U. S. Military History: Some U.S. Coast Guard History

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On Aug. 7, 1789, in the ninth act of the first U.S. Congress, 12 lighthouses were transferred to the federal government, and the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) was created under the Department of the Treasury, then Revenue, then Treasury. Because of poor management and poor lighting at lighthouses, the Lighthouse Board was created in 1852 and, in addition to installing Fresnel lenses in many lighthouses,it  took on a more military style of operation. The board was changed to the Bureau of Lighthouses until being absorbed by the Coast Guard in 1939. America’s first lighthouse, built in Boston Harbor, still operates and celebrated its 300th birthday on Sept. 14, 2016. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse to use electricity.

Tariff and Trade

President George Washington signed the Tariff Act on Aug. 4, 1790, authorizing construction of 10 cutters (ships) to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling, called the Revenue Cutter Service. During the War of 1812, the service was placed under the U.S. Navy and the cutters served as warships. The Revenue Cutter Service additionally served in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War.

Boat Safety

To protect passengers, steamboat boiler inspections in the U.S. began in 1813, and the service expanded beginning with passing a law on July 7, 1838, to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.” The inspection service was placed under the Department of Justice. The Steamboat Act of Aug. 30, 1852, added to their enforcement capabilities and placed the service under the Department of Treasury. The Steamboat Inspection Service was established Feb. 28, 1871, and remained under the Treasury. On Feb. 14, 1903, congressional action transferred the Steamboat Inspection Service to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. When that department was split in 1913, the service came under control of the new Department of Commerce. On June 30, 1932, Congress merged the Steamboat Inspection Service with the Bureau of Navigation that was created in 1884 to oversee the regulation of merchant mariners. The merger formed the new Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection and remained within the Department of Commerce.


Prior to 1848, lifesaving efforts from shipwrecks were principally done by volunteers in small boats. Federal involvement in the lifesaving business began on Aug. 14, 1848, with the Newell Act. Lifesaving stations were meagerly added along the coasts but expanded in 1878 when a network of stations was formed into the Life-Saving Service under the Treasury. The Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service on Jan. 28, 1915, and was renamed the Coast Guard.


In 1967 the Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Transportation, then to Homeland Security in 2003. In times of war, or at the direction of the President, the Coast Guard serves under the Department of the Navy, defending the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.