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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities

Lighthouses

The heritage and heroism of America's protective beacons

Many lighthouses still dot the shores of the Mid-Atlantic region and serve the function of guiding boats. While lighthouses were once "tended" by stalwart individuals--and sometimes, whole families--they are now all automated, and some have been made into museums.

Mid-Atlantic lighthouses come in many shapes and forms. Tower style lighthouses, usually made of bricks or stone, were painted with distinctive markings which helped ships recognize where they were on the coast. The North Carolina Outer Banks lighthouses are often reproduced in paintings, photos, and lawn art: for instance, the black and white horizontal stripes of Bodie Light, the angled stripes of the Hatteras Light, and the diamond pattern of the Cape Lookout Light.

In the Chesapeake Bay, a type of lighthouse that was actually set off-shore, called the screw-pile lighthouse, was built on metal stilts sunk into the Bay, with an octagonal-shaped cottage for the tender to live in. This type of lighthouse has become a symbol of the Bay, and examples of such lighthouses, which were moved from their off-shore locations, can be seen at both the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, and the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons Island, Maryland.

Lighthouses near other maritime communities often become symbolic of "home." Being able to see the Cape Lookout Light, for instance, gives residents of "Down East" North Carolina a sense of well-being.

Lightships

Before the advent of large automated buoys, lightships were employed to warn ships of shoals and other dangers of the waters. The lightship was a sort of mobile lighthouse, usually stationed at one particular site, with crews serving a tour of duty that was reduced from a "murderous" 4 months at a time to 30 days in later years.

Although the era of the lightship ended in the mid-1980s, a number of lightships have been preserved as museums. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Lightship Chesapeake is part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum's fleet, and in Lewes, Delaware, a group of dedicated volunteers is working to restore the Lightship Overfalls. Some of the Overfalls volunteers came to the Water Ways program to tell about their work and the history of the lightship.

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Ocracoke Islands lighthouse. Photo by Scott Taylor.