Lighthouses and beacons are towers with bright lights and fog horns located at important or dangerous locations. They can be found on rocky cliffs or sandy shoals on land, on wave-swept reefs in the sea, and at entrances to harbors and bays. They serve to warn mariners of dangerous shallows and perilous rocky coasts, and they help guide vessels safely into and out of harbors. The messages of these long-trusted aids to navigation are simple: either STAY AWAY, DANGER, BEWARE! or COME THIS WAY!
While lighthouses still guide seafarers, nowadays, the Global Positioning System (GPS), NOAA’s nautical charts, lighted navigational aids, buoys, radar beacons, and other aids to navigation effectively warn mariners of dangerous areas and guide them to safe harbors. Some 48,000 federal buoys, beacons, and electronic aids of the marine transportation system mark more than 25,000 miles of waterways, harbor channels, and inland, intracoastal and coastal waterways, and serve more than 300 ports.
On August 7, 1789, Congress approved the Lighthouse Act—the first public works program undertaken by the new federal government—which established and supported lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers. Members of Congress thought the bill was so important that they passed the measure even before they established pay for themselves. While sophisticated radar and positioning instruments guide most of the vessels at sea—private and commercial—there is still a need for these towering artifacts of our marine past. Without lighthouses, a simple faulty wire could lead to catastrophe at sea. Enjoy them for what they are but respect them for the protection they have provided for centuries.