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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 Lighthouse deserves its description as the “ideal American Lighthouse.” Flanked by a white clapboard keeper’s dwelling, a picturesque oil house, a fog signal house, and a unique cistern building, Boston Lighthouse 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 as 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.

Both the tower and its first two keepers met violent ends. George Worthylake, the first keeper, lived on Little Brewster Island with his wife Ann, two daughters, Ruth and Ann, and the family slave Shadwell. On November 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, Ann, 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 of Boston. 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 asked for 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 1960s, when it was moved to the Coast Guard Academy. In 1993, the cannon 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.

By the 1770s, Boston Lighthouse had successfully guided thousands of ships into the Boston wharves. The prosperity that resulted from the trade was part of the riches 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 Lighthouse, which had previously been maintained by taxes levied on British ships, now was being maintained by British troops.

Boston Lighthouse in 1947
Photograph courtesy Coast Guard Museum Northwest
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 permanent or even very severe, and the British soon sent repairmen to restore it. General Washington knew that the colonists 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.”

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.

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 seventy-five-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.

Helicopter passing over Boston Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
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, five of which are now visible, were secured around the tower. In 1844, a spiral iron staircase replaced the tower’s flammable wooden steps, and in 1859 the tower’s height was increased from seventy-five feet to eighty-nine 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, fourteen of the more effective Argand lamps, mounted on a rotating case and backed by parabolic reflectors, replaced the old oil lamps. I.W.P. Lewis installed a new lantern room and lighting apparatus atop the tower in 1839, using fourteen twenty-one inch reflectors and an equal number of lamps that Captain M.C. Perry of the U.S. Navy had acquired in England. The apparatus had two faces, each with seven lamps and reflectors, and it completed a revolution every three minutes. When the tower was raised to eighty-nine feet, it was also refitted with a twelve-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, but it was not immune to succeeding conflicts. 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 late 1941 to July of 1945 Boston Light was extinguished altogether.

In 1871, two frame buildings were built to house a first-class Daboll fog-trumpet, which replaced a bell as the station’s fog signal, and then in 1876, a twenty-two-foot-square brick building was erected just east of the lighthouse to house the fog signal equipment.

The Lighthouse Board noted in 1883 that the Daboll trumpet at Boston Light seemed “to fail when most needed to indicate the locality.” The signal could be heard at times from great distances, but then was often lost until mariners were almost next to the island. A new frame fog-signal house was built on the island for a ten-inch steam whistle and a siren, which were set up to determine if they could be heard better than the Daboll trumpet. Careful experiments led the Lighthouse Board to conclude that the steam siren was the best fog signal for the station. The Daboll trumpet and whistle were accordingly removed, and a duplicate siren took their place. The brick and the wooden fog signal house were “altered, renovated, and united into one” to hold two steam sirens with their boilers, coal-bunker, and cistern. Water for the cistern was fed by a well, but it proved to be brackish, and two rain-sheds were built to capture an abundant supply of fresh water.

The station’s steam fog siren didn’t solve the “dead zone,” which continued to be experienced by mariners near Hardin Ledge, about two-and-a-half miles southeast of the lighthouse. In 1894, a “sort of experimental fog-signal station” was established on Little Brewster Island with a battery of different types of signals that included five bells of various sizes, whistles and Daboll trumpets powered by compressed air and steam, and paper bombs that were lofted into the air. One of the more novel adaptations was the use of a fifty-five-foot-long, octagonal, wooden horn, with a maximum diameter of twenty-five feet, that was attached to a second-class Daboll trumpet.

Tending the fog signal was a significant chore for the keepers on Little Brewster, and this was especially true during the summer of 1938. That July, the foghorn sounded for sixty-one consecutive hours – a record for the station. The keepers jointly breathed a sigh of relief when the fog began to lift.

A one-and-a-half-story frame dwelling was built in 1885 for the head keeper, while the station’s two assistants shared a double dwelling closer to the tower. A brick oil house was added in 1889.

Aerial view of station in 1951
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
To commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Boston Light, the Lighthouse Service placed a small bronze tablet inside the tower bearing the inscription “Boston Light, built at this place by the Province of Massachusetts, was first lighted September 14, 1716, Old Style, destroyed 1776 and rebuilt 1783.” The Governor of Massachusetts, the entire Massachusetts delegation of Senators and Representatives in Congress, and the Mayor of Boston were invited to the celebration along with representatives of maritime and historical organizations in Boston.

James L. Hart, who was head keeper of the light from 1919 to 1926, was commended more than once for rendering assistance to occupants of vessels that ran aground near the lighthouse. On April 1, 1924, Hart and his two assistants rescued three men who had to abandon their boat after it struck the ledges near Outer Brewster Island. The men were cared for at the station until the Coast Guard arrived at the station to take them to the mainland. Three years earlier it wasn’t a stranger but one of the keepers themselves that needed rescuing. Second Assistant Tom Small was near the station in 1921 when the small boat he was traveling in capsized. Keeper Hart and his first assistant sprang into action and, aided by Arthur Small, keeper of the nearby Narrows Lighthouse, managed to save Tom Small from drowning.

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 a Coast Guard crew still performed keeper duties as the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1989 stipulated that Boston Light be operated on a permanently manned basis.

In 2003, the Coast Guard hired Sally Snowman to serve as keeper of Boston Lighthouse, and she continues to serve to this day as the country’s only lighthouse keeper. Snowman grew up on Boston Harbor, and her father took her out to visit the light when she was just ten. Sally met her husband when the both were serving in the Coast Guard auxiliary, and the couple was wed at Boston Light in 1994.

Boston Light was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, and Little Brewster Island itself became part of the National Park Service’s Boston Harbor Island National Recreational Area in 1996. The two-million-candle-power light atop Boston Lighthouse is visible for sixteen miles and can be seen shining twenty-four hours a day as a reminder of the inextinguishable American spirit.

Keepers:

  • Head: George Worthylake (1716 – 1718), Robert Saunders (1718), John Hayes (1718 – 1733), Robert Ball (1733 – 1744), William Minns (1774 – 1776), Thomas Knox (1783 – 1811), Jonathan Bruce (1811 – 1833), David Tower (1833 – 1844), Joseph Snow (1844), Tobias Cook (1844 – 1849), William Long (1849 – 1851), Zebedee Small (1851 – 1853), Hugh Douglass (1853 – 1856), Moses Barrett (1856 – 1862), Charles E. Blair (1862 – 1864), Thomas Bates II (1864 – 1893), Alfred Williams (1893), Albert M. Horte (1893 – 1894), Henry L. Pingree (1894 – 1909), F.E. Tarr (1910), Levi B. Clark (1910 – 1911), George E. Kezer (1911), Mills Gunderson (1911 – 1916), Charles H. Jennings (1916 – 1919), James L. Hart (1919 – 1926), Maurice A. Babcock (1926 – 1941), Ralph C. Norwood (1941 – 1945).
  • First Assistant: Sylvester F. Douglass (1854 – 1856), Joseph Hammond (1856), Charles Hooper (1856 – 1857), Joseph Wonson (1857 – 1859), J.W. Wonson (1859 – 1862), Charles E. Blair (1862), W.D. Hooper (1862 – 1863), John Conwell (1863 – 1865), W.D. Hooper (1865), Lyman Ford (1865), Joshua L. Bates (1865 – 1870), Daniel McKenzie (1870 – 1872), Fred Hammond (1872 – 1877), George G. Bailey (1877 – 1882), Edward L. Gorham (1882 – 1884), Frank L. Carson (1884 – 1886), Charles E. Turner (1886 – 1888), Henry L. Pingree (1888 – 1892), Alfred Williams (1892 – 1893), Wesley A. Pingree (1894 – 1895), Gershom C. Freeman (1895), Daniel D.L. Donovan (1895), Charles F. Stanger (1896), William A. Pohl (1896 – 1899), Joseph Keller (1899 – 1901), George E. Kezer (1901 – 1904), Levi B. Clark (1904 – 1905), Charles W. Jordon (1905 – 1906), Henry C. Towle (1906 – 1907), William H. Oliver (1908), Joseph P. Sousa (1908 – 1909), Charles H. Jenning (1909 – 1911), Andrew S. Nickerson (1911 – 1913), Andrew Tullock (1913 – ), Carl D. Hill (1914 – 1916), Charles A. Lyman (1916 – 1917), Arthur A. Small (1917), William J. Howard (1919 – 1925), William H. Lane (1927), Archford V. Haskins (1928 – 1937), Ralph C. Norwood (1937 – at least 1941).
  • Second Assistant: Wallace Hooper (1861 – 1862), Marcellus A. Blair (1862), Charles H. Barrett (1862 – 1863), Peter Harrington (1863), Robert Shore (1863 – 1866), N.H. Woodbury (1866 – 1867), Alexander Totman (1867 – 1868), John Sheehan (1868), George A. Ordway (1868), William H. Sylvester (1868 – 1869), Walter Colby (1869 – 1875), David Keating (1875 – 1876), George G. Bailey (1876 – 1877), John Philbrook (1877), E. Lewis Gorham (1877 – 1878), William A. Hammond (1878 – 1880), Edward L. Gorham (1880 – 1882), Alfred Gorham (1882), Frank L. Carson (1882 – 1884), Charles E. Turner (1884 – 1886), Henry L. Pingree (1886 – 1888), William Gavin (1888), James P. Smith (1888 – 1891), George E. Bailey (1891 – 1892), Albert M. Horte (1892), Willis A.D. Hadley (1893), Gershom C. Freeman (1893 – 1895), Daniel D.L. Donovan (1895), Charles F. Stranger (1895 – 1896), William A. Pool (1896), Joseph Keller (1896 – 1899), Ernest R. Sylvester (1899 – 1900), Francis J. Cook (1900), Daniel C. Harding (1900 – 1901), Joseph F. Woods (1901 – 1902), Levi B. Clark (1902 – 1904), Charles W. Jordon (1904 – 1905), Henry C. Towle (1905 – 1906), Harry N Perkins (1906 – 1907), William H. Oliver (1907), Joseph P. Sousa (1908), Andrew S. Nickerson (1908 – 1911), William G. Burt (1911 – 1912), William G. Mailbette (1912), Joseph F. Kerr (at least 1913), Charles C. McLauchlin ( – 1915), Joseph D. Morrison (1915), Darius E. White (1915), Fred F. McGilvary (1915), Martin Rolland (1915 – 1916), Charles A. Lyman (1916), Arthur A. Small (1916 – 1917), William J. Howard (1919), Albert S. Smith (1919 – 1920), Tom Small (1920 – 1922), John E. Poyner (at least 1924), Franklin J. Ponte (at least 1927), Ralph C. Norwood (1929 – 1937), Osborne E. Hallett (1937 – 1943).

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. White for Danger, Warren Armstrong, 1963.
  3. “Two-Hundredth Anniversary of Boston Light,” Department of Commerce, September 25, 1916.

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 off 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.

Find the closest hotels to Boston Harbor Lighthouse

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.

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