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Dan's Lighthouse Page
Lighthouse History

History's first great lighthouse was also its tallest. Built in about 280 B.C. on an island in the bustling harbor of Alexandria, the Pharos tower reached 450 feet into the skies of ancient Egypt. Its light, produced by a fire kept blazing on its roof, could probably be seen from up to twenty-nine miles out in the Mediterranean. Mariners needed the Pharos Light because Alexandria stood on the flat Nile Delta, and there were no mountains or other natural features to help them find the city.

Ancient peoples had long made a practice of banking fires on hills and mountainsides to bring their sailors home from the sea. With its artificial mountain, Alexandria pulled in seamen from the entire known world. The delta city became the busiest and most prosperous port in the world, and it remained so for almost 1,000 years. Trading ships from Greece, Carthage, and Rome flocked to the city's wharves to load up with the grain grown in wondrous abundance in fields along the banks of the Nile. The sight of the Pharos Light burning far up near the dome of the sky must have filled the breasts of countless sea captains with awe.

The American South also has a proud city named Alexandria, and it, too, is a port. Like the first Alexandria it was once the heart of a rich agricultural region. Today, it is a wealthy suburb, located just across the Potomac from the nation's capital. In fact, Alexandria was included within the original boundaries of the District of Columbia, but its citizens preferred to cast their lot with agrarian Virginia. At Alexandria's Jone's Point, some five or six miles down the Potomac from the city of Washington, is a stone marking one of the corners of the old ten-mile square federal district.

Also at Jones Point stands a small, rectangular building with whitewashed wooden walls, a pitched roof, and a porch. Probably no more than twenty feet high, its appearance suggests a nineteenth-century country schoolhouse. Except for the tiny lantern protruding from its roof, one might never guess that it had anything in common with the Pharos tower of ancient Alexandria. But it does. It is a lighthouse.

Although it has been inactive for decades, the Jones Point Light guided ships into Alexandria, Washington, and Georgetown for more than half a century. Built in 1855, it can now claim distinction as the nation's oldest standing inland lighthouse. In counterpoint to its gargantuan ancestor in Egypt, it is also among the world's smallest lighthouses.

The South has many other lighthouses, some much older the the Jones Point Light. While none reach the extraordinary height of the ancient Pharos tower, many of them are very tall indeed. Built on flat, mostly featureless headlands, they have to be tall to serve effectively as sea marks. The Pensacola Lighthouse rises 160 feet above the Florida sand; the Cape Charles Light in Virginia stands 180 feet above the water; and the Hatteras Tower, the tallest brick lighthouse in America soars 193 feet above the Outer Banks.

The above text is from Southern Lighthouses by Roberts & Jones

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