Beacon on the Rock: The Dramatic History of Lighthouses from Ancient Greece to the Present Day

By Peter Williams | Go to book overview


Chapter 7 I THE AGE OF RESPLENDENCE

Some early lighthouses were poorly builtmerely mounds of stone, just enough to hold the beacon f ire in
place. Others, as we saw in earlier chapters (such as the Pharos at Alexandria and the Roman lighthouses
at Ostia, Dover, and other parts of the Roman Empire), may have had architectural merit, though they
have not survived for modern judgment. There are no longer many examples of the medieval structures left

those that have survived are a tribute to their builders. However, the lighthouses from the 19th century, the
heyday of lighthouse building, have survived and are in many cases still in operation. This chapter will
explore the varied designs, materials used and methods of construction that were used in this golden age.

THE DESIGN OF THE LIGHTHOUSE buildings has always been influenced by a number of factors. The location and accessibility of the proposed site, for instance, were of prime importance. In some parts of the world—North America, Australia, and other locations—major exploration was necessary before the planned location of a lighthouse in inaccessible areas could even be confirmed. Cape Otway lighthouse on the Bass Strait shore, Australia, (see Chapter 4) is a good example of the effort needed before any work was even attempted on the site. The Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, who designed that lighthouse, needed to know that the site was suitable and that he could get his materials and labor there. The superintendent of the Port Philip district of New South Wales, Charles La Trobe, who was responsible for organizing this, did not let Lewis down.

La Trobe produced a detailed surveyors' report in 1846 that was instrumental to the success of the contract, though he did omit to calculate the huge amount of sand above bedrock. This was an omission that was to cause some problems once the work started, leading to the actual tower's having to be built some 50 feet (15 meters) away from the original surveyed site!

Charles Tyers, a Crown Lands Commissioner who at the same time had been sent to look at the site at Gabo Island at the eastern end of the Bass Strait, was not as diligent. As soon as the lighthouse design was completed the following year, Mortimer Lewis placed the building contract. The contractors moved onto the island and started to dig the foundations, but were unable or did not have the expertise to build on the site. A naval officer, Captain Owen Stanley, visiting the island to inspect the works in March 1848, noted that all there was to show for all the construction efforts was a hole in the sand 60 feet

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