Light, Little Brewster Island, 1716
This was the first lighthouse in America, built by the Colony of Massachusetts.
It has been preserved as a monument to the Lighthouse Service by a special act of
Congress. The legislation ensures that the station will always be manned and cared
for by human hands and will uphold the traditions of lightkeeping.
Series of keepers -- There are more than 60. George Worthylake, the nations first
lightkeeper, didnt fare too well. He earned 50 pounds a year for his lightkeeping
duties and was supposed to supplement this by serving as a harbor pilot. But the
lightkeeping responsibilities were all-consuming. He tried to make extra money by
running herds of sheep on Little Brewster and other nearby islands, but he didnt
have any luck with this. During a gale, several dozen of his sheep wandered on to
a spit, and were stranded. He had to watch while 59 sheep drowned since he couldnt
abandon his duties. The town of Boston agreed to increase his salary to 70 pounds,
and upon returning from Boston with the money, his boat capsized and he drowned.
His daughter, teenaged Ann Worthylake, the first official lighthouse child in this
country, her mother and the station slave were with him. His other children were
watching as the boat capsized.
The second keeper, Robert Saunders, drowned just days after taking the job.
Site of first foghorn. Third Keeper John Hayes asked that "a great gun be
placed on the Said Island to answer ships in a Fogg." He probably wasnt too
happy when it got added to his duties, but didnt receive more than his salary of
50 or so pounds. The cannon still exists at United States Coast Guard Academy in
In 1720 Hayes set fire to tower, and was assessed three years pay -- 216 pounds
-- but managed not to have to pay it.
In the 1840s a keeper named Tolbia Cook set up a cigar factor on Brewster Island
and brought young women out to manufacture what he called "Spanish Cigars"
under miserable conditions till his fraud was discovered. (See Bibliography: DeWire
Storm Child -- story of Georgia Norwood, who was born at Boston Light in 1931,
and who became the model for the main character of Ruth Carmens novel STORM CHILD.
(See De Wire p. 179-181)
Island Southeast, Rhode Island, 1875
This is one of the most remarkable structures in America. A Victorian keepers
dwelling and 52 tower made of red brick that sits on a lofty bluff -- making it
258 over sea level, the highest light in New England. It looks like it came out
of a Gothic romance. The lighthouse was built during Block Islands heyday as a resort,
which may help explain its ornate design. Beautiful coast scenes.
Block Island is a 7000 acre island, 12 miles from Long Island and the same distance
from Charlestown, Rhode Island. It is very picturesque, and a Mecca for artists and
tourists. It is reached by ferry. There are thousands of seagulls on the island.
Big story of how the lighthouse was moved back 300 feet (There are different accounts
that say any where from 247 to 360) from the sea in 1993. Funds were raised by
dedicated volunteers at Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation. International
Chimney Corporation, a company that mainly fixes industrial smokestacks, was involved
in this very intricate and astonishing project -- moving a 120-year old, four million
pound brick lighthouse with lightkeepers building and priceless Fresnel lens intact.
Everything about the project was huge; 800,000 pounds of steel used to support the
structure, 38 lifting jacks capable of hefting 60 tons each.... etc. Rick Lohr, president
of the company, said "If I could do these the rest of my life, Id never retire,
because I love it." International Chimney has also worked on Cape May and Cape
The light has a first-order Fresnel lens, installed in 1880. The kerosene-fed
lens revolved on a bed of mercury. The light was electrified in 1928. During the
1993 move, the old first-order lens had to be removed, since it emitted toxic fumes
from its mercury bed. It was replaced with a first-order lens from Cape Lookout Light
in North Carolina.
Minots Ledge Light, Cohasset, Massachusetts, 1850
(Prime Sources - THE STORY OF MINOTS LIGHT, E.R. See Bibliography: Snow, Cohasset
Historical Society Brochure on Minots Ledge Light History)
The Lovers Lighthouse - the "I Love You" Lighthouse - lights flash
in 1-4-3 pattern (since 1894).
Story of construction -- at first a tragedy, and ultimately an engineering triumph:
- -- Setting is a narrow, barely visible outcropping of rock just off Cohasset.
Rocks disappear under the waves at each high tide.
- -- 1847 survey showed dozens of vessels that had been destroyed, valued at over
$360,000, and more than 40 lives lost. (See Bibliography: See Bibliography: Snow,
- -- Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of Treasury was convinced to build and decided
on a radical new design for this setting: Tower stood 75 high and built on 9 pilings
sunk 5 into rock and cemented in place. He thought that the open structure would
provide least resistance to the wind and waves. (See Bibliography: Roberts)
- -- The first lighthouse took three years, from 1847-50. The top of the rock was
only 3.5 feet above water at low tide, which allowed only three hours a day to work
on the rock. (See Bibliography: Kochel p. 324, See Bibliography: Snow p. 26-35).
- -- First keeper, Isaac Dunham, quit just nine months after the tower was lit
on January 1, 1850, because he was sure the tower would fall down. (See Bibliography:
DeWire, p. 249). Vivid accounts from Dunhams logs and accounts of life in the tower
(See Bibliography: Snow p. 39-43) including story of his pet kitten, that went crazy
with fear living in the lighthouse and jumped off the tower.
- -- On April 16, 1851, while the keeper was ashore, a terrible storm struck and
tore the tower apart, piece by piece. First the center support broke, then the outer
pilings snapped and the entire tower slid into the sea.
- -- The two assistant keepers, Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson, actually kept
the light going until the last instant. As the tower hit the waves, the fogbell furiously
sounded. Both assistant keepers died -- one drowned and his body washed ashore; the
other made it to shore, but died of exposure.
- -- The Keeper, John Bennett, first learned the tower had plummeted when he recognized
personal items floating to shore.
- -- Tower rebuilt by 1860. Took five years less one day to build, and cost $330,000.
Built of granite blocks on top of seven foundation stones weighing two tons each,
and locked together by dovetailing. Although waves have swept over the lighthouse,
no gale has caused more than minor vibrations to the present structure. (See Bibliography:
Kochel p. 324-327
The destruction of the first tower might have caused Pleasonton his job. As a
result, The Lighthouse Board was formed in 1851, completed its survey and uncovered
many of his failures. (See Bibliography: Roberts)
When keeper Joshua Wilder entered tower room to light second tower for first time
on November 15, 1860, he was greeted by tens of bonfires on South Shore celebrating.
When he lit the beam, Roman candles and skyrockets shot in the air. (See Bibliography:
Snow, p. 87-88)
Good ghost stories about keepers who heard the gallery door mysteriously open
and insistent tapping in the tower walls -- said to echo a game that Antoine and
Wilson played by tapping on a stovepipe that ran from the lantern to the living quarters.
Also, passing ships used to report sighting a man clinging to a rope outside the
tower, dripping wet and speaking a foreign tongue -- Portuguese sailors understood
him -- it was the ghost of John Antoine. (See Bibliography: DeWire p. 247-255)
Recent restoration efforts by Coast Guard in 1987, and Cohasset Historical Society
has assembled a Minots Light Monument on nearby Government Island, where original
granite blocks were shaped. The keepers duplex, built in 1858, is also located there.
Cohasset Historical Society Maritime Museum has comprehensive historical account
of building of Minots Ledge.
of Cape Henry -- Old and New Cape Henry, Virginia Beach, Virginia - 1792 and
Old Cape Henry has the distinction of being the first lighthouse to be authorized
(1790), completed (1791), and established (1792) under the auspices of the First
United States Congress.
Construction of Old Cape Henry began before the Revolutionary War, but was abandoned
when stone masons balked at working for useless Continental dollars. The stockpiled
stone had sunk so deeply into the sand it couldnt be salvaged when the project was
resumed in 1791.
Roberts writes in his book, Southern Lights, about an amusing story that colonists
talked about placing the lighthouse at mouth of Chesapeake in early 1700s -- and
in 1716, Spotswood, the flamboyant Governor of Virginia, took a group on a scouting
trip -- in a green velvet suit, with a dozen compatriots and a wagon of wine -- but
returned home too tipsy to remember what he had seen.
Old Cape Henry had continual problems mostly with shifting sands. In 1798, so
much sand had sifted insider the keepers dwelling, that it "Buried his kitchen
to the eaves," (See Bibliography: Vojtech p. 6). It was abandoned in 1881 when
four cracks appeared in its walls. However, it stands to this day.
Old Cape Henry stands near the shore where the English colonists, in 1607, first
set foot in Virginia. A white cross represents the wooden cross the settlers placed
on the site. After exploring the Cape, they sailed up the James River and landed
at "James Cittie," now Jamestown. A pilgrimage on the 4th Sunday in April
observes the landing.
The Old Cape Henry and New Cape Henry lighthouses make for a good story. They
were built very close to each other. There is a good contrast of architectural styles
-- Old Cape Henry was built of sandstone blocks, and is an architectural beauty,
while the New Cape Henry is constructed of cast iron painted in black and white design.
They both sit right next to the beach.
New Cape Henry is still an active aid to navigation. There is a Coast Guard keeper
assigned to New Cape Henry. Coast Guard families live in the original keepers houses
The lighthouses mark the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
This is a very busy maritime highway with lots of commercial, international and navy
Point Maryland - 1825, 1838, 1875 (& Drum Pt/ Hoopers Strait/Sevenfoot Knoll)
Thomas Point is very important because it is the only screw pile type light that
remains in its original location on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It is one of
only three left standing. Architecturally, probably the finest example of a screw
pile cottage anywhere in the world, and symbolic of late 19th-20th century life on
The dwelling is a complex, hexagonal structure, 35 in diameter, which sits on
seven piles, six of which are spaced around the perimeter of the central piling.
The house has many carefully crafted details.
It stands on an area of dangerous shoals. It was built to warn vessels requiring
deeper water. Rocks around the base protect it.
Still active; manned till 1986; automated and operated by United States Coast
Story of construction -- first one built on land -- not in the water -- by John
Donohoo. Although construction of many Bay lighthouses occurred during Pleasontons
32-year reign -- during which many of the lighthouses crumbled and fell due to his
penny pinching, the Chesapeake Bay was blessed with perhaps the countries finest
early lighthouse builder -- John Donohoo. Between 1823 and 1854, Donohoo built almost
every lighthouse on the Bay- about 13. Most of them are architectural gems that still
stand today. Yet, although he turned out to be an important builder, was only a novice
at the time and many say he did a poor job. It had to be rebuilt a decade later.
However, Pat Vojtech in the preface of her book (See Bibliography) shows explanation
for this -- showing the bank on which it was built had eroded. She includes letter
from Pleasonton -- and feels that she has vindicated Donohoos good name.
Hooper Strait, another screwpile light, was moved from its original location to
nearby St. Michaels, where it is now the major attraction of Chesapeake Bay Maritime
Museum. The lighthouse is a good way for people to see this unique lighthouse design.
Drum Point Light is another screwpile that has been moved and is part of Calvert
Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. Built in 1883, it originally stood in 10 feet
of water and sailing vessels often passed between it and the shore. At the turn of
the century, however, due to silting, it sat in only three feet of water. By the
1970s, when it was moved to its site at the Calvert Museum, it was completely landlocked.
A very attractive structure, the cottage lighthouse has been completely restored
to mint condition and furnished much as it was at the turn of the century. After
the early years, the Lighthouse Board prohibited families from living at screwpiles,
but Drum Point was an exception.
Theres a story about a fog in 1923, when keeper and wife on shore, so their teenage
daughter and friend rang the bell by hand, when the fog-bell striker mechanism failed.
Sevenfoot Knoll, the most unique screwpile ever built on the Bay, was a round,
metal structure. In the late 1980s, it was moved from the mouth of the Patapsco River
to the Inner Harbor at Baltimore, where it now serves as headquarters of nonprofit
Living Classroom Foundations. (See Bibliography: Vojtech p. 155) In height of August
Storm of 1933, keeper Thomas J. Steinhise was involved in the very dramatic rescue
of five sailors from a sinking tugboat (See Bibliography: Vojtech chap. 19)
Screwpile lights were especially vulnerable to storms and ice. Thomas Point is
now surrounded by rocks. Vojtech (Capt. 4 p. 29) tells story of storms of 1877-1879
-- and their effect on all these screwpile lights: Hoopers Strait was knocked down
and floated down the bay while the keepers missing for 2 weeks; the Bolling family
with infant Knolie (named after the light where she had been born with out medical
assistance); and Thomas Point, where keepers said that for nine days the vibration
of the lighthouse was so violent that sleep was impossible except for short intervals
when the ice ceased running, and the lantern whirled so rapidly that it dismounted
from its machinery and broke, so the keepers showed a small household lamp from an
upper window. -- This illustrates danger of ice to screwpile lights.
May Lighthouse, Cape May, New Jersey - 1823, 1847 & 1857
One of the oldest continually operating lighthouses in the US. The first-order
Fresnel lens was replaced in 1938 by an electronic beacon. The lens in the original
oil lamp was so large that a keeper could stand in it to refuel the lamp. The lens
is now on display at the Cape May County Historical Museum in Cape May Court House.
The first lighthouse, built in 1823, sat on land that is now covered by water,
about 100 yards off current shoreline. Undermined by advancing waters, the tower
fell into the sea. Bricks from the original lighthouse occasionally wash ashore during
storms. Second lighthouse, built in 1847, was of poor quality and demolished.
The present lighthouse is 157 feet tall and 199 stairs lead up to the tower.
It has undergone extensive restoration by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC),
including the Oil House, which serves as a visitors center, the lantern and roof
have been overhauled and the tower has been repainted in its original colors. Interior
and details to the exterior yet to be restored. The lantern has been reconstructed.
Story of the dedication and determination of local citizens to save and restore the
Last keepers, the Palmers, lived there 1924-1933. They had nine children. Daughter
Alma had to keep grass out of the brick walks. She salted the cracks to slow down
the grasses and cut her work down. When permanent white salt stains appeared on the
bricks, her father was not amused... (See Bibliography: Bailey p. 34)
Sundays, April through June 1997, "The Keepers on Duty" is a living
history event at the lighthouse. Actors playing Harry or Belle Palmer, the last keepers,
greet visitors at the top of the tower with tales of their lives in the 1920s.
Saturdays, April through June 1997, MAC sponsors a sightseeing cruise around island
of Cape May to see Victorian architecture and possible dolphins/whales.
Cape May is a Victorian seashore resort, with over 600 authentically restored
and preserved Victorian structures. The city has many Victorian bed & breakfasts.
The city is a National Historic Landmark site. In December, town is decked out with
Christmas decorations. October is designated Victorian Week.
In the summer of 1997 an archeological dig began at the state park.
Hook Light, Sandy Hook, New Jersey - 1764
(See Bibliography: Roberts p. 126 and Kochel, p. 148)
Nations oldest still standing and operational navigational aid.
Handsome octagonal tower painted white with red lantern room.
Although it stands at the mouth of the Hudson in New Jersey, it was built and
paid for by New Yorkers and was known for many years as the New York Lighthouse.
There was heated dispute over control of the stations for years, until the US government
put an end to it when it made lighthouses a federal responsibility.
During the Revolutionary War, New York Congress tried to deny use of the light
to expected British Naval units and started to dismantle lantern. But a British landing
party came ashore before the work was completed and they put the light back. On June
1, 1776 America militiamen fired cannons in an attempt to destroy the lighthouse,
but did minimal damage so the British had use of it.
In the 1850s, when the Lighthouse Board inspected it to see if it needed replacement,
they said "The tower at Sandy Hook main light was constructed in 1764 under
royal charter, of rubblestone, and is now in a good state of preservation. Neither
leaks nor cracks were observed in it. The mortar appeared to be good, and it was
stated that the annual repairs upon this tower amount to a smaller sum than in towers
of many of the minor lights in the New York District." Quite a compliment to
Isaac Confro, who built it a century before.
In 1850, a skeleton was found sitting at a table in a secret underground compartment
under the keepers house. Almost a century later, the Army Corps of Engineers found
the corpses of four men and one woman buried at the base of the lighthouse.
Lights of Navesink, Highlands, New Jersey - 1828, 1862
A very historic lighthouse with lots of "firsts".
Henry Hudson sailed his ship out of waters of Sandy Hook in 1609 and saw the "high
hills" and called them "a very good land to fall with and a pleasant land
Colonists established an early warning station at Navesink. Highlands Bluff was
used as an observation point as early as 1746.
Government considered this such an important lightstation, that it was site of
first Fresnel lens.
First to have lamps fueled by kerosene (1883).
First seacoast electric light in 1898 (first navigational light was already at
Statue of Liberty -- but just a harbor light).
In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi conducted first practical demonstration of wireless
telegraph from Navesink. He relayed the results of the Americas Cup races off Sandy
North Tower extinguished in 1898; south tower served until 1953, when it was discontinued.
The North Tower was relighted in 1962 as a private navigational aid. Today the lighthouse
is part of a state historic site.
Point Light, Long Island, New York - 1797
This lighthouse was once as much a symbol of America as the Statue of Liberty.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, Montauk Point Lighthouse -- rather than the Statue
of Liberty -- was the first landmark to greet generations of immigrants, and it became
for many of them a symbol of the freedom and opportunity awaiting them in their new
country. (The Statue of Liberty also served as a lighthouse for a while.)
Located on Turtle Hill, a strategic point of land. Before any white settlers arrived,
Montauk Indians used to light fires on the hill to call warriors to council. Supposedly,
British troops also lit fires there to guide ships during the Revolution.
Construction of the lighthouse ordered by George Washington. An expensive project,
costing $22,300 (when other lighthouses at the time cost about $2,000 to build).
Built by John McComb, who also built Old Cape Henry. He certainly built lighthouses
that lasted. The 78-foot octagonal tower is built of Connecticut sandstone, with
walls six feet thick, tapering to three feet at the watchroom deck.
Presently the United States Coast Guard operates the automated light, but the
Montauk Historical Society maintains the lighthouse, keepers dwelling, outbuildings
and grounds -- theres an excellent museum in the keepers dwelling.
Very interesting story about its preservation. Although the buildings have stood
firm over the centuries, ocean gales have eroded the ground beneath their foundation.
By the late 1960s, erosion had worn away 200 feet of beachfront and the lighthouse
was 50 feet of toppling in the sea. A remarkable ecologist named Gioginia Reid developed,
patented and proved successful a 15-year anti-erosion plant and grass technique called
"Reed Trench Terracing," which was implemented at Montauk Point and has
succeeded in stabilizing the area. Additional efforts are underway on the south face,
which is now under threat. Singer Paul Simon is a supporter of restoration efforts,
and has contributed generously.
For some reason, whales occasionally beach themselves on the Montauk beaches,
and, unless coaxed back into the water, die. The first pastor at a nearby East Hampton
church received as his salary "forty-five pounds annually, lands rate free,
grain to be first ground at the mill every Monday, and one-fourth of the whales stranded
on the beach." (See Bibliography: Roberts)