Eric Jay Dolin’s “Brilliant Beacons” is a masterful history of lighthouses and their keepers in America. Dolin will appear Wednesday, May 11, at Town Hall Seattle.
“Brilliant Beacons: A History of American Lighthouses”
by Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 541 pp., $29.95
Eric Jay Dolin’s “Brilliant Beacons” is American history seen, quite literally, through a lens.
It tells the story of American lighthouses, from the first one built (Boston Lighthouse in 1716) through the era of automation. At its heart is a technological marvel, the Fresnel lens, invented by Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1823 and widely deployed in France by the 1830s.
Using carefully placed prisms, Fresnel lenses cast “a light that far surpassed anything shining on American waters,” Dolin says. Yet they were blocked from use in the U.S. for close to 30 years after their invention. American unwillingness to admit the superiority of the French lens was one reason. “Political inertia” and “congressional intransigence” were another.
Eric Jay Dolin
The author of “Brilliant Beacons” will appear:
• At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, at Browser’s Bookshop in Olympia; free (360-357-7462 or browsersolympia.com).
• At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5; available at townhallseattle.org and at the door.
•At 7 p.m. Friday, May 13, at Village Books in Bellingham; free (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
While changing lighthouse technology and bureaucratic stalemates are addressed in “Brilliant Beacons: A History of American Lighthouses,” the book also weighs in vividly on lighthouse keepers’ lives and heroism. Wars are part of the picture. So are storms, including the deadly New England hurricane of 1938. The West Coast figures prominently, too, with terrific details on the building of lighthouses on Oregon’s Tillamook Rock, San Francisco’s Farallon Islands and Washington state’s Cape Disappointment.
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Dolin (“Leviathan,”“Fur, Fortune, and Empire”) is emphatic on the navigational hazards that made lighthouses so necessary. It wasn’t solely a question of mariners’ safety; frequent shipwrecks held back trade prosperity as well.
A methodical approach to lighting the coasts was needed. With the Lighthouse Act of 1789, Congress took a step in that direction by putting the operation of lighthouses in federal rather than state hands. Between 1820 and 1852, unfortunately, lighthouses were supervised by the budget-conscious Stephen Pleasanton, who was committed to an inferior lamp-and-lens design invented by Winslow Lewis. Lewis’ lights were so dim that, as one mariner quipped, “The navigator is apt to run ashore looking for them.” An overabundance of lights in populated areas and a lack of lights on hard-to-reach stretches of coast added to the confusion. It was only in 1852, after a boatload of legislators got stranded in dense fog between Washington, D.C., and New York, that Congress decided some kind of reform was in order.
Over the next 70 years, the number of lighthouses equipped with Fresnel lenses rose from 325 to 800. Light sources progressed from whale-oil and kerosene lamps to full electrification. The Coast Guard took over operation of the Lighthouse Service in 1939, triggering the end of the civilian era of lighthouse operation. After World War II, many coastal lights were replaced by radio beacons and radar systems.
Dolin, who appears Thursday, May 12, at Town Hall Seattle, has a fine eye for telling anecdotes, and his chapters on the conditions lighthouse keepers dealt with are the juiciest. Tsunamis, ice floes, wild geese attacks and military hostilities were among the most dramatic challenges they faced. Boredom and isolation posed more insidious threats.
Dealing with fog could be as physically rigorous as dealing with storms. In 1887, for instance, the keepers at California’s Point Reyes Lighthouse had to keep their foghorn going for 176 hours straight — a task involving shoveling 25,000 pounds of coal into the horn’s boiler.
While Dolin never loses focus on his central subject matter, he delivers a fascinating incidental history of the U.S. while he’s at it. War and peace, economic boom and bust, technocratic muddles and political power-plays all come under his scrutiny, with illuminating, Fresnel-worthy results.
One caveat: While the book is richly illustrated, some maps would have been helpful.