On the Water

Waterway Perils

Even familiar waterways are unpredictable, for if left untended, they grow dangerous again.

Waterways can’t be simply explored and mapped. They must also be marked, inspected, and continually maintained to ensure watercraft safety. River bottoms, shorelines, and harbors change continuously, sometimes from one day to the next—introducing a new danger where none existed before. Coastal and river travel are safe today largely because decades of vigilance and work. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and its forerunner, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, have kept them so.

Safe Passages

In fog or deep night, a lighthouse beam warns ships away from shoals and offers them a path to safety. Because the exact locations of lighthouses are marked on charts, the lights can help mariners fix their own locations. Lightships anchored in a harbor or channel serve the same purpose by marking shallow water or other underwater dangers.

Snag boats and dredges keep waterways open to navigation. Because there are always new obstructions like fallen trees in rivers, or fresh flows of silt clogging harbors, these workboats are rarely idle.

Galveston Bay Storms

Illustrated sheet music cover showing features of Galveston Bay, Texas, 1898

In September 1900, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history struck Galveston, Texas. More than six thousand people lost their lives during a two-day storm that destroyed most of the city. The lighthouse tower on Bolivar Point served as a refuge for 124 residents.

In 1915, Galveston residents again survived a storm by taking shelter at the light station. At the height of the gale, the mechanism that rotated the lighthouse lens broke. To warn ships at sea, the keeper turned the huge lens by hand for nearly an hour.

Detail from a chart of Galveston Bay, Texas, showing the Bolivar Point Light Station, 1901

Courtesy of the National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Ship Model, Lighthouse Tender Joseph Henry [1962]
Ship Model, Lighthouse Tender Joseph Henry

U.S. Lighthouse Tender Joseph Henry

Built at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1880

The Secretary’s Tender

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Lighthouse tenders—which carry mechanics, cargo, fuel, and water—serve both lighthouses and lightships. This steamboat was named for scientist Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. He was the only civilian ever to lead the governing board of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. During its 24-year career, the Joseph Henry maintained day marks and lights along the Mississippi River.

Ship Model, U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender, Greenbrier [1962]
Ship Model, U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender, Greenbrier

U.S. Lighthouse Tender Greenbrier

Built at Charleston, West Virginia, 1924

Crew: 4 officers, 15 men


The Greenbrier

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The crew of the river tender Greenbrier maintained lights and other aids to navigation on the Ohio, Kanawha, and upper Mississippi from 1924 until 1947.

A stoker raking coals in the boiler room of the Greenbrier, about 1943

River Snags

Underwater tangles of trees and other debris plagued navigation on many western rivers. Steamboat builder Henry M. Shreve was appointed the Superintendent of the Western Rivers in 1828, and in 1829 he completed the first snag boat, specially built to dislodge river debris.

Engraving Of Steam Snag Boat A. H. Sevier
Engraving Of Steam Snag Boat A. H. Sevier

From Sketch Book of Saint Louis, 1858

Snag boat A.H. Sevier, 1840s

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Snag boats like the A.H. Sevier were built with an iron wedge between two hulls for use in breaking up the snags.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Great Raft

The “Great Raft” was a 92-mile-long tangle of stumps and fallen trees that blocked navigation on Texas’s Red River. Work to clear this big snag began in 1832 and continued for various stretches of time through the rest of the century. This snag boat, the U.S. Aid, is working to keep pace with the dynamic river conditions in 1873.

“Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers”

The snag boats operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were sometimes called “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers,” referring to how the vessels extracted whole trees and logs that hindered navigation. U.S. Snag Boat No. 2 is shown pulling stumps from the river bottom.

From Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 2, 1889

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Model of Snagboat Charles H. West [1966]
Model of Snagboat Charles H. West

Snag boat Charles H. West

Built at Nashville, Tennessee, 1934

Snag Boat Charles H. West

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The two A-frames on the front of the Charles H. West support a line from a winch. When the boat hooks a snag, the winch pulls it onto the ramp where it can be cut up.

Ship Model, Hopper Dredge Willets Point [1970]
Ship Model, Hopper Dredge Willets Point

Hopper dredge Willets Point

Built at Kearny, New Jersey, 1926

Model by Severn-Lamb, Ltd.

Hopper Dredge Willets Point

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Built in 1926, the Willets Point was once “the very last word in hopper dredging,” according to the United States Engineers’ Office. The vessel could dredge silt from depths of 12 to 35 feet and pump it into a large “hopper” in the hold until the silt could be dumped.

In 1927, the ship was commissioned to deepen and widen the Potomac River from the District of Columbia to the Chesapeake Bay, making it possible for larger commercial ships to reach ports in Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington. From January to April 1927, the Willets Point removed 581,507 cubic yards of silt from the river bottom.

Fresnel Lighthouse Lens [late 1800s]
Fresnel Lighthouse Lens

Lighthouse Lens

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This lens was installed in the Bolivar Point lighthouse near Galveston, Texas, from 1907 to 1933. It is a Fresnel lens, named for French scientist Augustin Fresnel. He designed a beehive-like array of lenses and prisms that vastly improved the effectiveness of lighthouses in the 19th century. Built in seven sizes, or orders, Fresnel lenses diffused lamplight into a beam that could be seen miles away. This is a third order lens.

Transfer from U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center (through David H. Wallace)

Navigational Bell Buoy
Navigational Bell Buoy

Bell Buoy

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Lighted bell buoys marked shoals in both coastal and inland waters. Made about 1930, this bell buoy last served at Turkey Point in the upper Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s.

The bell rang naturally with the motion of the waves. Acetylene gas stored inside the buoy fueled the light. Buoy tender crews inspected the buoy and replenished its fuel regularly. The parts of this buoy normally under water—a counterweight and hardware for holding the mooring chain—have been removed. They would extend about ten feet below the buoy.

Gift of the U.S. Coast Guard

Tending Waterways

Busy harbors have hundreds of buoys and other aids to navigation to keep seaways safe. But like roads and airports, waterways take tending. Channels fill and shift, buoys drift off station, and lighthouses need fuel and repair. Small fleets of vessels carried out this indispensable work in the nation’s harbors and rivers. In addition to maintaining every buoy—from once a year to several times a week—these ships delivered coal, water, mail, and supplies to lighthouses and lightships. And a vessel in distress sometimes found that the first ship to its aid was a buoy tender on its daily rounds.

Online Resources

To learn more about the Oak, visit the online exhibition, America on the Move

The Steady Oak

The engine room below, and its 750-horsepower steam engine, are from the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s buoy tender Oak. Four officers and a 23-man crew were responsible for setting, inspecting, repairing, and replacing hundreds of buoys—like the one to your right—that marked channels and shoals in and around New York harbor.

For more than 40 years, in all kinds of weather, the Oak carried out its duties in one of the world’s most important ports. In 1964 the vessel was decommissioned and taken to a Coast Guard facility near Baltimore, where this engine and related equipment were removed for the Smithsonian.

Engine Room From Coast Guard Buoy Tender Oak [1921]
Engine Room From Coast Guard Buoy Tender Oak

Engine Room From Coast Guard Buoy Tender Oak

View Object Record

Engine from U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender Oak

Built 1921

Transfer from the U.S. Coast Guard

  • Profile View of the Oak

  • The Black Oak

    Like all buoy tenders, the Oak’s 160-foot-long steel hull was painted black to hide the scrapes and bumps that were unavoidable when handling buoys and channel markers. Buoy tenders are known as the “Black Fleet” in the U.S. Coast Guard.

  • Buoys on Board

    The Oak’s spacious deck forward was designed to carry buoys, concrete sinkers, mooring chain, and other heavy material.

  • The Oak’s Crew

    Crew members aboard the Oak shoveled a lot of coal. They had to feed the engine’s coal-fired boiler and deliver coal to lighthouses and lightships. The crew was relieved of most coaling duties when the engine was converted to an oil-burning system in 1934.

  • Officers and Crew

    The Oak’s officers and crew, about 1930. At the time, the daily subsistence allowance for officers was one dollar, and 65 cents per man for members of the crew.

Buoy Tenders, 1936–2002