|Photo from New York Public Library|
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Lighthouse construction and technology in the early 19th century was a growing science. Advancements in illumination and engineering were largely made in Europe by the French and English lighthouse authorities, but in America inventors were at work too. One of them, Winslow Lewis, left his mark at lighthouse sites from Maine to Florida. Though his career is checkered by accusations of poor workmanship and self-interest, his contributions to the Lighthouse Service are undeniable.
Lewis was born to a seafaring family in 1770 in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He went to sea as a youth and worked his way up the ranks to become master and owner of his own vessel. In 1797 at the age of 27, he became a member of the prestigious Boston Marine Society, eventually becoming president, and he operated a successful maritime business as a cargo shipmaster until 1807 when the Embargo shut down trade with Europe. Lewis then turned his talents to other pursuits in order to support his family. Perhaps his reliance on lighthouses during his years at sea led him to consider ways to improve them.
In 1807 he began experiments in Boston with a new illuminating apparatus and installed a patented version of his Lewis Reflecting and Magnifying Lantern in the famous Boston Light in 1810. His design combined the clean-burning, hollow wick Argand lamp with the parabolic reflector, which had been invented in France nearly three decades earlier. Lewis added a plano-convex lens to magnify the light. Had he been better grounded in physics he would have recognized the problems with the poorly ground, misaligned lens and perhaps been able to improve the apparatus, but he was too anxious to sell it to the Lighthouse Service to do further refinements.
Though Lewis’ new lighting system had imperfections, it was superior to the old pan and spider lamps then in use in American lighthouses. Through his friendship with Henry Dearborn, the Collector of Customs in Boston, Lewis arranged a trial for his new design at the twin light station on Thacher Island south of Boston. His system was installed in one of the towers and was observed by Henry Dearborn, who reported Lewis’ beacon appeared “as a large brilliant star” while the other beacon shone only as “a small common star.”
|The Lewis Light from the U.S. Coast Guard|
At the suggestion of Dearborn, Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, asked Congress to authorize the purchase of Lewis’ patent and contract with him for a period of seven years to illuminate and maintain all 49 U.S. lighthouses then in existence. It was a windfall for Lewis. He was well paid, his employment was secure, and he had the trust of government officials. Gallatin purchased a schooner, refit it for lighthouse work, and hired a small crew. By 1812 when war broke out, Lewis had modified 40 lighthouses with his new system. He continued the task, but in March 1813, as Lewis was en route to Charleston Lighthouse, a British frigate captured the schooner, and stripped and burned it. Lewis was taken prisoner for a short time, then released. He was not able to return to and complete his lighthouse work until 1815.
In the meantime, he had established several businesses in Boston, including a ropewalk and a textile mill, and become involved in politics. His political connections were far-reaching and allowed him, once again, to contract with the Lighthouse Service. In 1816 the Commissioner of Revenue, in whose hands lighthouses had been placed after the war, suggested that the usual competitive bidding for a contractor to supply oil and maintain lighthouse beacons be waived. He felt Lewis had done such excellent work installing his systems that he should be given the contract outright. Apparently, the Treasury Department concurred, and Lewis was allotted $1700 per year for a 7-year contract.
It was not only a lucrative arrangement, but a powerful one as well. Lewis made all decisions regarding the lights and in 1817 published the first light list in the U.S. called Description of the Lighthouses, which he sold at a profit. Additionally, Lewis was paid for 24,731 gallons of oil annually to be distributed among all U.S. lighthouses, but if they used less he was free to take the surfeit for private use in his own businesses.
In 1819, Rhode Island scientist, David Melville, attempted to introduce illuminating gas to the Lighthouse Service and received permission to test it at Beavertail Light at the entrance to the Narragansett Bay. The test was a success, but when Melville asked for a contract with the government, he was denied. He claimed Lewis, in conspiracy with the whaling industry, had used his political connections to influence the decision. Though Lewis had helped finance Melville’s experiments with gas lighting of factories in 1813, he objected to Melville’s encroachment on his contract. Nothing came of Melville’s accusation or his experimental light, and whale oil continued to be the fuel of choice.
When Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Stephen Pleasanton, took over administration of lighthouses in 1820, Lewis was at his side to provide guidance and support. His contract was renewed in 1822, and though his allotment for oil was reduced, his pay was increased. By this time Lewis also had become a lighthouse builder. His first tower was completed at Franks Island near the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1822, and he was soon outbidding everyone for building contracts.
Lewis devised customized plans for five different sizes of lighthouses, all conical shaped, of masonry construction, and ranging in height from 25 to 65 feet. By the end of his career, he had built 80 lighthouses, refitted 90, and planned countless others. His work is evident in the existing towers at Cove Point, Turkey Point, Piney Point, and Concord Point in the Chesapeake Bay and Robbins Reef in New York Harbor.
|Florida's Amelia Island Lighthouse was one of many designed and built by Winslow Lewis. He was asked to rebuild it, however, when his workmanship was found faulty. The rebuild was a good one; the lighthouse still stands today.|
Lewis was not without detractors. E. & G.W. Blunt, who published books for navigators, repeatedly condemned Lewis’ illuminating systems as far inferior to those of Europe and accused him of shoddy workmanship in the construction of lighthouses. They also hinted at scandalous friendships with certain men in government. Surprisingly, Lewis’ biggest critic was his nephew, I.W. P. Lewis, a civil engineer from Boston. The younger Lewis was hired to oversee lighthouse construction sites in the South and quickly discovered problems with many of the projects his uncle had done.
When expenditures for lighthouses rose sharply in 1837, an inspection of the nation’s lighthouses was ordered to determine the need for improvements. Several Navy officers undertook the task and submitted negative appraisals of the existing system. In 1842, I.W.P. Lewis was hired to make a survey of New England lighthouses to assess their needs. His 302-page report was damning, especially for Winslow Lewis. It revealed shoddy construction, stations in disrepair, inferior illumination systems, questionable management, and an unhappy corps of lightkeepers. Worse, I.W.P. Lewis claimed his uncle’s patented lighting system had been copied from an English design.
The system desperately needed overhauling. As the 1840s came to a close, Winslow Lewis found himself in disfavor, especially after a new Fresnel lens from France was tested at Navesink Twin Lights in New Jersey and found to be far superior to Lewis’ apparatus. He furiously defended his work and denied accusations of abuse of his personal friendships with government officials, but change was on the horizon. Nearing age eighty, Lewis faded into the background. He died in 1850 just as plans were being laid to create a stronger and better-organized lighthouse administration.