Often times while I am working in the gift shop, visitors will ask me questions about our historic lookout tower. Most of the time they will ask what is up there and if they are allowed to go up to the top, but on rare occasions they have asked if it is still a working lighthouse. The first time I was asked this question I was a bit puzzled. I have gone up our tower hundreds of times and I’ve been to a few lighthouses throughout my life, but I’ve never considered our lookout tower to resemble a lighthouse.
Curious to know the differences and similarities between the two, I decided to do some research online. With the information I have found, I now have a better understanding as to why some people think our lookout tower could be a lighthouse. For all intents and purposes, lighthouses are considered to be a type of tower. These structures are both a few stories high, they both have windows and catwalks that give you a panoramic view, and they are fairly close to a large body of water like the ocean.
One of the differences between these structures is what they are used for. The purpose of lookout towers is to better observe the area it is surrounded by, whether that area is land or water. The lookout tower here at the museum was once used as a way to observe any possible dangers or distress signals that were happening in the ocean, such as shipwrecks or people drowning, when it was a lifesaving/coast guard station.
As for lighthouses, they were used as an aid for maritime coastal navigation at night. They would warn mariners of hazards, like reefs and rocks, help them establish their position, and guide them to their destinations as well as to safe harbor entries with the bright light located at the top of it. From the water, a lighthouse may be identified by the distinctive shape or color of its structure, by the color or flash pattern of its light, or by the coded pattern of its radio signal.
Typically, when we think of lighthouses, we picture them as a tall conical tower, but there are so many different types of lighthouse designs around the world. Depending on its location, it might be tall (where the land was very flat) or short and small (where there was a high cliff or rocky coast). It could be square, octagonal, conical, or cylindrical. Some lighthouses were even built with buildings attached to them.
Since some lighthouses are attached to buildings and a lot of them are painted white, it makes sense that some people would confuse the museum as being one. However, the main key factor I found to help distinguish the difference between our lookout tower and those types of lighthouses are the lantern room. A lantern room is the round glassed-in housing at the top of a lighthouse tower that contains the lamp and lens. Our lookout tower does not have one of these at the top, only a watch room.
I learned so many new things when I was doing this research. I like to think of myself as a tower enthusiast now that I know the differences and similarities between lighthouses and our lookout tower. So, next time someone asks me if our tower was once a lighthouse, I can better explain the difference between the two. I could provide them with a more educational answer, or I could simply just say “Our tower was used to help the lifesavers observe the ocean for any possible dangers, while lighthouses were made to warn mariners of the dangers they were sailing toward with its light.”