A white, pyramidal day beacon constructed there in 1864 helped mariners but certainly did not bring an end to wrecks in the area.
Despite three light stations near Provincetown, there still has been over fifty shipwrecks since 1875. While 1899, when a sloop and two schooners came ashore and broke up, is considered by many to be history’s worst year for accidents, others consider it to have been 1927.
Around 3:30 p.m. on December 17, 1927, Provincetown Harbor’s most tragic maritime disaster occurred—one that nearby Wood End Lighthouse could not prevent. The U.S. Navy destroyer Paulding, on loan to the Coast Guard to help search for Prohibition booze runners, was unaware that the submarine S-4 was on maneuvers off the cape, when it rammed the surfacing S-4 and tore holes in its starboard side. The forty men aboard the sub were thrown about by the impact but scrambled to reach watertight compartments as the submarine quickly settled to the bottom in 110 feet of water. The thirty-four men in the aft part of the submarine soon succumbed to a combination of chlorine gas and a lack of oxygen, but six men in a forward torpedo room patiently waited for rescue in the cold, dark sub.
Despite personal peril, Navy divers reached the S-4 the day following the collision and communicated with the six trapped men, who tapped out in Morse code: “Is there hope? Please hurry, please!” Foul weather, however, frustrated the rescue effort. Despite knowing that the men had only seventy-two hours to live without oxygen, all were forced to wait until the foul, icy weather broke. The divers tried to attach oxygen hoses to the S-4, but they were repeatedly torn lose by the sea. The last message tapped out by the doomed men was: “We understand...”.
Throughout the attempts to rescue the submariners and raise the submarine, the men of the Provincetown fleet and fishing boats came out in the storms to assist in any way they could.
Eighteen days after the accident, the navy finally raised the S-4. Found among Radioman Walter Bishop’s personal effects was a poem describing the “pigboats”: “In the cantankerous mind of the devil, There festered a fiendish scheme, He called his cohorts together, And they designed the submarine….”
The history of Wood End Lighthouse began on June 10, 1872, when Congress appropriated $15,000 for its construction. Wood End lies between Race Point and Long Point, along the sandy curl that forms Provincetown harbor and has been described as the fingers of a semi-closed right hand. The new light first shone through its fifth-order Fresnel lens on November 20, 1872, after being lit by Keeper Thomas Lowe, who served at the station for twenty-five years. The lighthouse exhibited a red light, flashing every fifteen seconds, that could be seen eleven nautical miles in good weather.
Wood End had a square, pyramidal, brick tower, painted brown, while the exterior of the lantern, railing, deck, and ironwork were all painted black. The light’s focal plane was thirty-four feet above ground and forty-five feet above sea level. A one-and-a-half-story, cream-colored, wooden keepers house sat fifty feet northeast of the light tower.
Between Long Point and Wood End lights there was a salt works and a fish oil works, and the keepers of both lights complained to the Lighthouse Board about the stench and flies associated with those establishments.
When a Boston Globe reporter visited Wood End in 1889, Lowe demonstrated how the clockwork mechanism turned the lens, then he lit the lamp, and the pair retired to the “cozy sitting room” in the dwelling, where Lowe recounted his life before becoming keeper.
As a boy, Lowe shipped out on a fishing schooner from Wellfleet, later joined the navy, and saw action in the Mexican War aboard the frigate Ohio. While having mixed success as a California Gold Rush ’49er at Sutter’s Mill, Lowe helped rescue some snowbound settlers then tried his hand at farming in Southern California, before joining the crew of a clipper ship crew. Poor health eventually forced him ashore, where he decided to become a light keeper.
The area’s numerous shipwrecks sometimes required Lowe to wake nearby residents to assist with rescues. A lifesaving station was established at Race Point in 1892, and another added at Wood End in 1896, not far from the lighthouse.
In 1896, a new 1½ story, six-room, wooden keepers house was built for $29,000. An additional $5,000 was spent on a 990-square-foot storage shed and $1,500 on an oil house. A wooden, pyramidal bell tower with a 1,000-pound bell struck by machinery was added in 1902.
A stone breakwater was built across the upper end of the harbor in 1911, so that at low tide one could cross from Provincetown directly to the light, instead of slogging all the way round the end of harbor through miles of sand.
Taking the long way around the harbor would have been a welcome escape for Keeper Douglas H. Shepherd when he was trapped at the light for weeks during a severe ice storm in February 1935. The Boston Globe reported:
Keeper Douglas H. Shepherd of the lonely Wood End Light, on the far-off shore opposite this town, has been ice-bound and imprisoned at his station the past two weeks. He depends upon the Coast Guard to ferry his supplies and mail across the harbor, since it is impossible for him to come into town in his car, owing to the “miniature icebergs” piled all along his route…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.
During part of 1937, James Hinkley Dobbins was a relief keeper at Wood End. His wife Ruby and daughter Harriet did not live at the station and probably were not keen to do so. Before her first visit to the lighthouse, James instructed Ruby to “buy all the mousetraps in stock” at the local hardware store, as the keeper’s house was infested with rodents.
In 1961, the lighthouse was automated and a modern aerobeacon installed. No longer necessary, the keepers house and storage shed were torn down. Rather than rely on a generator to power the beacon, electric poles were put in place. Solar panels were installed in 1981, making Wood End one of the first solar-powered lights in the country.
Although the Coast Guard still owns Wood End Lighthouse, the American Lighthouse Foundation was granted a license in 1998 to maintain the structure. Since this agreement was signed, the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation has repeatedly teamed up with New England Lighthouse Lovers to paint the oil house and lighthouse.