Description: Although it is the fifth oldest light in New England and the eleventh oldest in the United States, Scituate Lighthouse, on the South Shore of Boston, Massachusetts, is far more famous for the actions of two quick-thinking girls — The Army of Two. These heroines of the War of 1812 lived at Scituate Lighthouse and have been immortalized in a number of books and publications.
While Scituate’s small, protected harbor encouraged the growth of a notable fishing community, mudflats and shallow water made entering the harbor tricky. In 1807, the town’s selectmen were petitioned by Jesse Dunbar, a shipmaster, and other residents to construct a lighthouse, and in 1810, Congress appropriated $4,000 for the task.
Unlike sites where the land was purchased, the plot on Cedar Point was seized under eminent domain. Its disgruntled owner Benjamin Baker later denied access through his land and feuded with the first keeper.
The Boston Mariner’s Society proposed that the Scituate light be eclipsed and some of its range obscured to differentiate it from the fixed Boston Light. Some sources say the light was first lit in September 1811, but a Notice to Mariners published in January 1812, gives the date as April 1, 1812. When Boston Light was eclipsed and Scituate was established as a fixed light, many mariners were dismayed.
On June 11, 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned and plundered a number of ships at Scituate. A few months later Keeper Bates and most of his family were temporarily away from the light, leaving his 21-year old daughter Rebecca and her younger sister Abigail in charge, along with a younger brother. The girls were horrified to spy the British warship La Hogue anchored in the harbor along with redcoat-filled barges rowing toward shore. Hurriedly, they sent the boy running to warn Scituate village.
Rebecca knew she could kill one or two of the British with a musket, but realized the others would retaliate on the village. And during the embargo, the town could scarcely stand to lose the two vessels at the wharf loaded with flour.
Rebecca told her sister to take up the drum and she’d grab her fife. “I was fond of military music and could play four tunes on the fife —Yankee Doodle was my masterpiece,” Rebecca said. The girls hastily took cover behind a dense stand of cedar trees, playing louder and louder hoping to deceive the British into believing an American militia was massing to meet them. The British withdrew, and thus the famous story of Scituate’s Army of Two was born. The fife played by Rebecca is still on display in the keeper’s house.
Records show the British ship La Hogue was at another location at the time, but research indicates the story is likely true; the sisters were simply confused about the name of the vessel. There are those who claim that even today the sound of the drum and fife can be heard in the wind and waves at Scituate.
In 1827, complaints from mariners led to the construction of a 15-foot-tall brick extension to the original granite tower and the installation of a new lantern room to increase visibility. Red bricks were mortared atop the existing granite blocks to add the needed height. After the addition, seven lights and reflectors produced the fixed white light that shone from the lantern, while eight lights and reflectors produced a red light from windows lower in the tower. Red glass laid in front of the windows imparted the red characteristic.
Inspector Edward W. Carpender puzzled over the need for a double light in his 1838 report. He suggested a single red light be employed, adding that from a short distance the red and white lights blended together. Carpender criticized the performance of Keeper Zeba Cushing (1834-1840) as the brass had long been unburnished and the glass badly smoked. “Perhaps no place on the coast requires a better light than Scituate,” Carpender wrote, “not so much on its own account, for the port is small and cannot have much trade, but on account of the navigation between it and the mouth of Boston harbor.” Keeper Cushing had been allowed to build an addition to the house at his own expense, and it was believed that the tenant housed therein was entrusted with the light’s care and was likely responsible for the light’s poor reputation.
The dilapidated tower required rebuilding in 1841, during the tenure of Keeper Ebenezer Osborne (1840-1849, salary $350 per annum). A double row of lights was installed again, despite all advice to the contrary. The repairs were conducted by Inspector I.W.P. Lewis’ infamously shady uncle, the builder Winslow Lewis.
In 1842, Osburne complained to Inspector Lewis, who was vociferously critical of his uncle’s work, that the lights were “all leaky and burnt” and out of plumb, the wooden house was rotten, the tide ebbed and flowed through the cellar, and that he was not allowed a boat. Minor repairs were made, but major reconstruction was not undertaken as plans were afoot to build a light at Minot’s Ledge. In August 1849, James Y. Bates, the grandson of Scituate’s first keeper, took charge of Scituate.
After the first Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was destroyed by a storm on April 16, 1851, Scituate regained temporary importance and received a Fresnel lens in 1855. After a sturdier Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was built of granite, Scituate Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1860. Scituate’s lantern room and Fresnel lens were moved to Minot Light, and a minor beacon was installed at the end of the breakwater extending to the south from Cedar Point. An 1890 newspaper article reported that for years a small light hung in Scituate Light to guide the herring fishermen.
In 1916, Scituate residents appealed to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to spare the abandoned light station from public auction and then raised $4,000 to buy the light from the U.S. government. The sale of the lighthouse to the town was authorized by an act passed on June 28, 1916. In 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the proud town built a new lantern room atop the lighthouse, declaring that “a community is judged by the condition of its public buildings; therefore the lighthouse should be well kept and in pleasing looking condition.”
In 1968, a town meeting awarded the Scituate Historical Society management of the light, and under the society’s stewardship, the tower was relighted in 1994 as a private navigational aid after 134 years of darkness. In 2004, the society discovered that the outer course of poor quality bricks used in the extension of the tower years earlier was badly deteriorated. With funds provided by the town, the outer layer of bricks was replaced in the fall of 2004, and the tower was repainted the following spring.
When Ruth Downton retired in 2008 after living twenty-two years at the lighthouse, the search commenced for her replacement. Of the 100 applicants, thirty-six were interviewed. Potential keepers were asked such questions as, “Do you feel your furniture will be suited?” and “How would you use this opportunity?”
The Gallagher family was selected by the Scituate Historic Society after Mr. Gallagher mentioned his plans to blog about their life in the lighthouse and to build a curriculum for visiting elementary school students. The residents of the keeper’s dwelling are not allowed to smoke nor have pets and must pay $900 a month, which goes directly to caring for the lighthouse. As the light is automated, the keeper must simply change a bulb every six months, but in addition he must put up the flag, hang a wreath, tend the flowers, update the message board, and fulfill other obligations. You can visit the Gallagher’s blog here.
Located on the northern side of the entrance to Scituate Harbor.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.