|Boston Harbor, MA|
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Located on Little Brewster Island marking the entrance to Boston Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower open during tours, dwelling closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower open during tours, dwelling closed.
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
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.