Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When the Lights Went Out

By Marilyn Turk



Have you ever wondered how many lighthouses are on the shores of the United States? There are over a thousand. The state of Michigan alone has 150. Obviously, the importance of these structures to the safety of shipping is evident by their presence on all our coastlines.

But did you realize there were times when the lighthouses were kept dark?

The first time it happened was in the spring of 1861 after President Abraham Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of all southern ports. Confederate sympathizers responded by removing the lanterns from lighthouses along the coasts. By doing this, the Confederates intended to prevent Union ships from using southern navigational aids, as well as, weaken the Union fleet by causing shipwrecks.


These southerners were quite creative in keeping the lanterns and lens from their enemy. Some pieces were shipped inland to other cities. Some were destroyed. Still others were buried in hidden locations. In Texas, one was even buried in an obvious place, a cemetery, where it had its own headstone. After the Civil War, finding these lanterns was quite a challenge for the federal government in their efforts to rebuild or relight the lighthouses. In fact, some of them were never found.

By the 1880s, the lighthouses were operational again and more lighthouses were built. In World War I, a few lighthouse keepers in the northern Atlantic states sighted the first German submarines (U-boats) close to shore. As a result some of the lights in that area were dimmed to hinder the boats’ visibility of American shorelines.

 However, the biggest blackout came in 1942 after the United States entered WWII. From the Canada to the Florida Keys, and on both the east and west coasts, hundreds of ships, including tankers and private ships, were torpedoed by German U-boats prowling the shorelines. The area off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, was known by ship captains as “torpedo junction.”

 When the number of ships lost hit a record high in March 1942, the federal government ordered a total blackout.  Coastal residents painted the windows of their homes black and kept lights off or to a minimum at night. Even the upper half of each automobile headlight was painted black, and all exterior lights were extinguished. Lighthouses were ordered to stay unlit while keepers and coast guard personnel manned the towers with binoculars to search for German subs lurking nearby.

After the war, former U-boats captains were quoted as saying that before the blackout, American ships were easy targets when they were highlighted by the lights on shore. One even described the scene as a “shooting gallery.

But once the blackout was in place, and the United States broke the German code and took the offensive by pursuing the U-boats, the threat was removed.

Today, the lights shine once again, a reminder of days past, and a welcome sight to mariners.

Like lighthouses? Read more about them at http://pathwayheart.com, lighthouse blog.

23 comments:

  1. How interesting! My husband and I visited a lighthouse on our honeymoon. The summer keepers were putting in a garden ~ how fun. The man said he brought his family there for the summer as attendants while the main lightkeeper was "on vacation" during the summer months. At that time, 29 years ago, you had to wade through ice cold water to get there and my husband stayed ashore. I was half-way across when I realized he had the extra camera film and there were only two photos to go in my camera. Delightful time ~ delightful time, and explaining why I was alone at the lighthouse on our honeymoon!
    Kathleen ~ Lane Hill House

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    1. As you can see, Kathleen, I'm a lighthouse enthusiast. I visit everyone that's near any place I go! Glad you were brave enough to make the excursion!

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  2. This was very interesting indeed. I never knew that about the lighthouses. They sure came up with some inventive ways to hide those light sources. And that is an awesome picture. Thanks for sharing. God bless.

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    1. I too, found that information very interesting. I used the Cape Hatteras picture because they have a museum there with pictures of U-boats and ships that were hit by them during WWII.

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    2. I love it, it puts you there, so vivid!

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  3. What a fascinating story. I never knew that about the lighthouses during the Civil War, or the other wars, for that matter. Thanks for bringing us a unique bit of history, Marilyn.

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    1. Kathleen, thanks for reading the blog I was surprised when I read about what happened in the Civil War, then even more surprised to read about what happened in WWII.

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  4. You know, I never realized that German U-boats were ever that close to American shores! Kind of scary to realize how close we were to war on our own land. I'm not sure my American History classes ever mentioned that!
    I was just thinking that if the lights from shore back in '42 made the ships along the coast so easily visible, can you imagine how brightly lit they would be today! Of course, today, lights aren't even needed to target boats! But I'm glad that our blackouts back then spoiled the Germans plans. :)

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    1. Bethany, I was as surprised as you. I think our government kept that information very quiet to avoid panic among the citizens. If you're ever near the Outer Banks, go see the museum at Cape Hatteras. Now of course, they would have GPS and radar to find their targets.

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  5. Very interesting post, Marilyn. I've never visited a lighthouse, probably because I rarely get to the coast. I didn't know about the black outs during the wars, but it makes good sense.

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    1. Vickie, I learned about the blackouts in the past couple of years while researching lighthouses. Amazing that the war was so close to our shores, isn't it?

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  6. What intriguing bits of history - and totally new to me. When you talked about lights and lenses being hidden/buried during the Civil War and some never found my writer's imagination immediately went into overdrive. Oh, what great possibilities for stories there...

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  7. I reside in Michigan and thus am a huge lighthouse lover! Their history is always fascinating. The two "black outs" is very intriguing and I might read up on that more! Thank you for a very fun post. :)
    Susan

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    1. Susan, glad you enjoyed it. Someday I hope to visit Michigan and see some of your lighthouses.

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  8. Interesting blog post. I love lighthouses & taking pictures of them - even better when they are perched on beaches with endless views of large bodies of water & beautiful sunrises & sunsets! Have lived in 2 areas of Michigan (once on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan with a nearby lighthouse), & visited the state frequently since - never get tired of the large lakes there!

    bonnieroof60@yahoo.com

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  9. You might guess I love lighthouses too, Bonnie. There's something so mysterious and majestic about them, isn't there?

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  10. Even though I minored in history, there is so much more to learn! Thanks for the interesting post.
    may_dayzee (at) yahoo (dot) com

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    1. Thanks for reading the post, Kay. I love discovering history.

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  11. Thanks for the information - I love lighthouses, and it is very interesting to learn more of the history surrounding them.

    bettimace(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. Thanks, Betti. If you love lighthouses, I hope you'll chaeck out my lighthouse blog. http://pathwayheart.com

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  12. My brother was in WWII and other family and friends. We moved to Houston from a small TX. town so dad could work in the shipyards. was 9 and 10, so wasn't too involved in everythings. I don't remember the Blackout. I know a lot of women worked too to help out during that time. I remember my sisters going to the USO's and some of the servicemen would come to our house on Sundays for a good home cooked meal. One of my daughters loves Lighthouses. On vacation in '09, went up from GA. to the Carolinas and Virginias ad she went to some Lighthouses. Got pictures. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

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  13. Good evening, Ms. Turk,

    I hadn't realised that lighthouses have had such an impact on history! I oft think about them as the guiding lights for sea captains, but I hadn't lamented on the fact that during times of war, everything changes, including the role of a lighthouse! Something that once prevented harm, turned into a way to bring harm! :( How sad!? I know what you mean about how many lighthouses are up in Michigan! Some of our lovely states are blessed with quite a heap, and I think half the fun is to attempt to visit as many as a person can, and see the differences in location, light, and design of the lighthouses themselves! I'd love to go on an adventure seeking out these beautiful landmarks of our historical past! :)

    I think I'll always remember them as a beacon of hope, light, and goodwill as history aside, lighthouses have a certain drawing to them. They get our attention, simply by their presence and for what they stand.

    Thanks for another illuminating post about lighthouses! :) I enjoyed it!

    Jorie

    inkand-blogaways(at)usa.net

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