BEACONS IN THE NIGHT, The American Tobacco Company's 1911 T77 set showcases famous American lighthouses by Peter Putman

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my family took its summer vacations in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on Long Beach Island. I spent my days wading in the Atlantic Ocean, building sand forts, loading up on soft ice cream after dinner and playing miniature golf – all in the shadow of the Barnegat Lighthouse, located at the northern tip of the island.

This towering, 172-foot-tall red-and-white structure was like an old friend; its silent presence as reassuring to me as a night light. In fact, at one time I owned a metal toy version of Barnegat Light, complete with a couple of batteries and a small bulb, which I would turn on and leave by my bed as I drifted off to sleep each night. (Not surprisingly, my parents quickly tired of buying replacement batteries!)

St. George Owls Head Fire Island Barnegat
Abeson American Shoal Southwest Reef Beaver Tail
Annisquan Biloxi Blackwells Block
Boon Tillamook Boston Auxiliary Eastern Point

People around the world have long held a fascination with lighthouses. These imposing structures have captured our imagination for decades, and many of us have surely wondered what it would be like to check out from the rat race and live as a lighthouse keeper on one of these lonely structures that dot the shorelines of oceans, lakes and rivers.

 

SHINE ON BRIGHTLY

The history of lighthouses goes back many centuries. The lighthouse at Alexandria (circa 280 – 247 B.C.) was built on the island of Pharos to warn ships away from wreck salvagers living on the island. Standing 400 feet tall and visible from nearly 30 miles out to sea, this lighthouse was considered to be one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.

In more recent times, lighthouses have guided ships into harbors, marked the entrances to rivers and warned sailors away from dangerous reefs and rocks. They've been built on wharfs, rocks, screw piles, concrete caissons and even inside statues. Even though most of them have been taken out of service, replaced by GPS and radar systems, we're still attracted to these tall sentinels of the seas.

The first lighthouse service in the United States was created by an act of Congress in 1789 and was responsible for twelve colonial-era structures. Only the Sandy Hook lighthouse in New Jersey, built in 1764, survives from that era. The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment built 40 new lighthouses between 1789 and 1820, mostly from brick and cut stone. From 1820 to 1852, an additional 300 lighthouses were erected.

    Cape Vincent Built in 1827, the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse and generator house are located in Cape Vincent NY, where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River.   St. Michaels The Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which was active from 1867 to 1966, is one of four surviving Chesapeake Bay screw-pile lighthouses in the state of Maryland.    

In 1852, the U.S. Lighthouse Board formed to oversee all lighthouse construction and maintenance, dividing the country into 12 districts, which later expanded to 16 and then 19 by 1910, when the Bureau of Lighthouses came into existence. The Board lasted until 1939, when it was abolished and its functions assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard.

After World War II, the Coast Guard found itself staffing and maintaining 468 lighthouses, or "light stations" as they were officially known. An aggressive program of automation commenced to reduce operating costs and cut back on personnel. Even so, the Coast Guard was still staffing 327 light stations by 1962.

Automation continued over the next 50 years, and today, the only lighthouse still operated by Coast Guard personnel is the Boston Lighthouse – the rest are empty and mostly unused, except as daytime visual aids and supports for radio beacons and some flashing lights. Many are privately owned or leased, and a few have found new life as museums and even bed and breakfasts, like the Saugerties (NY) Lighthouse on the Hudson River.

 

TINY WORKS OF ART

The practice of adding trading cards to packs of cigarettes and tobacco reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to popular sports figures, a smoker was just as likely to find pictures of famous political figures, actors, national flags, military scenes, animals, "pretty girls," those new-fangled horseless carriages and aero-plane pilots in his smokes. (Women were vigorously discouraged from smoking back then.)

Given their iconic status at the time, it was inevitable that lighthouses would be included as subjects for insert cards, and the American Tobacco Company did so in 1911 with packs of Hassan Cork-Tipped Cigarettes. This unnumbered set of 50 attractive, full-color cards, designated T77 in the American Card Catalog, portrays some of the most famous American lighthouses, favoring structures found along the shorelines, rivers and lakes of the northeastern United States.

Boston Cape Flattery Cape May Cape San Juan
Coney Island Deer Island Cape Cod Delaware Breakwater
Eatons Neck Statue of Liberty Goat Island Great Captain

The previously-mentioned Boston Light and Barnegat Light are included, as are Cape May Light at the southern tip of New Jersey, Coney Island Light in Brooklyn and Montauk Point Light at the eastern end of Long Island. From the west coast, storm-swept Tillamook Light (one of the most star-crossed lighthouses) is prominently featured.

Other well-known lighthouses in the T77 set include Navesink Twin Lights (New Jersey), Point Loma (San Diego, CA), Sanibel Island Light (Florida), and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. (Yes, it's technically a lighthouse!) Construction styles vary widely from brick and stone (Absecon Light) to caisson (Deer Island), steel truss (Point Loma) and screw pile (Southwest Reef Light). Even the new U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico made an appearance, showcasing its San Juan harbor light.

Tillamook Lighthouse, constructed in 1880 and located just over a mile off the Oregon Coast, is portrayed with tall waves slamming into the basaltic rock base below the structure, with sea gulls flying leisurely nearby on a sunny, breezy day. That was an overly rosy depiction!

In reality, Tillamook was situated in a harsh location, subject to frequent high winds and crushing waves that often smashed in its windows. With a final cost of $125,000, it was the most expensive lighthouse built at the time (1881), using concrete construction (bricks wouldn't have survived) and a breeches buoy to move men and equipment from boats to the top of the rock – a dangerous trip, even when the waves would permit it.

Heceta Head Little Gull Execution Rocks
Minots Ledge Montauk Point Matinicus Rock Navesink
Pigeon Point Plum Island Early Methods Cape Henry

A Pacific storm in 1912 removed over 12 tons of rock from the island, while, in 1934, another storm smashed in most of the windows and flooded parts of the lighthouse. Winds reached 109 miles per hour and destroyed the Fresnel lens, forcing the keeper to use a makeshift foghorn and telephone to restore communications with the shore. The windows were eventually replaced with thick portholes, and noisy diesel engines were installed to supply power. (Still want to be a lighthouse keeper?)

The Coast Guard finally cried "uncle!" and threw in the towel in 1957, closing the lighthouse in favor of a nearby automated buoy. "Terrible Tilly" has since been sold a few times and was actually used as a columbarium cemetery before becoming a national wildlife refuge.

Pigeon Point Light, 37 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge on the California coast, wasn't named after birds. It actually got its name from a clipper ship known as the Carrier Pigeon that sailed from Boston in January of 1853 and found itself near Santa Cruz in early June, sailing in thick fog.

The Pigeon's captain, not realizing how close he was to shore, unwittingly steered the Pigeon into a pile of jagged rocks and smashed it to pieces. The namesake lighthouse was built almost 20 years later, using a 10-inch steam whistle and a white oil lamp to send out a warning that could be seen 30 miles out to sea.

The Stature of Liberty, a gift from France, was completed in 1886 and stands 305 feet from ground level to the top of the torch, which lights up at night and was originally designed as a navigation aid into New York Harbor. The arm and torch were exhibited prior to construction at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and then sat in Madison Square Park for almost a decade before the rest of the statue was completed.

    Saugerties The Saugerties Lighthouse, an 1869 landmark located on the Hudson River in Saugerties, NY, currently stands as a living museum and a renowned bed & breakfast.   Fresnel Lens The Fresnel lens, commonly used in lighthouses, focuses light from low-power sources into intense beams that are visible for miles.    

At one time, it was possible to walk up a steep staircase to a balcony just below the torch. In fact, the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 thriller Saboteur features the torch prominently, even though the movie version was just a mock-up of the real thing – the actual arm and torch had been closed off to the public after $100,000 worth of damage in the infamous 1916 Black Tom explosion in Bayonne, New Jersey. (Real German saboteurs were suspected of causing the explosion.)

Even though the United States Lighthouse Board took control of Miss Liberty in 1887, the light from the torch was never bright enough to be useful as a lighthouse, even after several attempts to modify the lamp mechanism. As a result, President Teddy Roosevelt turned the statue over to the War Department in 1901, and it remained under their control until the National Park Service assumed jurisdiction in 1933.

One card in the set is titled "Early Method of Coast Signaling" and shows a couple of men wearing foul-weather gear and holding torches, "... usually pine tar-soaked billets of wood which they kept waving and which could be seen quite a distance from shore," to quote the back of the card. (There were also individuals throughout history who used this technique to lure unsuspecting ships to the rocks and then raided the cargo after each ship ran aground and broke up.)

 

THE SET AND THE GRADES

If you are looking for a new challenge after chasing some of the early-1900s baseball sets, the T77 set will fit the bill. Even though there are only 50 cards in the T77 set, it's not easy to come by individual cards, especially in high grade.

As of this writing, PSA has graded only 580 copies of T77s, with the majority of grades awarded falling between PSA VG-EX 4 and PSA EX-MT 6. Contrast that number with 46,605 cards in PSA slabs from 21 different baseball sets in 1911, and you'll get an idea of just how hard it is to obtain these cards. (PSA has graded 541 PSA 4 cards alone from the 1911 M116 Sporting Life set!)

The most popular card is the St. George Reef Light, having been graded 17 times. The next three in line are the Statue of Liberty, Fire Island Light and Owls Head Light cards. Each of those has been submitted only 16 times, with a total of just two PSA NM-MT 8s awarded among that group. The rarest card is "Early Methods of Coast Signaling," which has been sent to PSA all of six times and has returned in one PSA Good 2Q, three PSA 4s and two PSA 6 holders.

Point Hueneme Point Judith Point Loma
Race Rock Robbins Reef Sanibel Island Spring Point
Stepping Stones Tarrytown Lincoln Rock The Nubble

High grades are tough to earn in the T77 set. While 51 PSA NM 7s have been certified, only seven PSA 8s have been slabbed and a lone PSA MT 9 (Southwest Reef) shows up in the current Pop Report. One hundred and twelve PSA 4s are listed, along with 120 PSA EX 5s and 124 PSA 6s, so expect to find mostly mid-grade cards as you search dealer tables, attics, garages, yard sales and antique shops. (Yes, antique shops often have binders of old non-sports cards for sale.)

A quick check on eBay as of this writing showed seven listings for ungraded T77s, ranging from $14.95 for a VG-condition Statue of Liberty card to $8.00 for a Cape Henry Light card in fair condition. Five other listings, which came from a grocery store operated by the seller's grandparents back in the day, showed T77s in poor-to-fair condition. Photos were included in the listing, showing the store and shelves where the Hassan cigarettes were sold.

The current Set Registry showcases just five sets of T77s. Three of the sets are complete, with the highest GPA coming in at 6.92, the #2 set averaging 6.17 and the #3 set scoring a 5.06. As for value, you're on your own - there are no SMR prices listed presently for T77s. The reason? They show up so infrequently in auctions and on eBay that it's hard to determine a fair market value for individual cards and full sets.

 

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE

Collecting a complete set of T77s from scratch will be a long voyage. But the search is worth it, if and when you find these cards in decent condition. The paintings are simply beautiful and smartly composed, and each lighthouse is shown in a flattering way.

Best of all, these cards provide a tangible link back to the days when lighthouses captured the imagination and were the stuff of writers, poets and artists – when they were lone beacons in the night staffed by diligent keepers in good and bad weather to help ships get to their destinations, safe and sound...

 


The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Levi Bleam of 707 Sportscards in providing the cards used to illustrate this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2013.