The history of lighthouses


Estonia’s coastal waters are rather shallow and stony. Due to the close proximity of the shoal of Hiiumadal, or Neckmansgrund, to the Baltic Sea major shipping lane, construction of Estonia’s first lighthouse, the Kõpu lighthouse on Hiiumaa Island began on the initiative of Tallinn municipal authorities and at the request of Tallinn Hanseatic merchants as early as at the end of the 15th century. However, the lighthouse was completed only in 1531.

Next lighthouses were built by the Swedes right after they had occupied the land: in 1645 on Ruhnu island and in 1646 at the very tip of the Sõrve peninsula.

With expansion of the territory of the Russian Empire to the Baltic Sea and formation of the Russian fleet during the reign of Peter I it became necessary to mark the dangerous areas of the seaway of the Gulf of Finland.  By the end of the reign of Peter I in 1725, permanent lighthouses were built also on the cape of Pakri (Rogerviik) and on Keri island. According to the Uusinkaupunki peace treaty (1721) Kõpu, Ruhnu, Sõrve, Riga, Kolka (Domesnäs) and Seiskari lighthouses also went under the jurisdiction of Russia. With a Peter I decree fire was made in these lighthouses only in case the Russian fleet used these waterways.

After Peter the Great’s death there was a decades-long stagnation in maritime activities in Russia. New developments appeared in the second half of the 18th century and even some new stone lighthouses were built: in 1760 in Suurupi and Pakri cape, in 1765 in Osmussaar and in 1770 a sturdy rectangular lighthouse destroyed in World War II was completed in Sõrve (picture on left).

Tsar Alexander I who came to the throne in 1801 gave more attention to the marine and maritime issues and enormous work was done in building new aids to navigation. Thanks to the contribution of commander Leonti Spafarjev were reconstructed the lighthouses of Keri (1803), Osmussaar (1804) and Pakri (1808). New lighthouses were built at Lasnamäe in Tallinn and Mohni island (1806), in Narva–Jõesuu (1808) and Vilsandi island (1809).

In early lighthouses the source of light was fire. For making fire mostly wood, brushwood and occasionally coal imported from overseas was used. According to records, Kõpu lighthouse used about 1000 cords of firewood a year. I took several centuries until open fire was replaced by simple lighting equipment. Despite the fact that many European countries had applied the catoptrical lighting device immediately after its invention at the end of the 18th century, in Russia mostly old traditional wood and coal, at rare occasions candles or oil lanterns were used.
In the first quarter of the 19th century candles and oil lanterns with reflectors were introduced in this country. To differentiate between neighbouring lighthouses special flashing lights were used. In 1817, first flashing lights with a revolving screen were introduced in Vilsandi and Naissaar lighthouses.


In the early 19th century numerous lighthouses were built and reconstructed. However, seafarers kept complaining about the scarcity and poor light quality of the aids to navigation in Russian waters. The situation did not change until the end of the Crimean War in 1856. After that marking of waterways became more effective.

The lighthouse of Keri underwent substantial renovation: in 1858 a metal lighthouse prefabricated in Petersburg was mounted there with a dioptric system commissioned from Paris. A year earlier a metal lighthouse – the first one of its kind in our waters – was put up on Viirelaid islet (Paternoster).

By the beginning of the 20th century there were approximately 50 lighthouses and harbour lights in Estonian waters. Several wooden aids were replaced by stone and iron towers. In 1907 a beautiful red-brick lighthouse with outbuildings was completed at Laidunina, Saaremaa (picture from year 1910). Yet, the tower soon lost its importance and as early as at the beginning of World War I its light equipment was transferred to the wooden tower of Kübassaare the light of which was seen to a longer distance in the Gulf of Riga.

A revolutionary change in the light system of lighthouses came after the year 1823 when French physicist Augustin Fresnel invented dioptric light equipment (lens equipment). In the territory of Estonia as well as in Russian empire lens equipment was first introduced in the lighthouse of Keri in 1858. In 1902, incandescent mantle lights hõõgsukklampe replaced the former oil lanterns. However, this method of lighting was labour-consuming and needed constant maintenance and guarding.
In search for reduction of staff and transfer to automated lighting, experiments were made with application of kerosene, petrol and coal gas lanterns. Acetylene gas and the automatic regulation system of flashing light developed by the Swedish engineer Gustaf Dalen, became widely used after the system was improved in the year 1905 and the following years.


During World War I, were built some temporary wooden lighthouses (e.g., in Paralepa, Norrby in Vormsi) which had to be replaced in a couple of decades. A number of lighthouses had suffered in war (Ruhnu, Ristna, Sõrve etc.) -- so, the young Republic of Estonia had a lot do in order to ensure navigation safety in its waters. In the first years of independence main attention was given to restoration and repair of the existing aids to navigation. Thus, in 1920 the lighthouse of Ristna was covered with concrete, in 1924 were restored the lighthouses of Virtsu and Kübassaare as cylindrical concrete towers. In addition to that several reinforced concrete lighthouses were built.

Until the year 1933 it was private companies that built the lighthouses and actually earned substantial profits. In 1933, this policy changed as Estonian Maritime Administration took over all responsibilities connected with lighthouse construction. Until 1940, a construction team consisting of men mostly coming from the islands and Haapsalu region built 25 concrete lighthouses and about 10 wooden light beacons.

As of 1 January 1941 all lighthouses, aids to navigation, and light vessels together with their supporting vessels were taken over by the Hydrographical Service of the Navy of the USSR and were thus turned into military objects.

In 1950 a programme for construction of lighthouses and aids to navigation in the framework of which special-purpose technical facilities were erected near lighthouses was started in the Soviet Union. Since the year 1960 lighthouses were powered exclusively by automatic diesel-electric drives. The early 1960s also witnessed the construction of the new reinforced concrete lighthouses. The new technology made it possible to build cylindrical, pyramidal, and conical towers of varied diameters and heights.
New lighthouses were erected at Letipea (1951), Osmussaar (1954; the tower 35 m), Naissaar (45 m) and Sõrve (52 m, 1960).  A great majority of the lighthouses built at that time are quite similar concrete tetrahedral towers (see, e.g., the lighthouses of Virtsu, Anseküla, Hiiessaare, Letipea, Kaavi etc.).

In accordance with the agreement between the two states, in the autumn of 1993 the Hydrographical Service of the Navy of the Russian Federation handed the lighthouses and light beacons located in the territory of Estonia over to Estonian Maritime Administration (EMA). A great majority of the aids to navigation needed renovation, to ensure safe navigation most of the obsolete lighting equipment was also to be replaced. By the turn of the century all major lights of navigation were automated and at present all lighthouses and beacons belong to a unified monitoring system. Most of the lighthouses administrated by Estonian Maritime Administration have been repaired and renovated.  Nowadays, lighthouses are powered by solar panels and small wind mills.



Today there are 6 working lighthouses on our island


Anseküla lighthouse stands right beside the Sõrve highway.  The lighthouse was built at the former location of the church, but the church's graveyard is still in use.  It´s a square pyramidal concrete tower, upper part is black, lower part white. It  was built in 1953 and the height is 72 meters from the sealevel.

The same construction period (1952-1954) includes also Kaavi and Loode Lighthouses (picture) on Sõrve peninsula and Sääretuka lighthouse (Pihtla parish).  All three are 15 meters high. From Loode and Sääretuka lighthouse there is a beautiful view to the sea.

Lõu beacon is located on the north coast of Sõrve peninsula. It was built in 1934. Light beacon is a white concrete tower with lantern room and a balcony. Monolithic reinforced concrete tower is 9 meters long from the base and the lightbeam is 11 meters above sea level.

Sõrve lighthouse. On the top of Sõrve (Zerel) peninsula, on one of the island's most beautiful place, was built a rudimental beacon in year 1646. The original beacon was replaced in 1770. It was a four-sided stone tower,which unfortunately was heavily damaged during World War I. In 1944-1960 the destroyed lighthouse was replaced with a pyramid wooden lighthouse. Still operating reinforced concrete tower was finished in 1960.

Kübassaare lighthouse. On the top of the Kübassaare peninsula was built a wooden lighthouse in 1914. The lighthouse was equipped with the sixth grade Fresnel apparatus which was brought from Laidunina lighthouse. In 1923 the lighthouse was burned down as a result of lightning; a year later (in 1924) the oldest reinforced concrete tower on Estonian islands was built. The round shaped concrete towers height was increased in 1939. And as such  the tower is remained until today. Kübassaare Lighthouse has an important role in Suure Väina seatraffic.




In addition to working lighthouses there is a number of interesting former lighthouses. Probably the most eye-catching of these is Laidunina lighthouse (picture) in Laimjala parish and the year of construction of it is in 1907. To the complex belonged also the gatehouse, sauna, barn, lighthouse keeper´s house and the basement. Pretty soon it turned out that the choice of location of the lighthouse was a failure, because the light does not reach the Gulf of Riga in the Baltic Fleet for the important places and Laiduninas lighting device was placed in hastily constructed wooden tower of Kübassaare.  The golden times of the lighthouse are recalled only by the ruines of the brick tower.

Kiipsaare lighthouse is located on the tip of Harilaid peninsula in Saaremaa.  The lighthouse was built from reinforced concrete in 1933. Its purpose was to warn mariners on the Baltic Sea about the dangers in the vicinity of the peninsula and to be of assistance in taking bearings. At that time the 25 metres (82 ft) high lighthouse was between 100 to 150 metres (330 to 490 ft) inland, but due to erosion it is now a few meters offshore. A lack of supporting ground has caused the lighthouse to lean. While in 1988 the waterline was still 11 metres (36 ft) from the lighthouse, by the early 1990s the sea had already reached the lighthouse and it started to incline. Because of this the generator was removed in 1992 and Kiipsaare lighthouse remained in the records as a daymark until 2009.

Viirelaiu lighthouse is located in the southern part of the Viirelaid island  (Paternoster). It is a steel lighthouse built in 1882 and renovated in 2004. Originally built in 1857 of timber, the structure is an 11-metre-high tower.

Abruka lighthouse is located on the east coast of the Abruka island. The initial structure, built in 1897, was 28m high and had the form of a trellised wooden candelabrum. The beacon was built higher somewhere around World War I, which made the 36m lighthouse presumably the tallest wooden building of its time in Estonia.

Vilsandi lighthouse was built in 1809. The important lighthouse was renovated several times, the most recent extensive repairs were done in 1957 and the lighthouse has not changed since. The period from 1910 to 1941, when the lighthouse was managed by Mr Artur Toom, was one of the most interesting in the history of Vilsandi Lighthouse. He established the Vaika Bird Protection Area, which grew into Vilsandi National Park.


Ruhnu lighthouse. A lighthouse with a red metal cylindrical tower made in the Le Havre plant in France was erected on Håubjärre Hill, the highest spot on Ruhnu Island, in 1877. The metal tower is more than a hundred years old and still in working order.

The height of the lighthouse is 39.5 metres, 65 metres above sea level. It is the only lighthouse of its type left in the Baltic Sea region. The tower was designed by the same engineer who created the detailed plan of the Eiffel Tower (Gustave Eiffel).