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 Boston Harbor, MA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Rising eighty-nine feet above the rocky, south side of Little Brewster Island, the white tapering tower of Boston Light deserves its description as the “ideal American Lighthouse.” Flanked by a white clapboard keeper’s dwelling, a picturesque oil house, and a fog signal building, Boston Light stands sentinel over one of the oldest and most important harbors on the Eastern Seaboard. Its appearance, however, is only part of its charm, for its story reads like a Who’s Who of American History.

Engraving showing original Boston Lighthouse
As early at 1675, settlers lit bonfires on a hill overlooking Boston Harbor as an aid to navigation, but it wasn’t until 1715 that the Colony of Massachusetts Bay spent almost 2,400 British pounds to construct a light tower, the first in the New World. When on September 14, 1716, the beacon from Little Brewster Island pierced the night sky overlooking Boston Harbor for the first time, there were only seventy lighthouses in existence in the whole world.

However, both the tower and its first two keepers met violent ends. The first keeper, George Worthylake, lived on Little Brewster Island with his wife and two daughters, Ruth and Ann, and their slave Shadwell. On Nov. 3, 1718, Worthylake and his wife and daughter Ruth were returning from an excursion to Boston. Accompanied by a friend, John Edge, they anchored their sloop near Little Brewster, and Shadwell paddled out in a canoe to bring the party to shore. Worthylake’s younger daughter, Ana, and her friend were watching their progress from the island when suddenly the overloaded canoe capsized and the members of the party were left struggling in the water. The two girls watched, horrified, as one by one each person sank beneath the water and drowned. The tragedy shook the people of Boston. A young Benjamin Franklin wrote a poem about it entitled “The Lighthouse Tragedy” and sold copies of it on the streets. Soon a second keeper, Robert Sanders, took over, but he also drowned only a few days after accepting the position.

Fortunately the third keeper, John Hayes, survived long enough to make two significant improvements: he requested a gallery be built around the tower’s lantern room so he could keep the glass free of ice and snow, and he requested some sort of a gun “to answer Ships in a Fogg”. In 1719, America’s first fog signal— a cannon—was installed on the island where it remained until the early 1960’s, when it was moved to the Coast Guard Academy. In 1993, it was brought back to the island, where it is on display. Today in heavy fog a siren blasts out twice in rapid succession once a minute.

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By the 1770’s, Boston Light had successfully guided thousands of ships into the Boston wharves. The prosperity that resulted from the trade was part of the prosperity the British felt should be funneled to the Mother Country via taxation. The penny-a-pound tax on tea was the final straw for the colonial businessmen, who responded by hosting an invitation-only costume party at the harbor. On December 16, 1773, members of the Sons of Liberty, dressed rather unconvincingly as Mohawk Indians, boarded the vessels of the East Indian Company and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. The British responded by blockading the harbor. Boston Light, which had previously been maintained by taxes levied on British ships, now was being maintained by British troops.

Not about to take the blockade lying down, early in July 1775 the Minutemen dispatched a small group to Little Brewster Island, where they removed the lantern and oil and set fire to the wooden parts of the tower. An observer on the mainland described “flames of the lighthouse ascending up to Heaven, like grateful incense”. Confused and distracted by the flames, the British gunners tried to blast the Minuteman out of the water but ended up wasting their powder.

The damage to the lighthouse, though a grand gesture, was not a permanent or even very severe one, and the British soon sent repairmen. General Washington knew that the colonials could not allow the British to relight the tower, so he sent a second raiding party, this time 300 soldiers under the command of Major Benjamin Tupper. Arriving in the middle of the night on July 31, the Americans had the element of surprise and the aid of darkness. They quickly defeated the unprepared redcoats, destroyed all the work that had been completed by British carpenters, and set fire to everything that would burn.

The raid would have been an unqualified success except that by then the tide had gone out, leaving the whaleboats they had used for transportation stranded on the beach. Major Tupper knew they had no time to waste before British reinforcements arrived, and ordered his men to push the boats with all their might back into the water. By the time they were again afloat, the British fleet had descended and would have defeated them had not an American artillery piece on nearby Nantasket Head opened fire. The trusty Minutemen lost only one member of their company, while the British suffered heavy casualties. General Washington praised the men as “gallant and soldier-like.”

Boston Lighthouse circa 1916.
Although the colonials had removed the light from the harbor, they had not removed the British. Enraged by the continued British occupation of the harbor, Samuel Adams devised a scheme to drive away the blockaders. On June 13, 1776, American troops armed with cannons headed for Nantasket Head and other strategic islands in the harbor. The next morning the British fleet awoke to a fiery assault that soon drove them back to the high seas.

However, before abandoning Boston Harbor, one of the ships put a small party ashore on Little Brewster Island, where they attached a slow-burning fuse to a keg of gunpowder. The blast destroyed the remains of the lighthouse.

In 1780, Massachusetts Governor John Hancock asked the legislature to fund a new tower. By 1783 the new 75-foot tower, designed “to be nearly of the same dimensions of the former lighthouse” was lit, and Little Brewster Island once again served as an aid to the many ships entering and leaving the harbor.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts ceded the lighthouse to the Federal Government in 1789. After several large cracks appeared in the structure in 1809, six heavy iron bands, three of which are now visible, were secured around the tower. In 1844 a spiral iron staircase was added, and in 1859 the tower’s height was increased from 75 feet to 89 feet. The tower remains virtually unchanged in appearance, but the changes in illumination mirror the development of lighting devices over the years.

Initially the tower housed oil lamps; sixteen lamps were in place in 1789 when the Federal Government took possession. In 1811, the more effective Argand lamps, mounted on a rotating case, replaced the old oil lamps. When the tower was raised to 89 feet, it was also refitted with a 12-sided second-order Fresnel lens.

Fortunately the lighthouse that had faced such drama during the early days of the American Revolution was too far north to suffer damage during the Civil War. It was not immune to succeeding conflicts, however. During both the War of 1812 and World War I, the light was dimmed so as not to be of use to enemy ships, and from 1941 to July of 1945 Boston Light was extinguished altogether.

In 1948, Boston Light was electrified, and by 1989 every lighthouse in the United States had been automated except Boston Light. Perhaps fittingly, the first lighthouse on American shores was the last to succumb to modernization. With the combined efforts of preservation groups and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, funds were appropriated to keep Coast Guard staff at Little Brewster Island and turn the lighthouse into a living museum of lighthouse history. Boston Light did become automated on April 16, 1998, but Coast Guard crew still perform keeper duties. The two million-candle power light, visible for sixteen miles, can be seen shining twenty-four hours a day as a reminder of the inextinguishable American spirit.

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. White for Danger, Warren Armstrong, 1963.
  2. Northern Lights: New Brunswick to the Jersey Shore, Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones, 1990.

Location: Located on Little Brewster Island marking the entrance to Boston Harbor.
Latitude: 42.32793
Longitude: -70.89012

For a larger map of Boston Harbor Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: This light is best seen by boat. Private boaters are allowed to drop of passengers on Little Brewster Island on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 12:30 and 3:00 p.m., but must then anchor offshore. We passed by the lighthouse on a Boston Harbor Cruises' lighthouse trip, which visited several lighthouses in the area. Later, we took a trip out to the island escorted by a National Park Ranger. For information on these trips, which allow you to climb the lighthouse, see the Boston Harbor Islands webpage, or call (617) 223-8666.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower open during tours, dwelling closed.

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Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Our tour out to Boston Light and Little Brewster Island left from the State Pier near the JFK Library. The tour also included free admission to the presidential library, which is also worth a visit.

See our List of Lighthouses in Massachusetts

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.