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.
The Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, located on the southernmost tip of Bristol, Rhode Island, is possibly the most difficult building I have tried to photograph since starting this account. The lighthouse got its start in 1846, when the Bay State Steamboat Company, established a small lighted beacon at this location. The Fall River Line consisted of a railroad journey between Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts, where passengers would then board steamboats for the journey through Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound to a dock in Manhattan. For many years, it was the preferred route to take for travel between the Boston and New York. The early beacon was unreliable, and Congress appropriated $1,500 in 1854, for a combined lighthouse and lightkeeper dwelling. The light served this chokepoint well, until the construction of the Mount Hope Bridge between Bristol and Portsmouth in 1928-1929. Spanning over a mile long, the bridge was built practically over the lighthouse and rendered it irrelevant as an aid to navigation. The lantern was removed from the tower in 1928. An automatic navigational light on a nearby skeletal tower remained in operation until 1934. Around that time, the lighthouse was sold off as excess and went into private ownership, and for a while, provided housing for a couple students at nearby Roger Williams University. The building was restored and now appears to be a private home.
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.
Walking down the main street in Beverly, I was stopped in my tracks to see what appeared to be a 19th century steeple attached to a Modern church. I snapped a photo hoping I could find information on the architectural oddity I saw. The church is the First Baptist Church of Beverly, which was founded in 1800. The congregation’s first place of worship was constructed a year later for the town’s small Baptist population. The building was eventually outgrown and a large church was constructed in 1866 on Cabot Street, the main commercial street in town. The massive wooden church was an architectural landmark and its steeple has served as a lighthouse since the 1920s! The Coast Guard installed a range light in the steeple in 1921 as ships began using the harbor to get to the Salem power plant. It shines every night, even now, and can be seen 13 miles out to sea. Sadly, in 1975, a blaze ripped through the 880-seat sanctuary and chapel, destroying almost all of the church, but the steeple was saved thanks to firefighters from over 15 nearby towns who came to the aid of Beverly. The congregation noted that as the steeple persevered, so would they. A new, Modern church was designed, and incorporated the corner steeple into the new sanctuary, creating the interesting blending of mid-19th and -20th century styles.
With Edgartown being synonymous with the whaling and the ocean, its obvious the town has long had a lighthouse to guide weary travellers. In 1828, Congress approved $5,500 for “building a pier and light-house on the Point of Flats, at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor.” That first lighthouse was a two-story dwelling with a side-gabled roof atop which was centered the lantern room. The structure was erected on wooden pilings out in the water, requiring its first keeper to row a short distance to get to the tower. In 1830, a 1,500-foot-long wooden walkway was built at a cost of $2,500 to connect the lighthouse to the shore. In 1840, the rotten wooden pilings supporting the lighthouse were replaced by a stone pier. The keeper’s house was drafty and leaky, and vulnerable to the sea and weather due to its exposed location. This resulted in a greater than average turnover of keepers, and some keepers refused to live in the official quarters preferring to seek lodging on the nearby shore. The lighthouse was restored numerous times through the early 20th century until The Great Hurricane of 1938 inflicted significant damage to the lighthouse. Upon taking control of the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard quickly tore down the building.
The original plan was to replace the lighthouse with a steel skeleton tower, but instead a disused 1881 lighthouse that served as a rear range light on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts was dismantled and barged, minus its brick lining, to Edgartown. The relocated forty-five-foot cast-iron tower was soon in service at Edgartown and remains an active aid to navigation today, showing an automated flashing red light every six seconds. The lighthouse remains a must-see spot when visiting Edgartown.
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.