I got a tip to check out someone associated with a series of 19th century photographs taken of several lighthouses around the Maine coast. What I ended up learning about this individual seemed to personify and embody the wild, frenetic excitement of the second half of America’s 19th century, in all its youth, danger, promise and glory.

David Porter Heap was an American engineer born in 1843 on the shores of the Marmara Sea in a neighborhood of Istanbul called San Stefano, today known as Yesilkov. He was the son of Josephine Warner Heap and Gwynne Harris Heap, U.S. minister to Turkey. Gwynne Heap had been U.S. consul at Dublin and Tunis and then consul general at Constantinople. Back in the states, the young Heap went to school at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, then to Georgetown College.

Lieutenant Colonel David Porter Heap, ca. 1880s. (Public Domain)

He became a West Point cadet on July 1, 1860, and graduated seventh in his class on June 13, 1864, the last class of officers from the Academy to participate in the Civil War. Heap was promoted to first lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, on June 13, 1864.

In the Engineer Battalion of the Army of the Potomac, Heap participated in the siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to the pursuit of the rebel army to Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered. He was awarded the rank of brevet captain for gallantry and meritorious service during the siege, for building bridges, conducting reconnaissance, repairing roads and making maps.

After the war he worked on harbor improvements on Lake Michigan, until February 1870, when he became chief engineer of the Department of Dakota territory. He took part in the 1870-71 Barlow reconnaissance expedition of the Upper Yellowstone region and co-authored its official report; the effort became known as the Barlow-Heap Expedition. He also produced the first map of the Yellowstone area.

Heap had fortunately taken his notes and observations with him to St. Paul and thus escaped the fate of Barlow’s expedition photographs, records, and specimens, all of which were lost in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. Heap’s diary, entitled “A trip to Pembina on the Red River of the North, May and June 1870” survived and this manuscript was used as an important source for building the railroad to the area.

From March 1875 to May 1877, Heap was in charge of Army preparations for the Corps of Engineers’ participation at the International Centennial Exhibition. The event was a celebration of the country’s independence 100th anniversary and took place on 285 acres in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

Thirty-seven nations participated in the event, which lasted from May to November 1876. Nearly 10 million people visited the exhibition. The grounds used five major buildings and approximately 250 smaller structures built by states, countries, companies, and other Centennial bureaus, to focus on particular displays or services. Heap’s engineering work there centered on electricity, especially appliances and lighthouse engineering.

Around this time, he married Elizabeth “Bessie” Beale and had a son, David Porter Heap Jr. in 1877. In 1881, Heap was in Paris for the International Exhibition of Electricity. His publication report on that event came out in 1884 and was well received.

The same year he was in France, Heap secured a patent for an invention he called the Topophone. U.S. Patent No. 590,062 was for a device which sat on your head and received reflected sounds which you would hear, sort of like a radar for ears.

Heap’s patent for the Topophone (U.S. Patent Office, 1896)

A practical use for such a device would enable vessels to change direction of movement with relation to dangerous objects being “heard” by his device. This could be another ship, an iceberg, or a rocky shore. With enough notice, contact or collisions could be avoided.

The Topophone would be able to detect and locate the direction or position of a sound-producing object. Heap said it would be an aid to navigation, especially when visibility was less than optimal, such as at night or in fog.

Heap next served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which is what ties him in with Maine maritime history. As Army engineer secretary, lieutenant colonel Engineer Corps, Heap served from March 1883 to July 1887 in the Lighthouse service.

He is credited with six publications, including “Ancient and Modern Light-Houses,” published in Boston by Ticknor in 1889. That same year, he became a widower when his wife Elizabeth died at the age of 37.

From May to October 1895, now Lt. Col. Heap was in charge of fortifications, rivers, and harbors of Portland, Maine. It was also here that his 17-year-old son and namesake died after a virulent case of septicemia pharyngitis, or strep throat. David Porter Heap Jr. was buried next to his mother at a cemetery in Washington, D.C.

It was also in Maine during the 1890s when a series of glass negatives were taken of nearly every offshore lighthouse in the state. They most likely were taken by him for a second edition of his earlier lighthouse book or a possible supplemental volume.

Heap’s photo of the lighthouses at Matinicus Rock (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

They may have been taken by him or at his direction. The series was kept in a box, each negative in an individual envelope with a brief description of the lighthouse. The set also contained a cyanotype print made from the glass negative.

Heap’s photo of Owls Head Lighthouse (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

Heap’s images were obtained by the Penobscot Marine Museum when they were tipped off by an auctioneer about their availability. Funds were donated for PMM to purchase the collection.

Heap’s photo of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

David Porter Heap moved to South Carolina and in 1896 helped found Cape Fear Country Club, the oldest private golf club in the state. By turn of the century, he was living in California, where he remained active in the military. In 1901, he published a paper touting the benefits of an acetylene gas generator for lighthouses. He wrote that the light sparkles like a diamond.

On Nov. 12, 1902, Heap married Josephine Bigelow Wright. They had a daughter, Emma. Josephine Heap died in 1949. A full colonel by 1903, Heap retired from the military in 1905 as brigadier general after serving 40 years. In 1910, he suffered a lengthy illness from a complication of diseases and passed away aged 68 in Pasadena, Calif. David Porter Heap was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Heap’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery (Findagrave.com)

The yearly Wreaths Across America event, which puts over 200,000 wreaths on the graves at Arlington Cemetery for the holidays, focuses on gravestones like David Porter Heap’s. The wreaths are a solemn promise to always remember, which is kind of fitting for the service and Maine maritime connection of such an interesting character who embraced so much of 19th century America.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.