The best books on lighthouse history

Who am I?

I grew up near the coasts of New York and Connecticut, and since an early age I was fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. I have held a variety of jobs, including stints as a fisheries policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a program manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and an environmental consultant stateside and in London. Throughout my career, one thing remained constant: I enjoyed writing and telling stories. I am the author of 14 non-fiction books on American history, including Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates, and Leviathan: The History of American Whaling.


I wrote...

Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse

By Eric Jay Dolin,

Book cover of Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse

What is my book about?

Brilliant Beacons is the most comprehensive history of American lighthouses ever written, telling the story of America through the prism of its beloved coastal sentinels. Set against the backdrop of an expanding nation, it traces the evolution of America’s lighthouse system, highlighting the political, military, and technological battles fought to illuminate the nation’s hardscrabble coastlines. In rollicking detail, Brilliant Beacons treats readers to a memorable cast of characters including the penny-pinching Treasury official Stephen Pleasonton, who hamstrung the country’s efforts to adopt the revolutionary “Fresnel Lens,” and presents tales both humorous and harrowing of soldiers, saboteurs, ruthless egg collectors, and most importantly, the light-keepers themselves. Richly supplemented with over 120 photographs and illustrations.

The books I picked & why

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A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

By Theresa Levitt,

Book cover of A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

Why this book?

Fresnel lenses, invented by Frenchman Augustin Fresnel, are the crown jewels of lighthouse illumination. They not only greatly increased the intensity of the light, as compared with earlier forms of lighting, but also became one of the most important and strikingly beautiful inventions of the nineteenth century. Levitt’s luminous prose and great skill at storytelling makes this a fascinating and compelling read. It will make you look at lighthouses and Fresnel lenses with a well-deserved measure of awe.

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

By Theresa Levitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Short Bright Flash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827) shocked the scientific elite with his view of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, further and more efficiently than they had before. As secretary of France's Lighthouse Commission, he planned and oversaw the lighting of the nation's coast. Although Fresnel died young, his brother Leonor presided over the spread of the new technology around the globe. The new lights were of strategic importance in navigation and the Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events. Levitt's scientific and historical account, rich in…


The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

By Bella Bathurst,

Book cover of The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

Why this book?

In the late eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth, the Stevenson family were great innovators in lighthouse design and construction. While not the first to successfully tackle the engineering challenge of building a massive stone lighthouse offshore, where it would be subject to the merciless thrashing of the ocean, the Stevensons did become the most famous and respected group of engineers doing that kind of work. Their signature lighthouses off the Scottish coast, including Bell Rock and Skerryvore, served as standards for lighthouse builders who followed in their footsteps. Bathurst’s elegantly written book is a captivating profile of this consequential family.

The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

By Bella Bathurst,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lighthouse Stevensons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic story of how Robert Louis Stevenson's ancestors built the lighthouses of the Scottish coast against impossible odds.

`Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,' wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880. `When the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father!'

Robert Louis Stevenson was the most famous of the Stevensons, but not by any means the most productive. ,The Lighthouse Stevensons,, all four generations of them, built every…


America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History

By Francis Ross Holland Jr.,

Book cover of America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History

Why this book?

Although a bit dated, Holland’s book offers a wonderful and wide-ranging tour of the general and often contentious history of America’s lighthouses. It also includes profiles of many of the nation’s most noteworthy and important lighthouses, broken down by region, and presented in a way that highlights the reasons why they are so memorable. Numerous historic images enliven the text.

America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History

By Francis Ross Holland Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked America's Lighthouses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A detailed, scholarly, masterly book…and yet the romance is still there." — Chicago Tribune
Beacons of light along the shore have guided mariners for thousands of years — from the days when olive oil lamps burned on darkened hillsides to signal the location of ancient harbors, to modern times when automated stations sent out 350,000 candlepower beams that cut through darkness and fog.
The present volume, the first full-scale study of the United States Lighthouse Service, is a celebration of these vanishing symbols of security. Written by a historian of the National Park Service, this book describes the founding and…


Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

By Elinor de Wire,

Book cover of Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

Why this book?

At its core, the history of America’s lighthouses is about people. Undoubtedly the most important actors are the male and female keepers, who—often with the invaluable assistance of their families—faithfully kept the lights shining and the fog signals blaring. Guardians of the Lights presents a wonderful survey of many of the most interesting and unique lighthouse keepers through the centuries, focusing special attention on their noble actions in the service of saving others.

Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

By Elinor de Wire,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Guardians of the Lights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a charming blend of history and human interest, this book paints a colorful portrait of the lives of a vanished breed—the lighthouse keepers—from the year 1716, when the first lighthouse was established in America, to the early 1980s when automation replaced the last human “guardian of the light." A wealth of material from the archives of the 19th and 20th centuries—primarily letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts—provides vivid stories about lighthouse keeping in this country: the daily work; coping with fog, storms and other catastrophes; legends and ghosts; women's and families' roles; lighthouse children and pets; the natural world around…


Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built

By Dennis M. Powers,

Book cover of Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built

Why this book?

St. George Reef Lighthouse is located about six miles off Point St. George on the coast of Northern California, not far from the Oregon border. It is built atop, and partly chiseled into, a massive wave-swept rock. Finished in 1892, St. George Reef took roughly a decade to build, at a cost of $752,000, making it far and away the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the United States. The dramatic history of this iconic lighthouse—replete with engineering feats and tragic deaths—is well-told by Powers, who provides one of the best profiles of a single lighthouse ever written. 

Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built

By Dennis M. Powers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sentinel of the Seas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Miles off the coast of northern California lies a mariner's nightmare. Concealed by roiling sea and thick fog, the jagged edges of a submerged volcanic mountain chain await approaching vessels like predators in the mist. This is one of the most hazardous reefs off the West Coast. And for over a century, it has been home to the most remote, most expensive, and most dangerous lighthouse ever built in America.

Called "Dragon Rocks" in 1792 by British explorer George Vancouver, the area became known as St. George Reef in the hope that its namesake might slay the dragon. But the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in lighthouses, Northern California, and Scotland?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about lighthouses, Northern California, and Scotland.

Lighthouses Explore 16 books about lighthouses
Northern California Explore 15 books about Northern California
Scotland Explore 219 books about Scotland

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