Truro developed a whaling fleet based at Pamet River Harbor, which comprised nine sloops by the early 1800s.
In its early years, mariners knew Pamet as Dangerfield because of the frequent wrecks off its shores. A treacherous spot called Peaked Hill Bars, a graveyard for many ships, lies about a mile northeast of the lighthouse site. The 64-gun British warship Somerset, immortalized in Longfellow’s poem The Ride of Paul Revere, famously struck the bars in 1778; 21 lives were lost.
In 1792, with these dangers in mind and ever-increasing maritime traffic around Cape Cod, the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Boston Marine Society requested that the governor of Massachusetts ask the U.S. Congress to fund a lighthouse “upon the High Land adjacent to Cape Cod Harbour.” There was no immediate action.
In 1794, Reverend James Freeman wrote that there were more ships wrecked near the eastern shore of Truro than on any other part of Cape Cod. "A light house," he went on to say, "near the Clay Pounds should Congress think proper to erect one, would prevent many of these fatal accidents."
Having no luck with their appeal to the governor, the Boston Marine Society appointed a committee of three men in February 1796 to draft a petition directly to Congress. The Massachusetts Humane Society and the Salem Marine Society were also included in the petition, which brought about almost immediate action.
Congress appropriated $8,000 for a lighthouse on May 17, 1796. General Benjamin Lincoln traveled to Cape Cod to select the site. It was the view of mariners that the lighthouse should be built on the Highlands or Clay Pounds of Truro, where the high bluffs—rising nearly 150 feet from the beach—would augment the height and visibility of the light.
Lincoln concurred, explaining his choice of a site in a letter to Coxe on June 9, 1796: "Because the lands here are pretty good and are not so sandy as to be liable to be blown away by the high gales of wind too often experienced on this Cape... As the light-house must be made of wood the soil will be good for its foundation... Fresh water can easily be obtained within the ten acres. The land will summer a cow after a garden shall be taken off for which there is some pretty good land."
A 45-foot, octagonal wooden tower, the first lighthouse on Cape Cod and the twentieth in the United States, was built about 500 feet from the edge of the bluff, where it exhibiting exhibited its light from 160 feet above mean high water. The light went into service on November 15, 1797. A one-story dwelling for the keeper was also constructed, along with a barn, an oil storage shed and a well. The total cost of the buildings was $7,257.56.
Because of fears that mariners might confuse Highland Light with Boston Light (a single fixed light at that time), some consideration was given to the possibility of a double light at the Cape Cod station. Instead, it was determined that the lighthouse would be the first in the nation to have a flashing light.
Before the lighting apparatus could be put into service, the height of the tower was reduced by 17 feet and a new lantern, 10 feet high, was installed. The new equipment was in use by February 1812. Boston Light became a revolving light in 1811, so there was no fear that the two would be hard to tell apart. Highland Light would remain fixed white until 1901.
An 1828 report stated that the 1797 wooden lighthouse was "very imperfect -- is easily wracked by the winds, which shakes the lantern so much as to break the glass very frequently." After a congressional appropriation of $5,000 in March 1831, a new 35-foot round brick lighthouse tower was erected close to the site of the original lighthouse. The lighthouse and a new brick dwelling were built at a cost of $4,162.
In the early 1840s, Highland Light became a battleground between the old guard of lighthouse administration and technology—represented by Winslow Lewis and Stephen Pleasanton—and the new wave of reformers led by the civil engineer I. W. P. (Isaiah William Penn) Lewis, who happened to be Winslow Lewis’s nephew.
In the summer of 1840, Lewis installed a new cast-iron lantern and lighting apparatus at Highland Light. He replaced his uncle’s apparatus with a system of lamps and reflectors based on an English model. The lamps and reflectors were more carefully positioned and focused than they had been previously, and they were installed in such a way that they couldn’t be easily moved out of proper alignment.
Shipwrecks in the vicinity were less frequent after the establishment of the lighthouse, but they were not eliminated. One of the worst wrecks near the station was that of the British bark Josephus in a thick fog in April 1849. Two local fishermen went out in a dory in an attempt to aid the crew, but the would-be lifesavers themselves perished in the high seas.
It appeared at first that the entire crew of 16 had died, but Keeper Enoch Hamilton returned hours after the wreck to find that two men had washed ashore and were still alive. Hamilton and a companion carried the men to the keeper’s house, where they spent the night. One of the survivors of the Josephus, John Jasper, later became the captain of an ocean liner. When his vessel passed Highland Light, he would dip the flag as a signal of respect for Keeper Hamilton.
The naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau visited Highland Light several times in the 1850s. Thoreau found the lighthouse "a neat building, in apple pie order." In his book, Cape Cod, he wrote: "The keeper entertained us handsomely in his solitary little ocean house. He was a man of singular patience and intelligence, who, when our queries struck him, rang as clear as a bell in response. The light-house lamp a few feet distant shone full into my chamber, and made it bright as day, so I knew exactly how the Highland Light bore all that night, and I was in no danger of being wrecked... I thought as I lay there, half-awake and half-asleep, looking upward through the window at the lights above my head, how many sleepless eyes from far out on the ocean stream -- mariners of all nations spinning their yarns through the various watches of the night -- were directed toward my couch."
|The Eroding Shoreline|
An 1855 article in the Barnstable Patriot , written by a woman who spent time at the lighthouse, told of an incident in the 1833 keeper's house: "We were all seated cozily for dinner... when just as the hostess had put her fork into as plump a fowl as ever crowed, there came a rattle, a crash, smash and a cloud of dust which rendered all on the opposite side of the table invisible to me... I looked up and lo! The cause of the catastrophe! A part of the ceiling had fallen down over our devoted board and heads. It was not the first time the ceiling had acted so, I was told, as on a former occasion it had descended and Mrs. Small had patched the chasm with a newspaper."
The main keeper's dwelling was rebuilt soon after this incident, in 1856. A new brick tower was built in 1857 for $15,000, equipped with a first order Fresnel lens from Paris. This powerful light made Highland Light, the highest on the New England mainland, one of the coast's most powerful lights. Highland Light was for many years the first glimpse of America seen by many immigrants from Europe.
One of the worst storms in New England history struck on November 26, 1898. The storm was later dubbed the Portland Gale after the steamer Portland, lost with nearly 200 passengers in Massachusetts Bay. At about 10 p.m. on the night of the storm the wind indicator at Highland Light was demolished with wind speeds reaching over 100 miles per hour. A short time later the windows in the lantern were blown out and the light went out. The storm lasted 36 hours, and gradually wreckage from the Portland washed up along Cape Cod's back shore.
A Naval radio station was located at Highland Light in 1904. The station assumed great importance during World War I and was guarded by a detachment of Marines.
After an electric light was put inside this lens in 1932, the light became the coast's most powerful. The 4,000,000 candlepower light could be seen for 45 miles, and reportedly as far as 75 miles in clear weather.
Highland Light was automated in 1986, but the station's radio beacon remained in service and the keeper's dwelling continued to be used as Coast Guard housing. In 1961 the Coast Guard had destroyed the assistant keeper's house and replaced it with a new duplex.
When the first lighthouse was built in 1797, it was over 500 feet from the edge of the 125 foot cliff. The cliff continued to erode at a rate of at least three feet a year until, by the early 1990s, the present lighthouse stood just over a hundred feet from the edge. In 1990 alone 40 feet were lost just north of the lighthouse.
A group within the Truro Historical Society began raising funds for the moving of Highland Light. In 1996, this money was combined with $1 million in federal funds and $500,000 in state funds to pay for the move of the 404-ton lighthouse to a site 450 feet back from its former location.
The relocated lighthouse stands close to the seventh fairway of the Highland Golf Links, prompting some to declare it the world's first life-sized miniature golf course. "We'll get a windmill from Eastham and put it on number one," joked the club's greenskeeper. After an errant golf ball broke a pane in the lantern room, new unbreakable panes were installed.
|Don't Stand Too Close|
Directions: Highland Light is easy to drive to, but keep in mind that the signs say "Cape Cod Light." This became the official name in 1976, but to most New Englanders it's always been Highland Light.