CREDITS: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont for providing much of the history one can find on this site. He is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England. For a story on Jeremy or to visit his site (New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide), use the corresponding link in the right hand information bar under "Related Links".

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I have set up this site as a means to share my photographs of lighthouses. Since retiring and finding more time to study photography, my interests have expanded a little. For some of my work other than lighthouses please enjoy my Facebook page at, John Shaw Photography. Come visit, enjoy, and 'LIKE' if you wish.

Also, for your enjoyment, I have provided a slideshow of our journey. To view it please use the link on the right under 'Site Navigation Tools'.

I sincerely hope you enjoy my efforts and use my site not only for information and education but also to provide directions for many enjoyable, inspirational visits to the beacons along our beautiful coas.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Race Point Lighthouse - Cape Cod

     Race Point’s name comes from the strong cross current, known as a “race,” that made navigation around the terminus of Cape Cod a nightmare for mariners. Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, every vessel traveling along the coast between Boston and points south had to negotiate the treacherous bars near here. As early as 1808, the merchants and mariners of Provincetown asked for a lighthouse at Race Point.

     Funding for a light station was included in a congressional appropriation of $8,000 on April 27, 1816. The original specifications called for an octagonal wooden tower, 20 feet tall, but the plans were soon altered.

     A lighthouse at Race Point, Cape Cod’s third light station, went into service on November 5, 1816. The rubblestone tower was 25 feet tall and its light was 30 feet above the sea. It was one of the nation’s earliest revolving lights, in the result of an attempt to differentiate it from other lighthouses in the vicinity.

     The tower was joined to the small stone dwelling via a covered passageway connected to the kitchen.

    A tremendous storm swept Cape Cod in October 1841. Provincetown's neighbor, Truro, lost seven vessels and 57 men in the storm. Only two crews from Truro survived. Captain Matthias Rich spent 12 hours lashed to the wheel and managed to bring his schooner Water Witch into Herring Cove near Race Point.

     I.W.P. Lewis inspected Race Point Light in 1842. He recognized the light's importance, but found reason to be critical:  "The light is useful to all vessels leaving Boston, and bound to the eastward, or round the cape, through the South channel; and also as a point of departure for Provincetown harbor, as well as Boston. Its illuminating power is, however, so weak that when a fleet of fishermen are anchored in Herring cove, close by, a stranger would hardly be able to distinguish it from the lights set on board these vessels. A reciprocating light of one good lamp and suitable reflector would be much more efficient than the present apparatus with ten lamps."

     A fog bell was installed in 1852. Then, three years later, a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the old multiple lamps and reflectors. In 1873, the bell was replaced by a steam-driven fog signal housed in a new wood-frame building. With the added duties of tending the fog signal equipment, a second dwelling was built for an assistant keeper in 1874.

     It was reported in 1875 that the original lime mortar in the tower had disappeared and the lighthouse had been covered with shingles in an attempt to stop leaks. The shingles and the wooden stairs inside were rotten and the tower needed rebuilding.

     The needed funds were appropriated and, in 1876, a 45-foot, brick-lined, cast-iron lighthouse replaced the old stone tower at a cost of $2,800. The Fresnel lens was moved to the new tower and the characteristic was changed from a flash to a fixed light.

     The original keeper’s house was torn down around the same time, and a new dwelling was built. A new rainwater cistern was added in 1877.

     In 1934, the New Bedford Standard-Times published an article on the station and its three keepers. William H. Lowther had been the principal keeper since 1915. Lowther had entered the Lighthouse Service as a crewman on the tender Mayflower in 1906, and before coming to Cape Cod he had been stationed at Thacher Island off Cape Ann and the Narrows Light in Boston Harbor. Lowther lived at the station with his wife and their young son, Gerald. Gerald Lowther later recalled his arduous walk of more than two miles on the beach to school each day.

     Lowther and his wife lived in Provincetown after retirement. In a 1936 article, Mrs. Lowther said that she saw many wrecks in her years at lighthouses, but there was one that especially affected her at Race Point. “Two men were drowned,” she recalled. “I saw everything: the appeals of the men and the shouting and the screeching of the men at the light was so terrible it was in my ears for weeks afterward. I had to go away from the light for a week.”

     Race Point is one of the windiest places on the coast. Snow quoted Hinckley: “The wind often touches a mile a minute. Some of the gusts will blow you several feet, and it’s hard going. The sand is bad enough, cutting into your skin, but a combination of sand and snow is almost unbearable.”

     On the occasion of his retirement on Christmas Day, 1937, at the age of 70, Keeper Hinckley expressed the opinion that the government should pay a pension to lighthouse keeper’s wives, who “do just as much as the men.”

     In his 1946 book, A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, Edward Rowe Snow described a visit with Keeper Osborne Hallett, who was in charge from 1945 to 1955. Over coffee and crackers, Snow and Hallett discussed the wreck of the Monte Tabor, which had occurred near Race Point on April 9, 1896. The Sicilian bark was carrying a cargo of salt when it ran into a tremendous storm off Cape Cod.

     The captain, intending to enter Provincetown Harbor, made a fatal miscalculation and ran right into the Peaked Hill Bars. Surfmen from the local lifesaving stations tried to go to the crew’s aid, but the vessel broke apart. Six crewmen soon drifted in on the bark’s cabin and were rescued.

     The next day, an Italian boy from the crew was found hiding in the bushes near the shore. He told his discoverers that he was afraid he would be killed if discovered; that was what happened to shipwreck victims on Cape Cod, he had heard.

     The light was electrified in 1957. Three years later, the larger Gothic Revival keeper's house was torn down and the other house was modernized.

     The light was automated in 1972. The Fresnel lens has been removed; there is now a solar powered VRB-25 optic.

     In 1995, the surrounding property, including the keeper's house and oil house, was leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation. International Chimney, the same company that has moved three New England lighthouses, repaired the roof of the keeper's house and rebuilt the chimney. Contractor Richard Davidson of Onset did a great deal of work on the interior and exterior.

     Volunteers renovated the interior, and the five-bedroom keeper's house opened for overnight stays. The building now has heat, hot water, flush toilets, refrigeration, and a stove.

     Guests must bring their own bedding and the kitchen is shared with other guests.Jim Walker reported a mystery in 1996. An American flag appeared on a temporary flag pole, put there by an unknown benefactor.

     The Center for Coastal Studies, a marine mammal research and educational group, leased the fog signal building. After a $45,000 renovation, the building was dedicated as their new field station in June 1999. The fog signal building now contains two bedrooms and is available as a weekly rental in summer.

     The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation raised funds for the installation of a solar electrical system for the keeper's house. Completed in October 2003, the system supplemented a diesel engine electrical generating system. On-site demonstrations show schoolchildren and other visitors how solar power can supply electric energy to the average family home.

     Sunset at Race Point Beach is one of the Cape's most popular spectacles, and at times humpback whales can be seen from the beach. Race Point Light is still an active aid to navigation maintained by the Coast Guard.

     Directions:  You can park at Race Point Beach and walk about 45 minutes (a little over two miles in very soft sand) to the lighthouse.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wood End Lighthouse - Provincetown - Cape Cod

     The first two lighthouses in the vicinity, at Race Point and Long Point, were established by 1826. By the 1860s, it was determined that another aid was needed at Wood End, the southernmost extremity of the curving spit of land that protected the harbor. A white pyramidal day beacon was first erected at Wood End in 1864, and Congress appropriated $15,000 for a lighthouse on June 10, 1872.
     A 38-foot brick tower -- originally painted brown -- was erected, and the light went into service on November 20, 1872. A fifth-order Fresnel lens exhibited a red flash every 15 seconds, 45 feet above the sea. A keeper's dwelling was built about 50 feet northeast of the lighthouse. The first keeper, Thomas Lowe, remained at the station for 25 years.
     In spite of the three lighthouses around Provincetown, wrecks still occurred with some regularity. Lowe occasionally had to make hasty trips to town to awaken sleeping citizens to help with the rescue of shipwreck victims.
     A lifesaving station had been established at Race Point in 1872, and one was finally added at Wood End in 1896, a short distance east of the light station.
     In 1896, a new wood-frame keeper's house was built, along with a storage shed and a small brick oil house for the storage of kerosene.
     New machinery for the revolving lens was installed in 1900. Two years later, a 1,000-pound fog bell and bell tower were added near the lighthouse.
     Eight days before Christmas in 1927, the Navy submarine S-4 and the Coast Guard cutter Paulding collided a half mile south of Wood End Light. 40 men on the S-4 died in the disaster. The S-4 was raised three months later and was used to help devise greater safety measures for future submarines.
    During a stretch of severe cold in February 1935, Keeper Douglas Shepherd was marooned at the light station for weeks. The Boston Globe reported:  “Keeper Shepherd has struggled vainly to break through the arctic expanse that extends for miles beyond his light. Several times he has attempted it, using axe and crowbar to attack the ice blocks in his path, but each time he has been forced to turn back.”
     Ordinarily, Shepherd made a daily trip into town. He had no worries despite his isolation, according to the newspaper report, as the Coast Guard kept him in touch with the mainland.
     James Hinkley Dobbins served as a relief keeper for a period in 1937. His wife, Ruby Kelley Dobbins, recalled in her book The Additional Keeper that her husband gave her explicit instructions to “buy all the mousetraps in stock” at a local hardware store before she came for her first visit; the keeper’s house was overrun with mice. The Dobbins family had some time for sightseeing in Provincetown and especially enjoyed seeing the traditional town crier, ringing his brass bell and shouting the news of the day.
     The lighthouse was automated in 1961 and all the other buildings except the oil house were destroyed. The lighthouse's original lens had been replaced by a fifth-order lens in 1916, and this was replaced by a modern optic when the light was automated. The light was converted to solar power in 1981.
     The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation has been licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and maintain Wood End Light. Volunteers painted the tower and oil house in the fall of 2000.

     Directions:  You can walk to Wood End Light across the breakwater built in 1911, but breaking waves sometime make the going tricky at high tide. It's a fairly strenuous walk of 30-45 minutes each way to the lighthouse. There are limited parking spaces available near the start of the walk; it's an additional walk of around 20-30 minutes from the center of town.
     The lighthouse, still an active aid to navigation, is also viewable from some of the excursion boats out of Provincetown.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Long Point Lighthouse - Cape Cod - MA

     Long Point Light is situated at the very tip of Cape Cod. By 1818, a settlement began to develop at Long Point, based upon fishing and salt manufacture. As the importance of Provincetown grew, it was decided that a lighthouse was needed to mark the entrance to the harbor.

     The original structure was constructed in 1826, and lamp first lit in 1827. The site consisted of a keeper's house with a lantern room on the roof.

     The settlement at Long Point consisted of over two hundred people at its height. The settlement was centered around the lighthouse, and also consisted of a school and windmills for pumping seawater in salt production. The settlement largely disappeared during the 1850's, primarily due to the discovery of salt deposits near Syracuse, NY.

    During the Civil War, a pair of forts were built at Long Point. Dubbed "Fort Useless" and "Fort Harmless" (or "Fort Ridiculous", depending on the source) by the locals, the forts never fired a shot in anger.

     The original station was increasingly threatened by erosion - pilings which supported the structure and protected it were decaying. In 1875, the original structure was replaced with a new keeper's house and 38-foot brick tower (originally painted brown - it has since been repainted white).

     In 1952, the site was automated. In 1982, the site received a 300 mm optic and solar panels to power the station. The keeper's house and fog building were razed. Only the tower and oil house remain. The light remains an active aid to navigation. The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) is licensed by the Coast Guard to perform maintenance. In 2006, the light received a fresh coat of paint from volunteers of the ALF.

     Directions: The lighthouse is not open to the public, but the surrounding grounds are open. Follow State Route 6 to Provincetown. The light can be seen from a distance from the Pilgrim's Monument or Macmillan's Wharf.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Highland (Cape Cod) Lighthouse

     When Truro, the second most northerly town on Cape Cod, was first settled as Pamet in 1646, it was part of a larger area known as Nauset. Pamet’s name was changed to Truro (after a Cornish town it was said to resemble) when it was incorporated as a separate town in 1709.

      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
     Storms often hit Highland Light with a vengeance. In the 19th century, keepers often had to stay in the lantern room all night to keep the glass clear. Other problems plagued the keepers in summer, such as swarms of moths and birds flying straight into the lantern glass.

     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

       In the summer of 1998 Highland Light was opened for visitors, with volunteers giving tours. A gift shop is in the keeper's house, and there are plans to install historical exhibits. Highland Light is now operated by Highland Museum and Lighthouse, Inc. The lighthouse is open daily, mid-May through October.

     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.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

The American Heron Gull

Soaring High
     The American Heron Gull is a large gull with a long powerful bill, full chest and sloping forehead.  Males are 23 - 26 inches long and weigh 37 - 44 ounces. Females are 22 - 24 inches long and weigh 28 - 35 ounces. The wingspan is 47 - 59 inches.
     Breeding adults have a white head, rump, tail and underparts and a pale gray back and upper wings. The wingtips are black with white spots known as "mirrors" and the rear edge of the wing is white. The underwing is grayish with dark tips to the outer primary feathers. The legs and feet are normally pink but can have a bluish tinge, or occasionally be yellow. The bill is yellow with a red spot on the lower mandible. The eye is bright, pale to medium yellow, with a bare yellow or orange ring around it. In winter, the head and neck are streaked with brown.

What's for Lunch
     Young birds take four years to reach fully adult plumage.  During this time they go through several plumage stages and can be very variable in appearance. First-winter birds are gray-brown with a dark tail, a brown rump with dark bars, dark outer primaries and pale inner primaries, dark eyes and a dark bill which usually develops a paler base through the winter. The head is often paler than the body. Second-winter birds typically have a pale eye, pale bill with black tip, pale head and begin to show gray feathers on the back. Third-winter birds are closer to adults but still have some black on the bill and brown on the body and wings and have a black band on the tail.
      It has no song but has a variety of cries and calls. The "long call" is a series of notes during which the head is dipped then raised. The "choking call" is produced during courtship displays or territorial disputes.  Juvenile birds emit high-pitched plaintive cries to elicit feeding behavior from a parent, and may also emit a clicking distress call when a parent suddenly flies off.
     The breeding range extends across the northern part of North America from central and southern Alaska to the Great Lakes, and north-east coast of the USA south to North Carolina. It breeds over most of Canada apart from the southwest and Arctic regions.
     Birds are present all year in southern Alaska, the Great Lakes and north-east USA but most birds winter to the south of the breeding range as far as Mexico with small numbers reaching Hawaii, Central America and the West Indies. Vagrants have reached Columbia and Venezuela and there is a report from Ecuador and another from Peru.  The first European record was of a bird ringed in New Brunswick which was caught on a boat in Spanish waters in 1937 and there are have a number of additional records from Western Europe since 1990.  The first British record was in 1994 in Cheshire.

Standing Watch
     It usually nests in colonies near water on coasts, islands and cliffs. It also nests on rooftops in some cities. It feeds at sea and on beaches, mudflats, lakes, rivers, fields and refuse dumps. It roosts in open areas close to feeding sites.
     It has a varied diet including marine Invertebrates such as Mussels, crabs, sea urchins, and squid, fish such as capelin, alewife and smelts, insects and other birds including their chicks and eggs. It often feeds on carrion and human refuse. Food is plucked from the surface of the shore or sea or is caught by dipping underwater or by shallow plunge-diving.

Viewing Tourists
    Pairs form in March or April. The nest is a scrape on the ground lined with vegetation such as grass and seaweed and with feathers.  Usually three eggs are laid over a four to six day period. They are 2.8 inches long and are variable in color with brown markings on a pale blue, olive or cinnamon background.  The eggs are incubated for 30–32 days beginning when the second egg is laid. The young birds fledged after 6–7 weeks and are fed in the nest area for several more weeks. They continue to be cared for by the parents until they are about 6 months old.  Both parents are involved in building the nest, incubating the eggs and feeding the young.  It has been observed that some pairs cement a close bond, staying in watchful proximity of each other year round; Other gulls display more independence, but may take the same mate each spring.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Chatham Lighthouse

     "Nowhere on the Cape's shorelines has the sea kept busier at her handiwork than among these storm-bitten sands. Directly to the south of the bluff, Monomoy lies beckoning like the bony finger of death which it has been to countless ships."    - Josef Berger, Cape Cod Pilot, 1937

Chatham Lighthouse - Chatham, Mass. - Cape Cod

     Chatham, nestled at Cape Cod's southeast corner, was named for an English seaport and incorporated in 1712. Maritime traffic passing the Cape was heavy by the nineteenth century. The waters off Chatham were a menace, with strong currents and dangerous shoals. Mariners talked of a ghostly rider on a white horse who appeared on stormy nights, swinging a lantern that lured mariners to their doom.

      In April 1806, nine years after the establishment of the Cape's first lighthouse at North Truro, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a second station at Chatham. A second appropriation of $2,000 was made in 1808. In order to distinguish Chatham from Highland Light, it was decided that the new station would have two fixed white lights. Two octagonal wooden towers, each 40 feet tall and about 70 feet apart from each other, were erected on moveable wooden skids about 70 feet apart. A small dwelling house was also built, with only one bedroom. 

     Lt. Edward D. Carpender of the U.S. Navy visited the station in 1838. Carpender's report described the 1808 towers as "very much shaken and decayed, so as to make it dangerous to ascend them in windy weather."

    An appropriation for the rebuilding of the station was requested for the next two years. In late 1841, the Treasury Department announced, "The two light-houses at Chatham . . . being entirely unfit for use", were taken down and rebuilt at an expense of $6,750, out of the general annual appropriation for the present year.

     The two new brick towers, completed in the summer of 1841, were each 30 feet tall. A new brick dwelling was connected to both of the towers by covered walkways. The contractor responsible for the rebuilding of the station was Winslow Lewis. Collins Howe, a Cape Cod fisherman who had lost a leg in an accident, became keeper of the Chatham Lights shortly before the new towers were built, at a yearly salary of $400.

    Howe complained in 1842, "I expected to have a light-house, and every thing in first-rate order, when these new buildings were put up; but I was mistaken".
     The house had such a poor foundation that rats had burrowed in and infested the cellar. A storm in October 1841 broke 17 panes of glass in the lanterns, which Keeper Howe blamed on poor construction.

    Joshua Nickerson of Chatham wrote a letter to President Taylor about the condition of the station, "I can testify that it has never been in a better condition than since it has been under her charge, nor is there any Light upon the Coast superior to it".
      President Taylor ruled in favor of Angeline Nickerson, who remained keeper for about a decade.
     Captain Josiah Hardy served as keeper at Chatham from 1872 to 1900. In his 1946 book A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, Edward Rowe Snow wrote about a visit with the Harding family of Chatham:
      Mrs. Harding went on with her thoughts. "There's an interesting bit about Chatham Light I have," she reminisced. "One day in the 1880s my husband, Heman, and Captain Josiah Hardy's son, Samuel, were playing near the light, when the veteran white-whiskered light keeper strode over to them. He had just finished calculations for the day, and there was a pleased expression in his face. 'I want you two boys to remember this day as long as you live,' said the captain. 'I have seen as many ships today as there are days in the year.'
     ...It must have been a wonderful sight, those 365 barks, brigs, schooners, and ships as they sailed to all ports of the world by Chatham Light. Today, when a sail is raised from Chatham Bluff, it is considered an event, and there are almost a score of days every month when no white sail lends its enchantment to the horizon."

     In 1875, Keeper Hardy counted 16,000 vessels passing the lighthouse. He reported often on the serious erosion problems, but little was done to shore up the crumbling cliff.
     A tremendous storm hit Cape Cod in November 1870. Before the storm, the Chatham lights were 228 feet from the edge of the 50-foot bluff. The storm had broken through the outer beaches, and the erosion accelerated. By 1877 the light towers stood only 48 feet from the brink.

     The authorities took note of the rampant erosion and moved quickly to rebuild the station, across the road and much farther from the edge of the bluff. Two 48-foot, conical cast-iron towers were erected in 1877, along with double one-and-one-half-story wood-frame dwellings for the principal keeper, the assistant keeper, and their families.

      On September 30, 1879, the old south tower teetered 27 inches from oblivion. Another two months passed, and a third of the foundation hung over the edge. Around this time some local boys found ancient coins, rumored to be pirate treasure, under the lighthouse.

      Fishermen placed bets on the exact time that tower would fall. Finally, at 1:00 PM on December 15 the south tower fell to the beach below. Fifteen months later, the old keeper's house and the old north tower succumbed.

     By the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began phasing out twin light stations as an unnecessary expense. The north light was moved up the coast to Eastham to replace the survivor of the "Three Sisters" in 1923, ending 115 years of twin lights at Chatham.

     George F. Woodman, a veteran of 24 years of service at a number of Massachusetts lighthouses and lifesaving stations, became  keeper in 1928. He was a perennial recipient of the superintendent's efficiency star for excellent service.

     Woodman was still there when a 1937 article reported that the station had more than 1,500 visitors between mid-July and mid-September of 1936. Woodman had the added duty of displaying storm signal flags on a nearby 75-foot tower as needed, as well as storm warning lights at night.

      Historian Edward Rowe Snow interviewed Keeper George T. Gustavus just after retirement for his 1946 book A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, "I retired from service October 20, 1945. I guess the world does not owe me much; have to make the best from now on. I was married again in 1943. My wife Edith is my good companion to look after things. The children are all in other parts, I'm grand-daddy quite a number of times".

    The light was automated in 1982. It remains an active aid to navigation, and the 1877 keeper's dwelling is used for Coast Guard housing..

     The erosion near Chatham Light had slowed in this century, but in recent years a new threat has developed. A new break in the barrier beach east of the lighthouse occurred during a winter storm in January 1987, and storms in 1991 exacerbated the situation.

     The Town of Chatham has been implementing erosion control measures, but the time will come, sooner or later, when Chatham Light will have to be moved or follow in the wake of its predecessors.

     Directions:  Chatham is a charming town with many lovely old houses, but it often gets very congested in the summer. Chatham Light is easy to reach by car. A right on Shore Road at the eastern end of Main Street will take you right to it. Bear in mind that the parking lot is frequently full in season.

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