Bird Island sits about seven football fields away from the tip of the Butler Point peninsula, which juts out into Buzzards Bay in Marion. A small sitting area at the Kittansett Club provides a bench and amazing views of the open water and historic lighthouse in the distance. Immediately after the War of 1812, Marion became a hub of whaling and shipping with many sea captains building homes in town. As a result, Congress appropriated $11,500 for the purchase of Bird Island and the erection and stationing of a lighthouse. A 25-foot-tall conical rubblestone tower was constructed, surmounted by a 12-foot tall iron lantern. The accompanying stone dwelling was 20 by 34 feet, and a covered walkway connected the house and tower. William S. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812, was appointed as the first keeper, which went into operation in 1819. There are legends about murder and hauntings on the island.
Moore’s wife, suffering from tuberculosis, would frequently get into liquor and cigarettes, and would become raucous when she did. When the villagers of Sippican would visit the island, many times they would bring her tobacco to the dismay of Keeper Moore. The legend claims that one morning, after returning from a shed on the island, he found his wife drunk and dancing through the snow. Reports are that he returned to the keeper’s dwelling, retrieved his rifle, and shot her. She is reported to be buried on the island, but there is no sign of a grave. Keeper Moore insisted that she had “succumbed from nicotine” when the townsfolk had asked what had happened. Many years later, when the keeper’s dwelling was being torn down in 1889, a rifle and a bag of tobacco were purportedly found in a secret hiding spot. With those items, was an alleged note that said the following:
“This bag contains tobacco, found among the clothes of my wife after her decease. It was furnished by certain individuals in and about Sippican. May the curses of the High Heaven rest upon the heads of those who destroyed the peace of my family and the health and happiness of a wife whom I Dearly Loved.”
The lighthouse is owned today by the Town of Marion. And the only residents are endangered roseate tern.
In 1760, the colonial legislature of Connecticut passed an act creating a committee to pursue the funding, construction, and staffing of a new lighthouse for the harbor entrance at New London. The following year, thousands of lottery tickets were sold to raise £500 for the lighthouse (a popular method of raising funds for construction projects in those days). The lighthouse, a sixty-four-foot-tall stone tower with a wooden lantern at the top, was finished that same year at the west side of the harbor entrance. By 1799, issues began to pile-up, including a crack in the structure compromised the integrity of the tower, compounded by the fact the light was so dim as to often be indistinguishable from the lights of the surrounding homes. These challenges led the charge for a new lighthouse. Congress allocated $15,700 for a replacement lighthouse on May 7, 1800, and New Londoner, Abisha Woodward began construction on the current octagonal, tapered, eighty-foot-tall tower. The present light was completed the next year and is constructed of smooth-hammered freestone which are lined with brick inside. The current gable-roofed, two-and-a-half-story keeper’s residence was built in 1863, and in 1900 it was expanded to provide quarters for the assistant keeper and their families. Today, the keeper’s house is privately owned and the light tower is owned by the New London Maritime Society, who offer tours of the light on occasion.
Set way off the coast of Connecticut at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, sits this stunning lighthouse which appears more as a Second Empire style home than a lighthouse! By the early 1900s, New London, with its protected harbor at the mouth of the Thames River, had made the transition from whaling center to industrial city. New London Ledge Light was built because New London Harbor Light wasn’t sufficient to direct vessels around the dangerous ledges at the entrance to the harbor. The New London Ledge Lighthouse was completed in 1909, built by the Hamilton R. Douglas Company of New London and is an architectural antique as its Second Empire style is about 50 years past the time the style was popular in American architecture. The lighthouse reportedly owes its distinctive French Second Empire style to the influence of the wealthy home owners on the local coast, who wanted a structure in keeping with the elegance of their own homes. Sadly, many of the large homes near the shore in the area were destroyed in the Great Hurricane of September 21, 1938. Coast Guard crews lived at the light until it was fully automated in 1987. The lighthouse today is owned and operated as a museum by the New London Maritime Society.
At the southern tip of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, two lighthouses have long provided a beacon to ships that sailed the rocky coast where the town protrudes into the ocean. The story of Cape Elizabeth’s Two Lights begins in 1614, when Captain John Smith, who sailed along New England’s shores, gave the appellation to the cape in honor of Princess Elizabeth, King Charles’ sister. After the American Revolution, Portland Harbor became an important trading port, and ships from all over the world would dock there. In 1827, the decision was made to use two lights at this location, a fixed light in the east tower and a revolving light in the west one, so the station would not be confused with the lights at nearby Portland Head Light or Wood Island Light in nearby Biddeford. After land was purchased for a mere $50, the towers were built, spaced by 895 feet and topped by octagonal wrought-iron lanterns housing lamps and reflectors, first shone their lights in October 1828. The stone towers were poorly constructed and keepers would consistently complain about poor working and living conditions. A $30,000 appropriation was made in 1873 to fund the erection of two matching sixty-seven-foot, brick-lined, cast-iron towers set 923 feet apart and featuring elegant Italianate details. In 1878, a new wood-frame, one-and-a-half-story dwelling was built for the principal keeper near the east tower, designed in the Gothic Revival style. During World War II, the west tower became an observation tower after a cylindrical turret was installed atop, which had had its lantern room removed after being discontinued. It was auctioned to the highest bidder in 1959. In 1971, actor Gary Merrill, ex-husband of Bette Davis, purchased the west tower for $28,000. Merrill sold it in 1983, and a new house was built next to it. The keeper’s cottage at the east tower is also privately owned, but the tower is retained by the Coast Guard, and is automated today.
When I think of Maine, I think of rocky coastline, lobster, and lighthouses. Located in Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland, you will find the Portland Head Light, an obscenely beautiful lighthouse, which has provided a beacon to sailors for centuries (and more recently Instagrammers). In 1787, while Maine was still part of the state of Massachusetts, President George Washington engaged two masons and instructed them to take charge of the construction of a lighthouse on Portland Head. Washington reminded them that the early government was poor, and said that the materials used to build the lighthouse should be taken from the fields and shores surrounding the site. The original plans called for the tower to be 58 feet tall, but when the masons were finished, they climbed to the top of the tower and realized that it would not be visible beyond the land to the south. When the masons were ordered to increase the height another twenty feet for visibility reasons, one quit, leaving a single man to finish the lighthouse and a small dwelling. It was completed, and the light, powered by sixteen whale-oil lamps, first shone on January 10, 1791, following its dedication by Marquis de Lafayette. Over the next century, many issues plagued the building and light-keepers, from cold winters and rogue waves icing over the pathways, to a poorly constructed top of the lighthouse, which was re-constructed due to safety concerns. In 1891, the station’s old stone light-keeper’s house was demolished, and upon its foundation a two-story wood double dwelling was constructed. A square brick oil house was also built at the same time along with a flight of steps at the landing. Portland Head Lighthouse was extinguished from June 1942 through June 1945 to avoid aiding German submarines, which did not work as planned. In 1945, the USS Eagle PE-56 just miles off the coast, was sunk by a German submarine (though previously thought to have been sunk by a boiler explosion), only 13 of the 62 crew survived. The lighthouse is now owned by the town, but the US Coast Guard retains control of the light and fog signals.
Ram Island, about a mile offshore from Portland Head near the entrance to Portland Harbor in Maine, is surrounded by dangerous ledges. For as long as ships have been navigating Portland Harbor, they have crashed into the rocky shore, losing supplies and lives. Because of this, a Congressional act on June 28, 1902, authorized the construction of a lighthouse and fog signal on Ram Island Ledge, to work together with the Portland Head Light to guide ships through the treacherous channel. The next year, the federal government purchased Ram Ledge from two Cape Elizabeth families for $500, to erect a new lighthouse. Before the lighthouse could be constructed, at least two ships, the Glenrosa and the Cora & Lillian schooner sunk in the bay. As the ledge was underwater for much of the year, a stone tower was required. Granite from Vinalhaven was shipped in and a crew of 25 men built the tower which was complete in 1905. The iconic double flash of light has guided sailors ever since. The lighthouse was manned by multiple keepers until the late 1958, when an underwater power cable was laid between Portland Head and Ram Island Ledge, allowing the ledge lighthouse to be automated. In 2008, the structure was deemed “excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard” and auctioned off. After a bidding war, a local doctor from Maine purchased it for an estimated $190,000.
Is anything more “New England” than a historic lighthouse? Whenever I think of symbols of New England, lighthouses, Saltbox colonial homes, and lobster comes to mind. Located just north of Oak Bluffs, the East Chop Light was built to guide the hundreds of ferries every summer, picking up and dropping off passengers to the island. One of the many definitions of “chop” is the entranceway into a body of water. Knowing this, it seems natural that the two lighthouses flanking the entrance to the harbor at Vineyard Haven on the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard are respectively known as East Chop Lighthouse and West Chop Lighthouse. In 1878, a one-and-a-half-story dwelling and a cast-iron tower were under construction at the station. The forty-foot-tall, conical tower was similar in style to several other New England lighthouses constructed during the late 1800s. The lighthouse was painted white at first, but in the 1880s it received a coat of reddish-brown paint and became popularly known as the “Chocolate Lighthouse.” In 1988, it was returned back to white, as the dark color was causing excessive heat and condensation in the tower. East Chop Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, although the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern beacon in 1984. The land surrounding the tower was sold to the town of Oak Bluffs in 1957 for use as a park.
In 1838, three brick lighthouses served as aids to navigation off the Nauset Beach shores in Eastham on Cape Cod; these lights were replaced by three wooden towers in 1892. From 1911 to 1923, only one of these Beacons were used, as technology had evolved sufficiently enough to install a revolving light. Nauset was thus distinguished from the single light of Highland to the north in Truro and the twin lights of Chatham to the south. The forty-eight-foot-tall, brick-lined, cast-iron Chatham tower, originally built in 1877, was dismantled, hauled up the cape, and rebuilt atop a cement foundation 200 feet from the cliff’s edge at Nauset Beach. To provide accommodations for the keepers of the relocated cast-iron tower, the 1876 dwelling built for the Three Sisters was relocated farther away from the edge of the bluff. The cliff continued to fall into the sea over time and the lighthouse and dwelling were moved again in the 1990s. Both structures are owned and maintained by the Nauset Light Preservation Society.
Learn more on the history of the site in the Three Sisters Lighthouse post.
The first lighthouse station for Eastham, known as the Nauset Beach Light Station (nicknamed The Three Sisters), was completed in 1838. The name Nauset, which came from a local Native American tribe, formerly referred to the fifteen-mile stretch of Cape Cod from what is now Brewster almost to modern-day Truro. The lighthouse station actually consisted of a group of three lights atop 15-foot high brick towers located on a bluff looking over the Atlantic. Even though there were three lighthouses, the station was staffed by only one keeper up until 1867, when the position of assistant keeper was added. The assistant lived with the head keeper and his family in the station’s one dwelling (talk about cozy)!. The Lighthouse Board in 1873 noted the inadequacy of these accommodations in a report stating, “The dwelling-house should be enlarged, or a small cottage built for the accommodation of the assistant keeper, as the building now occupied is entirely too small”. Congress allocated $5,000 in 1875 for a keeper’s dwelling at Nauset Beach, which was erected in 1876.
After the relentless Atlantic Ocean brought the three brick towers to the brink of disaster due to the eroding land under them, in 1892, three new towers were constructed thirty feet west of the originals along with a brick oil house. The replacements were constructed of wood so they could be readily moved if the need occurred again. By 1911, it was determined that there was a need for only one lighthouse (as three could get confusing), and two of the three lighthouses were auctioned off, the third was attached to the keeper’s house. The two towers (minus their lanterns) were sold in 1918 to the Cummings family of Eastham for $3.50. The family moved the two towers to a nearby location and joined them together as a summer cottage called “The Towers” on Cable Road. In 1923, the smaller wooden lighthouse was retired and replaced with the current Nauset Light. In 1983 after much uncertainty as to their future, the National Park Service united the Three Sisters in a park, just west of their original location for history geeks like us to enjoy!
Located on Thacher Island off the rocky coast of Rockport, MA, stand two massive stone lighthouses appearing as sentinels over the horizon.
The Thacher Island was named for Anthony Thacher, an Englishman whose vessel, the Watch and Wait, was wrecked in a ferocious storm near the island in 1635 on its way to Marblehead from Ipswich. Thacher and his wife, Elizabeth, were the only survivors of the wreck in which 21 people died including four of Thacher’s children from a previous marriage and his cousin. The General Court awarded Anthony Thacher the island “at the head of Cape Ann” to recompense him for his losses, and he originally dubbed the island “Thacher’s Woe”. The island eventually was bought back by the Massachusetts colonial government at a cost of 500 pounds for the purpose of establishing a light station.
Twin lighthouses built on Thacher Island in 1771 and were the first built to mark a dangerous spot (the Londoner Ledge southeast of Thacher Island) rather than a harbor entrance. They were also the last lighthouses built under British rule in the colonies. The two lighthouses in Cape Ann dubbed “Ann’s Eyes” stood on Thacher Island until 1860, when itt was decided that new, taller towers were needed. Twin towers, 124 feet high, were built in 1861. New Hampshire granite was used instead of local Cape Ann granite, which drew much criticism from locals.
In 1932, the use of the north tower was discontinued making it one of the last operational twin light stations on the Atlantic Coast. The south tower was electrified via a submarine cable to the mainland that same year and provided a more intense light. The south tower was automated and unmanned, when a modern optic replaced the Fresnel lens in 1979. In January 2001, the Cape Ann Light Station, including several associated outbuildings, received recognition as a National Historic Landmark.
The Thacher Island Association was established in 1981 by the Thacher Island Town Committee as a non-profit group dedicated to raising funds for the restoration and on-going maintenance of the Island. The Town of Rockport owns the southern end of the Island and manages it via the Association. The northern end is owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is managed by the Town under an agreement with USFWS.