Legendary Lighthouses: Great Lighthouses-North Atlantic

lighthouse Legendary Lighthouses  Great Lighthouses: North Atlantic PBS Online

Boston Light

Block Island

Minots Ledge

Old and New Cape Henry

Cape May

Sandy Hook


Montauk Point

Thomas Point, (Drum Point, Hooper Strait Sevenfoot Knoll)

Boston 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 nation’s first lightkeeper, didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t too happy when it got added to his duties, but didn’t receive more than his salary of 50 or so pounds. The cannon still exists at United States Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

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 1840’s 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 p. 265)

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 Carmen’s novel STORM CHILD. (See De Wire p. 179-181)

Block Island Southeast, Rhode Island, 1875

This is one of the most remarkable structures in America. A Victorian keeper’s 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 Island’s 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 lightkeeper’s 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, I’d never retire, because I love it." International Chimney has also worked on Cape May and Cape Hatteras lights.

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.

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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 Lover’s 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, p. 24)
  • -- 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 Dunham’s 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.

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Lighthouses of Cape Henry -- Old and New Cape Henry, Virginia Beach, Virginia - 1792 and 1881

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 couldn’t 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 and quarters.

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 vessels.

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Thomas 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 Chesapeake.

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 Guard.

Story of construction -- first one built on land -- not in the water -- by John Donohoo. Although construction of many Bay lighthouses occurred during Pleasonton’s 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 Donohoo’s 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.

There’s 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.

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Cape 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 property.

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 Keeper’s 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.

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Sandy Hook Light, Sandy Hook, New Jersey - 1764

(See Bibliography: Roberts p. 126 and Kochel, p. 148)

Nation’s 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 keeper’s 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.

Twin 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 to see."

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 America’s Cup races off Sandy Hook.

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.


Montauk Point Light, Long Island, New York - 1797

This lighthouse was once as much a symbol of America as the Statue of Liberty. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, 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, keeper’s dwelling, outbuildings and grounds -- there’s an excellent museum in the keeper’s 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)

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