mid-November 1876 could not have been the lighthouse already resting on its base in Long Island Sound.

The lighthouse exhibited in Philadelphia was indeed the second unit completed, originally intended for Southwest Ledge, but following the closure of the Exhibition, was transported to Delaware Bay's Ship John Shoal. That structure was placed upon its foundation a full year after the Exhibition. But again — why so much confusion?

Apparently, even the keepers assigned to operate the lighthouse and foghorn displays at the Centennial Exhibition were not aware of the change in assignments. The exhibited lighthouse had just been painted and labeled for service on Long Island Sound. Even its fogbell was set to operate in accordance with its previous assignment — Southwest Ledge. Thus, McCabe, the Smithsonian, and other chroniclers of the Exhibition were unintentionally misinformed by the Lighthouse Board itself, resulting in about half of all subsequent writings on this subject being in error.

The "Arm and Torch"

In mid-March of 1876, less than two months before the Exhibition's opening, renowned French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi wrote to Thomas Cockran, chairman of the Exposition's Building Committee:

“We shall send to the Exhibition a colossal piece of the statue of Independence. . .it represents the arm holding the fanal.... We shall light by electricity the fanal which is held in the hand. We beg you will accord us your sympathy . . .because we shall be late, and we shall be able to present it only after the opening of the Exhibition...constructed and ready for the fourth of July.”

Despite Bartholdi's intentions, his "Arm and Torch" did not arrive in Philadelphia until August, and was not assembled and ready for display until September, just weeks before the Exhibition's closing. But once visitors beheld Bartholdi's work, they were astonished. Thousands paid the 50 cent fee to climb a ladder to the top of the torch. This was marvelous news to Bartholdi, who needed both great press and great sums of money to complete his ambitious project.

Frank Leslie's Historical Register described the sculpture as

"The right arm and hand, holding a torch, belonging to the illuminated statue of 'Liberty Enlightening the World.' The statue...will doubtlessly become a prominent object on our Atlantic seaboard."

To Serve at Night as a Lighthouse

Most narratives on the history of the Statue of Liberty open in the late 1860s with the impending competition of the French-built Suez Canal. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi has just presented a proposal for spectacular lighthouse-monument commemorating the great achievement to be constructed by Bartholdi at the Egyptians' expense.

Some have speculated that Bartholdi's intention to epitomize the greatness of “Egypt” with the form of a peasant woman may have factored in the Egyptians’ rejection of the proposal. But doubtlessly, other issues such as Bartholdi's inability to estimate the project's cost, or his inability to describe how the lighthouse-monument would be lighted, or even how the weight of the massive metal structure would be supported, also factored in the rejection.

Despite his disappointment, and wiser from the experience, Bartholdi continued to dream of constructing a great monument.

In 1870, he turned his gaze westward — to America, the land of the great liberator; Lincoln, protector of the Statue of Liberty.

Carole L. Perrault's outstanding articles in The Keeper's Log, quotes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's journal entry from August 2, 1871, recounting a letter received that day:

“M. Auguste Bartholdi, French sculptor... has a plan for erecting a bronze Colossus on Bedloe's Island in New York harbor — a statue of Liberty, to serve at night as a lighthouse. It is a grand plan; I hope it will strike the New Yorkers.”

Having learned from previous efforts, Bartholdi was quickly becoming the consummate proponent for his project.

Jump in time from 1871 to 1876. Visitors to the Centennial Exhibition were now raving about the "Arm and Torch." Americans were inspecting drawings of how the statue of "Liberty" will look when completed and resting upon its (still to be designed and funded) foundation in New York harbor.

The American press was giving Bartholdi and his "gift" considerable attention. By 1876, he was quite adept at promoting his plan and describing the need for American’s financial assistance to every reporter, official or private citizen that he met.

Bartholdi and His Critics

Not everyone who gazed upon the “Arm and Torch” was impressed. Many were skeptical; others were outrightly suspicious.

A New York Times editorial in September 1876 questioned Bartholdi's integrity and honesty, saying that $200,000 had already been raised for the statue and questioning how that money had been spent. If just the arm and torch had cost $200,000, how much more would the remainder of the so-called “gift” statue, added to the cost of the pedestal, were Americans being asked to fund?

Bartholdi's reply was printed as a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Press. In his response, Bartholdi listed a number of notable French citizens associated with the Franco-American Committee, which had undertaken the task of building and presenting the statue to the people of the United States. Names such as Lafayette, Rochambeau, Laboulaye, de Tocqueville and Noailles were well-known and well respected in America. The association of these renowned individuals should certainly lend credibility to the "Liberty" project.

But his critics fired back, “Why just the arm?” If Bartholdi had ever intended to produce a complete statue, "he would have begun it at its foundation, modeling first the boot, then the stocking, then the full leg in the stocking." Besides, unlike their European cousins, Americans weren't very inclined to build monuments. Even the monument to the great George Washington stood unfinished due to a lack of funding. Why should Americans fund this? If something as big and expensive as “Liberty” was ever to be built, it should offer some utility. What use will it have?

Adequate support for the completed 151- foot tall structure (many times taller than any existing metal structure) was considered improbable by some experts and was deemed impossible by others. Bartholdi did not have a workable plan for supporting his "Egypt" project in the 1860s, and he still could not adequately describe how he intended to support the “Liberty” monument when challenged by his critics. It would be another three years (1879) before Bartholdi would meet the structural engineer who would design the Statue of Liberty's innovative

steel skeleton — Gustave Eiffel.

Perhaps as a Kind of Lighthouse

The more Bartholdi and his supporters defended the project, the more his critics attacked. The New York Times, still among Bartholdi's harshest critics, recommended that New Yorkers simply ignore the “Liberty” project all together.

Finally, Bartholdi played his trump card — Perhaps some other city would be more interested, Philadelphia perhaps. Other

cities responded favorably. The city of Philadelphia immediately expressed great interest in becoming the home of “Liberty.” Philadelphians discussed a possible site in Fairmount Park, Boston, Baltimore and Chicago also expressed interest.

Finally the Times, as Bartholdi had hoped, backed down a bit, stated that it had no doubt that the “Liberty” statue belonged in

New York harbor, and perhaps, it could perform some useful purpose, perhaps as a kind of lighthouse.

What Was Bartholdi's Intent?

Question - So, did Bartholdi and the Franco-American Committee ever really offer the gift of a lighthouse to America?

Answer - No. Bartholdi was far more interested in creating his monument to “Liberty” than in building a lighthouse. Recognizing that many people expected more, he added the lighthouse option as an incidental benefit.

Question - How are you so sure?

Answer - Several reasons:

1. Of all the noble French names associated with the magnificent Liberty project, nowhere is listed the French name most synonymous with lighthouse quality, Fresnel. The reason is simple: if this gift from the French people to the American people was really intended to be a lighthouse, it would have come to America as a splendid example of a world-class, French-designed lightstation, fully equipped with the finest French lenses, lamps, bells and whistles. It was not.

2. If Bartholdi's principal goal was to site a lighthouse, there were dozens of locations where a fine, French-built lightstation could have better served America. The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment had never indicated any interest in Bedloe's (Bedlow's) Island as the site for even a "gift" lighthouse.

3. Bartholdi offered few, if any, suggestions as to how the statue could be converted to serve as a lighthouse, other than to say that he intended to “light by electricity” the statue's torch. External illumination of a solid metal structure, even one shaped as a huge glowing torch, does not constitute a lighthouse.

Of course, the Statue was completed (in 1886) and within

days of its opening, the public and press were criticizing its lighting. Carole L. Perrault's articles in The Keeper's Log document the many problems associated with the Lighthouse Board's attempts to operate the statue as a lighthouse between 1886 and 1902.

But in 1876, Frederic Bartholdi offered Americans a marvelous gift, a monument to Liberty. (And, yes, if you like, it could also serve as a lighthouse. You Americans can handle those details yourselves.)

Frederick (Rick) Hasselberg has been an enthusiastic amateur lighthouse historian for over 20 years. When not daydreaming about how great it would be to have a job like Tim Harrison's, he trains engineers and scientists to respond to emergencies for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, MD. Rick can be reached by e-mail at rickbud571@hotmail.com.

This story appeared in the May 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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