Lighthouses have been built to warn mariners of dangerous reefs and headlands, and also to guide ships into safe harbours. Many ships and lives were lost before the lighthouses were built. The first lighthouse in the North American British colonies was built at little Brewster Island in Boston Harbour in 1716. The present Boston Lighthouse was built in 1783. Prior to this time ships had been guided by beacon fires lit by lookouts at the harbours. 

Canada's first lighthouse, the second in North America, was built in 1733 at the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It was almost destroyed by fire in 1736 and had to be redesigned and have a new lantern installed. The British destroyed the lighthouse during a siege on Louisbourg in 1758 and it was not replaced until 1842. That lighthouse was destroyed by fire in 1922. The present lighthouse was built in 1923.

Because the two earliest North American lighthouses were destroyed, the honour of being the oldest operating lighthouse in North America goes to Sambro Island Lighthouse in Nova Scotia. It was built in 1758. In 1996 the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Board designated the lighthouse as a classified building which is the highest possible heritage designation. The gas house on the site was designated as a recognized building, which is the second highest heritage designation.

During the 19th century, a rapid expansion in commercial shipping and the fishing industry led to an increase in marine traffic around the coast of Prince Edward Island. The first lighthouse on Prince Edward Island was built in 1845 at Point Prim on a peninsula jutting into Hillsborough Bay. It offers marine traffic protection and guidance to the capital city of Charlottetown. Lacking building stone, the lighthouse was constructed of Island bricks. This was not a wise choice as the soft bricks weathered quickly and soon had to be covered with clapboard and later shingles. Point Prim is one of only two round brick lighthouses in Canada, the other being Fisgard Lighthouse at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

There were eight pre-Confederation or Colonial lighthouses on the Island prior to 1873 when Prince Edward Island joined the Dominion of Canada. They were Point Prim (1845), Panmure Head (1953), Seacow Head (1863), St. Peter's Harbour (1865), North Cape (1866), East Point (1867) and Murray Harbour front and back ranges (1869).

Early Canadian lighthouses were built in a massive masonry style, but this was soon replaced by timber frame styles which were cheaper, quicker to construct, and at times more efficient. This was particularly true for the construction of lighthouses on Prince Edward Island which has no building rock, only soft sandstone. The builders turned to the abundant forest and the many men skilled in ship building to build the many wooden lighthouses and range lights which dot the 1,760 kilometers of Island coastline. Even today on Prince Edward Island there are only two concrete lighthouses: Shipwreck Point and the Brighton Front Range. The Georgetown Front Range is a round fibreglass tower. All others are made of wood.

The room at the top of a lighthouse containing the lighting apparatus was known as the lamp room or lantern room. The lights were originally fueled with fish oil and the light was projected by an elaborate arrangement of mirrors. Later, higher intensities were achieved with lenses. Today mercury-vapour lights are used. There was a weight shaft running through the centre of the tower. It housed the weights that operated the clockwork mechanism which rotated the light.

The Colonial lighthouses on the Island were built in the circular or octagonal style. The West Point Lighthouse (1875) was the first one built after the Island joined Confederation in 1873. It signaled the transfer of responsibility from the colonial government to the new Department of Marine and the emergence of the square tapered tower design on Prince Edward Island. Within the next two years, ten lighthouses were built along the Island's coast. By the 1870, range lights were being erected for safe navigation into such harbours as Charlottetown, New London, Covehead and Tracadie.

The square wooden towers first appeared in Canada in the 1840's and continue to be in use for over a hundred years. They are sometimes referred to as "pyramidal" or "pepper pot" lighthouses. They combined simplicity and economy, costing under $8,000, versus $100.000 for masonry towers. While some served as minor coastal lights, most were designed as harbour or range lights marking the final approaches to a port. Erected in pairs, they were placed some distance apart and at different elevations. When both lights were lined up on approach, the observer was on the correct path to enter a harbour or channel, or to avoid a dangerous condition. Many range lights were to be short and squat so they could be easily moved to mark a newly shifted channel.

The man credited with the widespread adoption of the heavy timber-framed towers in the post-Confederation era was Joseph Tomlinson, the first lighthouse engineer in the newly created Department of Marine. He was given the task of creating a large number of lighthouses expediently and economically. He was in charge from 1871 to 1880, when many of the towers with attached residences were built.

On Prince Edward Island, most of the square lighthouse towers had a rectangular 1 1/2 to 2 storey gable roof residence with living space in both the tower and the residence. The tower and residence were often integrated at the first and second level with the kitchen frequently located in an attached shed. This meant that members of the keeper's family could help attend to the duties involved in operating the lighthouse.

Most lighthouses had the dwellings removed when electricity was installed in the late 50's and early 1960's. Wood Islands, Rustico, and New London Rear Range all have their dwellings intact. The Blockhouse Lighthouse is similar to them, but has a flat roof dwelling. West Point rebuilt the dwelling which was removed in 1963-64.

Earlier administration of lighthouses and other navigational aids had been administered by Quebec Trinity House (1805) and Montreal Trinity House. When the Federal Department of Marine and Fisheries took over both Trinity Houses in 1873, they oversaw a total of 110 lighthouses. During the 1920's, the Canadian lighthouse population was approximately 1,461. In 1939, the Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries was absorbed by the new Department of Transport. The Canadian Coast Guard became one of the three branches of the Department of Transport (Air, Surface and Marine). At present (2006), aids to navigation are administered by the Canadian Coast Guard division of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (CCG/DFO.) The current population of lighthouses in Canada now stands at approximately 272. There are approximately 44 lighthouse/range light structures on Prince Edward Island. We are including a few others that have been decommissioned and are currently private residences, so that people can learn about their history as well.

In most cases the keepers were retired or reassigned, and the dwellings were removed. The last three keepers on the Island were Leon Patten, who retired from Wood Islands in 1990, Harry Harris, who retired from East Point in 1989, and Francis McIntosh, who retired from Souris Lighthouse in 1991.

There are some lighthouses in Newfoundland and British Columbia that still have lighthouse keepers. New Brunswick is the only Maritime province that still has a keeper. The Canadian government has continuously manned a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island since 1832. The island is located 18.5 km (10 nautical miles) west of Southwest Head, Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. The island has been claimed by both Canada and the United States.

All of the older lighthouses in Canada have been assessed by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO.) They have been assigned numbers. All lighthouses, range lights and buoys also have designated numbers which are listed in the Atlantic Coast List of Lights, Buoys and Fog Signals (LOL) put out by the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Navigation Services. The List of Lights note the distinguishing features of each lighthouse such as its flash pattern and day marks. Mariners can tell which lighthouse they are passing in daylight by the day marks which refers to the pattern of the paint in horizontal or vertical patterns. A good example of this is the broad black bands on the three sides of the West Point Lighthouse which face the sea. The flash pattern refers to the distinct pattern of light and darkness for each lighthouse. The flash pattern of the West Point Lighthouse is 5 seconds flash, 5 seconds eclipse.

Today with electricity and solar powered sources of light, channel changes and centralization of harbours, some lighthouses have been abandoned and new steel towers have been erected. Many of the remaining lighthouses have had the intensity of the lights decreased because they are used mainly by fishermen and other near-shore boats. The larger vessels rely on their sophisticated electronic navigational equipment.

A number of decommissioned lighthouses and range lights have been converted to cottages. Others have deteriorated badly or have been destroyed.