The light’s base, an almost invisible outcropping of rocks off Cohasset, Massachusetts, has plagued mariners for more years than the light has protected them. As early as 1695, a schooner crashed on those treacherous rocks and sank, leaving no survivors. Even before the White Man saw his ships wrecked in those waters, Indians had lived in awe of the evil spirit “Hobomock,” who dwelt beneath the rocks and unleashed violent storms. During low tide when the sea was calm, the Indians would paddle out to offer dishes, ornaments, and beads as sacrifices to appease the “Wicked One.” Apparently these offerings were rejected, since by the 1750s eighty ships and 400 lives had been lost in the surrounding waters. The tragedy that earned the area its name happened in 1754, when a prominent Boston merchant named George Minot lost a valuable ship there; henceforth it was called Minot’s Ledge.
The need for a beacon at the ledge was not lost on lighthouse inspector I.W.P. Lewis, who submitted a report in 1842 detailing the more than forty vessels that had met their end in the previous decade as a result of the ledge. He asserted that the area was “annually the scene of the most heart-rending disasters.” Lewis concluded his report on Minot’s Ledge with the following: “A light-house on this reef is more required than on any part of the seaboard of New England. The loss of lives and property here have been annual, and will continue to occur until alight is established, and the one at Scituate suppressed. A wreck on this fatal reef is always attended with the destruction of human life, owing to its great distance from the shore, and the tremendous sea that rolls in over the rocks when the wind is at the eastward.”
The Lighthouse Establishment heard and responded. Captain William H. Swift, an engineer in the U.S. Topographical Department, knew that it would be terribly expensive if not impossible to build a traditional solid cylinder that could survive full exposure to the ocean. Instead, Swift proposed a radical new design consisting of nine, sixty-foot-long iron pilings cemented five feet into the submerged rock, atop which would perch the lantern and keeper’s dwelling. The reasoning was that the legs would offer almost no resistance to the wind and water.
In 1847, a crew began working from a schooner anchored next to the ledge, and over two years and $39,000 later, on January 1, 1850, Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time.
Henry David Thoreau described passing Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in 1849: “Here was the new iron light-house, then unfinished, in the shape of an egg-shell painted red, and placed high on iron pillars, like the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves…When I passed it the next summer it was finished and two men lived in it, and a lighthouse keeper said that in a recent gale it had rocked so as to shake the plates off the table. Think of making your bed thus in the crest of a breaker! To have the waves, like a pack of hungry wolves, eyeing you always, night and day, and from time to time making a spring at you, almost sure to have you at last.”
Indeed life inside the lighthouse did prove precarious. The keeper’s pet cat was the first casualty of the tower, which swayed so dramatically during a storm that the panicked animal jumped to its death. Only three months into his tenure as keeper, sitting in the living quarters atop the tower and supposedly out of reach of the waves, Isaac Dunham wrote “The wind E. blowing very hard with an ugly sea which makes the light reel like a Drunken Man—I hope God will in mercy still the raging sea—or we must perish…God only knows what the end will be.” By October 1850, Dunham quit, and John Bennett took his place, only to despair soon afterwards at his perilous situation in storms.
So precarious is our present situation, that there is a prospect that this may never reach you. The rods put into the lower section are bent up in fantastic shapes – some are torn asunder from their fastenings; the ice is so massive that there is no appearance of the ladder; the sea is now running at least twenty-five feet above the level, and each one roars like a heavy peal of thunder; the northern part of the foundation is split, and the lighthouse shakes at least two feet each way. I feel as sea-sick as ever I did on board a ship.
Think not that I will ever flinch from my post, though the waves should gain the mastery for which they are so incessantly striving. When I accepted the post, I closed my ears against the reports of the former keeper, treating them (as I now find) too lightly, and here I shall remain so long as a vestige of the lighthouse remains; but the truth must be told.
William H. Swift, the builder of the lighthouse, felt compelled to respond to the published reports with a letter to the editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser. After explaining exactly how the lighthouse was constructed, Swift concluded by justifying the choice of a pile lighthouse instead of a stone lighthouse:
If a light-house can be built on the Minot, which can be made to stand securely in its place, for, say, $40,000, would it be wise to expend $200,000 or more for a stone tower? The answer, we think, is obvious. If it can be made safe, build the pile light; if it cannot be made safe, build the tower. Time, the great expounder of the truth or the fallacy of the question, will decide for or against the Minot; but inasmuch as the light has outlived nearly three winters, there is some reason to hope that it may survive one or two more.
Time didn’t wait long to rule on the matter. On April 16, 1851, the fierce winds of a nor’easter left the tower reeling in the pounding seas and blinding snow. During a brief lull at the outset of the storm, Keeper Bennett had rowed to the mainland to see about purchasing a new boat for the station, but his two assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, were in the tower fearing for their lives. Wilson climbed up the iron ladder to light the lantern, but found it impossible to descend to the living quarters. Some time around 1a.m. residents on the mainland could hear the keepers furiously ringing the fog bell. As the iron supports began to snap one by one, the bell was silenced, the beacon was extinguished, and the men were cast into the raging sea. The first light of dawn revealed only the bent remains of a few pilings. Two days later a Gloucester fisherman found a bottle containing a final message from the doomed keepers: “The beacon cannot last any longer. She is shaking a good three feet each way as I write. God bless you all.” The body of Joseph Antoine washed ashore later at Nantasket. Joseph Wilson managed to reach Gull Rock, probably mistaking it for the mainland, where he apparently died of exhaustion and exposure.
Construction wasn’t easy. In this design, interlocking granite blocks were placed on foundation stones weighing two tons each. The granite had to be cut and assembled on Government Island, attached to the mainland in Cohasset Harbor, and then pulled by oxen to a vessel that would transport the stone out to the ledge. Of course placement of the granite blocks was conducted only at low tide when the sea was calm; even so, many times construction workers were swept off the rocks by the waves. To prevent further casualties, the aptly named Captain Michael Neptune Brennock was hired as a lifeguard, and only workers who could swim were employed.
These were good precautions, but unfortunately they couldn’t avert all danger. Two years into the construction, a ship named The New Empire wrecked on the rocks and destroyed the iron scaffolding erected on the ledge and injured the rock itself. Undaunted, Captain Alexander began anew. After three years spent cutting the rock to form a foundation, the first six courses of the lighthouse were laid, dovetailed, and dowelled together in 1858. As work could only be carried out a low tide and during calm seas, workmen could only be on the rock for 157, 130, and 208 hours respectively during the seasons of 1855, 1856, and 1857. After two more working seasons, six thousand tons of Quincy granite supported a bronze lantern nearly 100 feet in the air. The bottom forty feet of the tower are solid granite, save for a central space that served as a cistern.
On August 22, 1860, the tower’s second-order Fresnel lens was test lighted, but the formal establishment of the light did not occur until November 15, 1960, when Minot’s Ledge Lightship was withdrawn. The new light’s characteristic was fixed white, and a fog bell mounted on the gallery encircling the lantern room, was tolled once every thirty seconds as needed. At $300,000, Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was one of the most expensive lighthouses in American history. The money was well spent, though; although many waves have crashed over the ninety-seven-foot tower and even broken windows, the lighthouse has sustained no significant structural damage.
Life for the keepers of Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse remained difficult, though not fatal. The inaccessibility of the station, especially during inclement weather, made the delivery of supplies difficult, and visiting the mainland sometimes impossible. The solitude and thunderous crashing of the waves drove more than one keeper insane.
Four keepers, a head keeper and three assistant keepers were initially assigned to the new lighthouse, and two double-dwellings were built at Cohasset to provide shore accommodations for the keepers and their families. In addition to the two dwellings, one of which was fashioned out of an old barn, the inshore station also featured a storehouse, boathouse, and a blacksmith’s shop.
The illuminating apparatus was changed in 1885 to burn mineral oil instead of lard oil, and then in 1894, a new second-order Fresnel lens was installed atop the lighthouse. This lens was one of two lenses, built using the Mahan system, that were displayed at the Columbian Exposition held at Chicago in 1893. Captain F.A. Mahan devised a system where the flash panels in a Fresnel lens were so arranged to indicate numbers. In the case of the lens built for Minot’s Ledge, the number 143 was produced by eight flash panels that created three groups of flashes: the first showing one flash, the next four flashes, and the last three flashes. The flashes within a group were two seconds apart, while the groups of flashes were separated by five seconds of darkness. Sometime after this, the light was dubbed the I-LOVE-YOU light do to its unique 1-4-3 flash pattern. The Fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris by F. Barbier, completed one revolution every thirty seconds atop a mercury-filled float and was placed in operation on May 1, 1894. The light from six lens-lanterns was displayed from April 22 to May 1, while the old lens was removed and the new one installed.
On December 21, 1917, Head Keeper Octavius Reamy was approaching the lighthouse in a motorboat loaded with provisions and fuel obtained on the mainland, when a large wave overturned his vessel. Seeing the keeper’s predicament, the assistants in the lighthouse sprang into action and used a rope to lower Assistant Keeper Whitman to the water where he was able to seize Reamy.
Keeper Per S. Tornberg, who was in charge of the lighthouse from 1924 to 1936, had an even closer brush with death. In February 1936, Tornberg and a Cohasset boatman set off in a small dory for the lighthouse, as Cohasset Harbor was frozen in preventing the use of a power launch. Part way to the tower, the dory sprang a leak. As a strong wind was blowing offshore, the men decided to continue to the tower rather than turn back, but they were swept past the lighthouse and out to sea. The dory was leaking so badly, that one man had to bale while the other manned the oars. Otis Walsh, an assistant at the lighthouse waiting for Tornberg to relieve him, was watching the men approach and radioed for help when he knew they were in trouble.
Captain Sumner H. Cobbett and some of his crew from the North Scituate Coast Guard Station set off in a rowboat in pursuit of the leaky dory and were finally able to rescue the men, who were exhausted and suffering badly from exposure. A Coast Guard motorboat from Allerton finally reached the scene and picked up all of the men, who were three miles past the lighthouse at this point and unable to return to the mainland due to the wind.
Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse lost its resident keepers in 1947, when the light was electrified and automated. At this time, the second-order lens was dismantled and placed in storage in the tower, and a third-order Fresnel lens was installed. Vandals subsequently entered the lighthouse and smashed sections of the second-order lens.
Although the area is no longer populated by Indians who believe in the evil spirit of “Hobomock,” for years tales have abounded of strange moaning, tapping, and even mysterious polishing of the lens by ghostly hands. A crew of Portuguese fishermen swore they saw a figure hanging on to an outer ladder shouting at them in their own language to keep away, and many local fishermen have reported hearing moans and cries for help coming from the base of the lighthouse. Several keepers were convinced that the ghosts of the two doomed assistant keepers still resided in the lighthouse, sending signals to each other, cleaning the lens, and warning others of the dangers presented by Minot’s Ledge. Perhaps it’s best that the lighthouse has been left for the ghosts to inhabit in solitude.
In June 2007, Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team divers were transported to the waters near Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Abbie Burgess. Their mission was to explore the seabed for the remains of the first Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse that collapsed in 1851. On the third day of the expedition, remnants of iron beams, believed to be support legs for the fallen lighthouse, were located with the assistance of a remote-operated vehicle. At the conclusion of the operation, a memorial plaque honoring Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson, the two keepers lost with the lighthouse, was lowered to the seafloor.
A Notice of Availability, dated June 30, 2009, announced that Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was being offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Interested parties had sixty days to submit a letter of interest, after which they would be given an opportunity to inspect the lighthouse.
When no interested party was found to assume ownership, Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was placed on the auction block on June 25, 2014. The auction attracted seven bidders, who submitted a total of seventy bids, and ended on October 13, 2014, with a high bid of $222,000. The identity of the new owner was soon revealed to be Bobby Sager, a Boston philanthropist and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Polaroid. Sager was one of the final bidders for Graves Lighthouse in 2013 and acquired Maine’s Boon Island Lighthouse earlier in 2014 from its private owner. In 2016, Sager also purchased Michigan’s Grays Reef Lighthouse at auction.