When we think of lighthouses, we usually picture tall towers and keeper’s quarters, bright beaming lights and loud foghorns, placed on the edges of land or on islands. However, did you know that there were these aids to navigation that were actually floating? These “floating lighthouses” were just as powerful, and used to be just as important, as their sisters on land. The bright beaming lights and loud foghorns were located on ships that were anchored offshore, floating in the seas, in places where building regular lighthouses were impossible or impractical. Known as “lightvessels” and “lightships,” they performed just like lighthouses.
One of the oldest lightships in the United States is currently located in Seattle, and on one summer day, my husband and I drove down to the Historic Ships Wharf in Lake Union Park to board this vessel, walk around, and listen to information told by one of the volunteers. The Lightship Swiftsure was built in 1904 with sails and with steam engines. It is the only lightship today that still has her original steam engines.
The name “Swiftsure” is this particular floating lighthouse’s current name from 1995. Prior to that, she had several other names depending on where she was located during her 56 years of service. “Blunts Reef ” off Cape Mendocino in California, “San Francisco” where she protected the foggy San Francisco Bay, and then “Relief” when she was first brought to the Puget Sound of Washington State, were some of her other names. Part of her service included time in the Navy during World War 2, in addition to originally serving with the United States Lighthouse Service, and finally the United States Coast Guard.
In lightships, the light that shines to protect those at sea is located on a tall mast. Some lightships had two lights on two masts, one being a backup light. Just as the lights in lighthouses on land transitioned from oil lanterns and Fresnel lenses to electricity, so too did the lightships. Many lightships were painted red, with its name in white, because the color red is quite a visible color.
As many as 179 lightships had been built in the United States between 1820 and 1983. Not only have lightships been assigned several names each, they were also given letters and numbers for identification. Although not continuous, consistent, and some are skipped, the letters are first A through Z, AA through AZ, then LV-1 to LV-118, and a few with the letters WAL and WLV. The Lightship Swiftsure is also known as LV83 and WAL 513.
The Lightship Swiftsure was retired from service in 1960, and is currently undergoing renovation to stabilize her, to replace the wooden deck, to restore the electrical system, and to become a museum. Thus the tent covering over the vessel to protect it and the renovations from the weather. She is currently docked in Seattle as part of a heritage vessel and floating maritime museum area, along with other vessels, many of which can be toured during a visit.
The Lightship Swiftsure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in Washington State in 1975, and was recognized by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
Of the 179 lightships built, only about 15 lightships remain today. Most of these are located on the East Coast of the United States, and only a few on the West Coast. I feel fortunate that my husband and I live so close to one of these historic and important pieces of history, the floating lighthouse.
Information in this blog from:
Literature on display at the Lightship Swiftsure itself, including articles by Northwest Seaport, Maritime Heritage Center, owner of the Lightship Swiftsure.
Article by Diana Hennick, Museum Specialist, Northwest Seaport, “Rehabilitation of the Lightship No. 83” on display at the Lightship Swiftsure.