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Home > About the Chesapeake > Exploring the Bay > Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses > Lighthouses: Guiding Lights
Lighthouses: Guiding Lights

From colonial wooden vessels to today’s large cargo ships, transportation and commerce have been central to how we have interacted with the Bay. The first navigational aids were buoys at major shoals and the flames of signal fires laid on promontories. Unfortunately, neither were reliable. Devastating shipwrecks were common; some vessels ran aground when pirates seeking profitable plunder relocated signal fires. As ship traffic increased, water-borne commerce through the Bay became our nation’s lifeblood and safe passage demanded a more dependable solution—lighthouses, planned and operated by a central authority. The ninth law passed by our fledging Congress placed jurisdiction over navigational aids in the hands of the federal government, and in 1792 the first lights illuminated the Bay’s entrance at Cape Henry.

Shipping in the ChesapeakeIn the 1800s a flurry of lighthouse construction kept pace with ever-growing Bay commerce and technological innovations such as steam-powered vessels. Steamers laden with passengers and cargo soon plied routes up and down the Bay and its tributaries. By 1860, dozens of lighthouses and lightships had come into service along the Bay’s western shore, up the James and Potomac Rivers and at the entrances to the harbors of commercial hubs such as Hampton Roads, Baltimore and Annapolis. Along the Eastern Shore, lighthouses and other navigation aids became just as essential for commercial fishers harvesting the Bay’s bounty. By 1900, lighthouses or lightships marked the majority of the Bay’s most harrowing obstacles to navigation.

In 1700, an estimated 30,000 tons of cargo moved through the Chesapeake Bay, mostly in commerce with Great Britain. In 2000 Bay waterways carried more than 85 million tons of cargoes in trade with nations around the globe.

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