Description: Graves Light Station is not one of New England’s romantic towers that stirs dreams of lighthouse keeping. Instead it stands exposed and alone atop the bleak jutting rocks of Graves Ledges. Even its name conjures unpleasant visions. However, the ledges were not named for shipwreck victims who met their end there but rather for Rear Admiral Thomas Graves who noticed the danger posed by the ledges in 1634.
A spindle was proposed for the northeast ledge of the Graves in 1851, but Major C. A. Ogden of the Crops of Engineers concluded the formation would not sustain a spindle or a more permanent beacon and instead recommended a bell buoy be used to mark the hazard. The Lighthouse Board accepted this proposal, and the buoy was moored at the site on June 22, 1855.
A successor to this buoy was described in a 1905 edition of the Boston Globe.
The lone sentinel is a huge fabric of steel plates, with the mechanism so arranged that the billows, which heave it this way and that, force the air through an aperture at the top, making the most weirdly mournful and bloodchilling sounds. An old sea dog on one of the harbor boats said that its sorrowings in bad weather, which touched every shade of grief, from a weary, heartbreaking sigh to a terrifying, far-carrying shriek of despair, used to make him creepy with mind pictures of all the dead of all the years snatched from life by all the shipwrecks since the first finding of Boston Harbor
After the Broad Sound Channel was established to allow larger vessels to enter Boston Harbor, Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse and fog signal on the Graves at a total cost of $188,000 and appropriated $75,000 for the project in June of 1902. On April 28, 1903 a formal contract for the granite, which would be cut in Rockport, was signed. The plans called for the tower to be built on a foundation three feet above mean low water and consist of 882 stones laid in forty-four courses to a height of eighty-eight feet.
In the summer of 1904, the tower, which at its base was seven feet thick and had a diameter of thirty feet three inches, was completed. In 1905 the tower was lined with enameled brick, and the lantern, gallery, and lens were put in place. An iron landing pier was also built along with an elevated footbridge to connect the tower with the oil house, located ninety feet south of the tower.
Graves Lighthouse, the brightest in Massachusett’s history, was finally lit by its first keeper, Elliot C. Hadley, on September 1, 1905.
Grabbing onto the heavy copper ladder on the western side of the light, a keeper would begin his thirty-foot ascent to enter the lighthouse. Harsh weather made even entering the light a dangerous affair. Looking up, he would see the year ‘1903’ chiseled above the entrance.
The concrete-filled base stabilized the tower and contained a cistern, which held 1,500 gallons of water. Twice per year a tanker would arrive to pump it full of water for the keepers’ needs. Lighthouse tenders also regularly delivered food, which supplemented the lobsters caught off the ledge.
The area surrounding the entrance served as a storage space, and the level above this contained the engine room, where the almost non-stop thrumming of semi-diesel engines during the foggy season would have made life miserable. A Daboll trumpet, which protruded from beneath the glass lantern and was powered by air compressors, was placed in service on November 23, 1905.
The keepers’ neat, well-organized kitchen was housed in the third level and like elsewhere had enameled bricks on its walls. Mahogany handrails lined the staircase, while oak was used for the remaining woodwork.
The fourth level served as the bunk room with two double bunks that could sleep four men, if necessary, and the fifth floor housed a library. Eventually the lighthouse would have a radio, TV and telephone; the telephone was installed during WWI.
The final two levels of the tower held the giant, twelve-foot-tall, nine-foot in diameter Fresnel and the mechanism for revolving the lens. With a strength of 380,000 candlepower, the light exhibited a double flash every six seconds, at ninety-eight feet above mean high water. Later, the light was upgraded to 3.2 million candlepower.
Over the years, there were storms so fierce that water rushed over the top of the lantern. And in 1935, a gale moved three-ton boulders near the light. But in 1910, Keeper Hadley reported that the shelling from the forts was even worse. Storms “never shake the tower. That stands as firm as the ledges. The only vibration it gets is from heavy firing at the forts, once when the gun goes off and again when the shot strikes….The way we found out first was by having all our dishes broken.”
In December 1916, First Assistant Keeper Harry Whin was alone, waiting for provisions and his relief, which were several weeks late, when a gale hit. With winds topping 100 mph, snow and sleet, then rain and fog, he kept the fog horn sounding and the light lit. At the end of the wharf was the water pump that cooled the engines. It kept freezing, requiring him to clamber down the ladder and thaw out the pump. Five days and nights this kept on, with nothing to eat but fish. He later wrote about it to historian Edward Rowe Snow:
[On] Christmas Eve…I lowered the station boat on the ice and pushed her into open water, headed for Nahant Rock and provisions! My boat developed a leak, I started bailing, my cap in one hand and a tomato soup can in the other. I finally got ahead of the leak and started the engine…[Got] some supplies and tobacco—they got all wet on my return trip; had to dump it all. Returned to the station about 5 a. m.—drifted quite a distance. Took me 5 hours to get back!
When the principal keeper returned the next day, Whin promptly resigned.
While other shipwrecks took place in the area, the most unusual was that of the British freighter, City of Salisbury. In April 1938, the 419-foot vessel, dubbed the “Zoo Ship” because of its million-dollar cargo of zoo animals, rubber and tea, plowed into an uncharted rock about one-half mile from the Graves. Although there was no loss of human life and three honey bears and several hundred rare birds from India and Ceylon were rescued, a number of monkeys and snakes died as a result of the accident.
In the early 1970s, a mercury spill required shutting the station down temporarily for decontamination. Graves Light was automated in 1976, when its keepers were reassigned and its Fresnel lens was shipped off to the Smithsonian Institute.
Converted to solar energy in summer 2001, Graves Light remains an active aid to navigation, with two white flashes every twelve seconds and an automated foghorn. Although the walkway and fog-signal house have been lost to storms, the original oil house still stands.
On May 16, 2012, Graves Lighthouse was made available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 to eligible federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations for educational, recreational, cultural, or historic preservation purposes. Interested entities were given two months to submit a letter of interest expressing their desire to submit an application for ownership. The property includes the lighthouse tower, oil house, and the island on which they stand. When no suitable owner was found, the General Services Administration (GSA) opened an online auction for the lighthouse on June 10, 2013. Ten bidders participated in the auction that ended on August 31, 2013, with a winning bid of $933,888, by far the most ever paid for a lighthouse in a GSA auction. A few days after the close of the auction, an article in The Boston Globe announced that Dave Waller, co-founder of Brickyard VFX, a visual effects company, was the new owner of the lighthouse. Waller, who lives in a renovated firehouse and collects old signs, said “I love the way antique objects tell stories with all this rich folklore.” Waller believes Graves Lighthouse “is a great book waiting to be opened,” and plans on sharing the read with the public, perhaps as an offshore inn.
Located on ledges called The Graves, just outside Boston Harbor. The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds and tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds and tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
The lighthouse can be seen in the 1948 movie "Portrait of Jennie."
See our List of Lighthouses in Massachusetts
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.