Glossary Of Lighthouse Terms for the Maritime Region


Lighthouse Basics

  • Lighthouse: Enclosed tower originally designed with an enclosed lantern and built by a governing authority as an aid to navigation.
  • Lightstation: Light tower and associated buildings (dwellings, sheds, boathouses, fog alarm, etc.) and the land they occupy.
  • Authentic Lighthouse: A structure genuinely used for a navigational aid, which retains its basic historic properties.
  • Replica Lighthouse: A structure built to carefully reproduce an authentic Lighthouse, faithfully utilizing historic documentation. Example: Burntcoat Head, NS.
  • Imitation Lighthouse: A reconstructed Lighthouse that attempts to express basic Lighthouse features but does not represent an individual historic Lighthouse. Example: Saint John CG base.
  • Ornamental Lighthouse: A decorative structure suggestive of a Lighthouse but holds no historic value. Example: Amherst visitor information center.
  • Relocated Lighthouse: An authentic Lighthouse moved from its original location, except those moved a short distance due to erosion. Example: Anderson Hollow, NB.
  • Automated: A Lighthouse which has been changed to operate without the aid of a keeper. A keeper may still be retained for maintenance and security.
  • Destaffed: An automated Lighthouse that has had its resident or non-resident keeper removed. AKA "unwatched".
  • Decommissioned: A Lighthouse which no longer functions as a navigational aid.
  • List Of Lights: Official government list of navigational aids along the coasts and inland waterways featuring brief descriptions and precise locations.
  • Characteristic: The unique visual identity of a Lighthouse including the light exhibited and the individual features of the structure which allow mariners to tell one Lighthouse from another.
  • Daymark: The daytime characteristics and markings of a Lighthouse.
  • Navigational Aid/Aid to Navigation: Devices and structures used to assist navigation by mariners, which includes but is not limited to lighthouses. May also include buoys, radio beacons, fog alarms, etc.
  • Alternative Use: The non-navigational use of an authentic Lighthouse to preserve and generate support for the historic structure. This can also take place in a lighthouse that is still used for navigational purposes.

Lighthouse Architecture

  • Tapered: Inwardly sloping walls used on most lighthouses to provide strength and stability and to lessen wind resistance.
  • Masonry: A Lighthouse built of brick or stone, rarely found in the Maritime region and sometimes hidden by shingle cladding. Examples: Point Prim, PEI (brick); Sambro Island, NS (stone).
  • Wood Octagonal: Eight sided structure, usually tapering Lighthouse tower constructed of wood. Example: Gannet Rock, NB.
  • Square Tapered: Four sided structure, almost exclusively made of wood in the Maritimes. Can be of dramatically varying heights. Examples: West Point, PEI (large) and Margaretsville, NS (small).
  • Pepper Pot/Salt Shaker: A popular term for the smaller square tapered style of Lighthouse. Roughly resembling the proportions of a salt or peppershaker, hence the term. Example: Annapolis Royal, NS.
  • Concrete Octagonal: Eight sided tapering tower made of concrete, which continues a traditional wooden style in a more permanent material. Example: Louisburg, NS.
  • Round Fibreglass: A round tapering tower made of fibreglass, utilizing lightweight prefabricated material which retains a traditional Lighthouse style. Example: Cape Spencer, NB
  • Square Concrete: A four sided non-tapering light tower of concrete construction, usually with an attached square foghorn building. Example: Quaco Head, NB.
  • Square Wooden: A four sided non-tapering light tower of wood construction, more common along inland waterways. Example: Hampstead, NB.
  • Cupola Style: A structure with the lantern rising from the center of the dwelling. Example: Gilbert Cove, NS.
  • Skeleton Tower: An open steel or aluminum tower not generally considered a heritage structure but may occupy the site of an historic Lighthouse.
  • Lightship: A vessel that acts as a lighthouse anchored off shore at a location unsuitable for a lighthouse. The regions last lightship was replaced by a buoy in 1969.

Lighthouse Anatomy

  • Lens: Any glass or transparent material that is shaped to concentrate, magnify and focus light.
  • Lamp: The lighting apparatus inside the lens. (ie. oil lamp, kerosene vapor burner, electric light bulb).
  • Lantern: The exterior enclosure that protects the lens and lamp. Often confused with the lens or lamp, it is actually the top portion of the Lighthouse from the deck up.
  • Smoke Jack/Smoke Head: A special stack on top of older lanterns used to vent smoke from the lamps, sometimes taking the form of a round ball (ex. Seal Island, NS) or a chimney with a metal vane (ex. Head Harbour, NB).
  • Gallery: Exterior walkway around the lantern.
  • Cornice: Ornamental overhang often found on lighthouses as a graceful decorative treatment below the lantern or gallery deck. May be a simple sweeping curve (ex. Pictou Bar, NS) or may include decorative elements such as ornamental brackets (ex. Cape Jourimain, NB).

Lighthouse Technology

  • Lamp: See anatomy
  • Lens: See anatomy
  • Dioptric: A light which uses a lens for magnification. This is usually a Fresnel lens with size often indicated as "D" (D,6= sixth order).
  • Catoptric: A light which uses a concave mirror for magnification. Often indicated in LOL as "C". They were common before widespread use of Fresnel lenses but continued in some lighthouses long after.
  • Fresnel: The lens invented by Augustin Fresnel in 1821 which consists of concentric ridges radiating outward from the central lens (bullseye), with prisms positioned at the top and bottom of the ridges to refract the light from the light source placed behind the central lens. A term normally used only when referring to traditional cut glass style lenses, although the Fresnel principle is also found in more modern glass or plastic lenses.
  • Drum Lens: A common variation of the Fresnel lens but lacking a central bullseye and having the form of an open cylinder or "drum".
  • Order: A measurement of the size of a Fresnel lens, with 1st order being the most powerful (and largest) and 7th order being the least powerful (and smallest): 7th, 6th & 5th order: small harbour and inland lights. Example: Warren Cove, PEI. 4th & 3rd order: lesser coastal lighthouses. Example: Head Harbour, NB. 2nd order: Major coastal lighthouses. Example: Seal Island, NS. 1st order: Large landfall lighthouses. Example: Sambro Island, NS Hyper radial: Extra large size for continental landfall lights. Example: Cape Race, NF
  • Diaphone: A powerful type of foghorn invented in Canada which produced a loud "blast" followed by a "grunt". It used compressed air generated by a steam, gas or oil engine, usually housed in its own building.

Light Characteristics

  • Fixed: A continuous steady light.
  • Flashing: A light that appears at regular intervals with the light period being shorter than the period of darkness, or eclipse.
  • Occulting: A light that appears at regular intervals briefly interrupted by periods of darkness, which are shorter than the period of light.
  • Group Flashing: A flashing light that combines flashes in groups of two or more, creating its own unique pattern or signal. Used to avoid confusion where several lighthouses are in close proximity.

Types of Lighthouses

  • Landfall Light: A large lighthouse first sighted as a mariner nears land. Example: Cape Sable, NS.
  • Coastal Light: A medium sized lighthouse marking major coastal features such as capes, points and major islands. Example: East Point, PEI.
  • Hazard Avoidance Light: A lighthouse used to mark a specific hazard such as a shoal, reef, rocky point or dangerous island. Example: Ile Haute, NS. Many lighthouses serve as both coastal and hazard avoidance lights.
  • Harbour Light: A small lighthouse used to assist navigation within a harbour. Example: Neil's Harbour, NS. Sometimes located on wharves or piers in which case they are known as wharf or pier lights.
  • Leading Light: A lighthouse used as a landmark when fixing a course along a waterway. More commonly found as inland lights. Example: Sand Point, St John River, NB.
  • Range Lights: A pair of lighthouses which indicate a safe course when lined up one above the other. Sometimes one or both may be simple skeleton towers but older range lights can often be fine heritage structures. Example: Leards Range, PEI (front & rear).
  • Sector Light: A lighthouse that indicates safe passage by a change in colour when the mariner moves off course. Example: Wallace, NS.


  • FHBRO: Federal Heritage Building Review Office. The agency that is supposed to protect heritage buildings owned by the federal government, which includes most lighthouses.
  • DFO: Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans. The federal dept. responsible for active lighthouses and the fate of those they decommission.
  • CCG: Canadian Coast Guard. The agency traditionally responsible for the management of lighthouses and other aids to navigation, now a part of DFO.
  • Canada Lands Company: A self-financing, federal Crown corporation that specializes in real estate, development and attractions management.
  • Dept. of Marine: The predecessor of the Canadian Coast Guard beginning with Confederation and ending in the 1930's.
  • IALA: International Assoc. of Lighthouse Authorities. An organization of governing bodies responsible for lighthouses in countries throughout the world.
  • NSLPS: Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society.
  • PEILS: Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society.


Contact NSLPS

C/O Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
1675 Lower Water Street
Halifax NS, Canada B3J 1S3