As Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton worked diligently to create a network of federally funded lighthouses throughout the country. Hamilton was the first head of the Lighthouse Services.
According to the National Park Service, “on August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed the ninth act of the United States Congress which provided that the states turn over their lighthouses, including those under construction and those proposed, to the central government. In creating the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, aids to navigation became the responsibility of the Secretary of the Treasury.”
Once the law was passed, Hamilton began the task of placing each existing lighthouse under federal control. Hamilton also saw the Lighthouse Services as something properly in the domain of his Treasury Department. He “urged Congress to dispense with dues levied on passing ships, believing the move would encourage commerce and that the Treasury Department could handle the financial responsibility of navigational aids entirely on its own.”
Cape Henry in Virginia was the first new lighthouse built from federal government funds through Hamilton’s program. In March 1791, the Government signed a contract with John McComb to build and equip a lighthouse for $17,500. Once the structure was completed, Hamilton and Washington personally handled many of the minute details of selecting light keepers and funding repairs. Ron Chernow characterizes the process of building lighthouses as “an administrative routine that stifled the two men with maddening minutiae.” The first lighthouse keeper selected by Washington, William Lewis, was a former soldier in Washington’s army and was hired in October 1792.
The lighthouse below, at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, was built on a spot that Hamilton passed as a 17-year old on his first journey from the West Indies to New York. Reportedly, the ship carrying Hamilton, the Thunderbolt, caught fire and nearly sank a few miles away from the cape. In 1794, Hamilton, who dubbed Diamond Shoals, the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” recommended establishing a lighthouse on the Hatteras Sand Banks to Congress. On July 10, 1797, Congress authorized $44,000 for constructing a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras.
During the early years of the American Republic, Hamilton’s work with the Coast Guard and the Lighthouse Services both facilitated commerce and strengthened the power of the federal government.