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One summer evening we drove to Race Point, the farthest tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA. We were told there was a lighthouse at that spot, and wanted to see the light shine through the darkness, as it signaled to the boats out in the ocean. Some people there were calling it a light station. Is that the same thing as a lighthouse? If not, what are the differences?

I'm looking for substantial and detailed information about the meaning of and purpose for each. I know lighthouses come in many different sizes and shapes. I'm talking about any structure that serves that purpose.

Some history would also be appreciated, if possible.

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First, I would like to give a definition of a smaller term, that of just "light." For this, I turn to the U.S. Coast Guard. In this brief PDF of the Aids to Navigation System, we get a couple helpful quotes right on the first page:

These aids may be anything from lighthouses, to minor lights, daybeacons, range lights, and sound signals, to lighted or unlighted buoys. (emphasis added)

and:

Beacons are aids to navigation structures that are permanently fixed to the earth’s surface. They range from lighthouses to small, single-pile structures and may be located on land or in the water. Lighted beacons are called lights; unlighted beacons are called daybeacons. (emphasis added)

Thus The actual signal device is called simply a light. The light can be affixed to a house, or more likely within a tower or cupola added to a house, which we then call a lighthouse. More often today, however, lights are put on antenna-like structures.

Where there are such lights, they tend to get unofficial names from the local boating public. For example, although you won't find it on any chart nor any official publication, but the light that marks a certain bend in the Ohio River (near my former home) is the Dayton Light. It is somewhat near Dayton, KY, but on the Ohio side, and not directly across from Dayton. But everyone calls it Dayton Light.

As for Light Station, I do not at all doubt either Wikipedia nor Charlie in the prior answer, that this term describes the entire grounds and complex around a light. However, I usually associate this term with some degree of official-dom, such as the Coast Guard or one of its predecessors like the Life Saving Service or Revenue Cutter Service. I had a harder time finding references for this. The closest I could come is a list from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office. (If you expand the "R" Race Point is listed.) Since most lights have been automated, few if any of these Light Stations remain active, so the Historian links to the National Park Service for those that have been preserved as landmarks. That link is dead, but I did find some additional information doing a search on NPS's site. (Race Point is not included here, because it appears it was turned over to a private 501c3, not the NPS.)

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A lighthouse is one of the buildings in a light station and has the actual signaling light while light station refers to all of the buildings.

A light station comprises the lighthouse tower and all outbuildings, such as the keeper's living quarters, fuel house, boathouse, and fog-signaling building. The Lighthouse itself consists of a tower structure supporting the lantern room where the light operates.

Lighthouse

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