|Point Gammon, MA|
Description: Point Gammon Lighthouse is located just east of the entrance to Hyannis Harbor on the southern tip of West Yarmouth’s Great Island, which is attached to Cape Cod by a narrow isthmus. The point is about two miles north of the treacherous Bishop and Clerks ledges and twelve miles northwest of Monomoy Light.
Point Gammon received its name from the old term “to gammon” meaning “to deceive or fool,” reflecting the dangerous currents, rocks, and weather conditions in the area that frequently tricked sailors, resulting in the loss of ships and lives.
Seeking to protect their investments as trade flourished in the Hyannis area, the citizens of Dennis, Yarmouth, and Barnstable appealed to Congress for a light. Built according to the same specifications as Race Point Lighthouse near Provincetown, Point Gammon Lighthouse was first lit on November 21, 1816.
Point Gammon Light was Cape Cod’s fourth lighthouse, and began and ended its service under the care of keepers from the local Peak family. Samuel Adams Peak was hired as its first keeper at an annual salary of $300. Samuel’s son John lived with him at the station from 1816 until Samuel’s death at age forty-one, in June 1824. At that point, John, who was eighteen years old at the time, took over his father’s position. In 1842, Keeper John Peak’s salary was $350 a year.
The November 1, 1838 inspection report of Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender, U.S.N., noted that since his previous visit the tower had been extended 6 feet—to 70 feet above sea level. As with many light stations in the area, Carpender recommended reducing the lamps, from 10 with 13 ˝ inch reflectors, arranged in two rows with six above and four below, to a single row of six, more compactly arranged.
His report noted that the structure had a feature much appreciated during foul weather. “The dwelling, which, like the tower, is of stone, is judiciously connected with the tower by the kitchen, enabling the keeper to attend the light without exposure to the weather. Premises have just undergone repairs, and are in good order.”
However, less than ten years later, the report of Inspector I.W.P. Lewis did not find the structure quite so sound. “Tower of rubble masonry, to which has been added a superstructure of brick, making the entire height 25 feet; masonry rough-cast outside, but in bad condition; roof soapstone, and leaky; walls leaky; wood work rotten; whole structure out of repair … Dwelling-house of rubble stone, rough-cast outside with gravel and cement; roof shingled; whole structure leaky …”
Lewis had Peak sign a prepared statement that sometimes during storms the glass broke and the lamps rattled. He wrote that his “dwelling-house is extremely leaky, particularly on the east side, where the rain leaks in, so that we always have to move our beds during an easterly rain, and also to mop up bucketfuls of water; the roof leaks, and the shingles are rotten and nail-sick … I am allowed a boat, but there is no boat house. The curb of the well is so rotten that we have difficulty in obtaining water.”
Despite the trying conditions, Keeper John Peak and his wife, Martha, managed to raise nine children, including two sons, who would themselves become keepers. Historian Edward Rowe wrote that their daughter Imogene had to walk six miles to and from school each day. Imogene considered the hike to be beautiful in the spring, summer and fall, but lonely in the winter.
It was recommended that following the construction of the wave-swept Bishop and Clerks Light there would be no necessity for the Point Gammon Lighthouse, as it would “tend to embarrass and confuse navigators.”
When the Bishop and Clerks Lighthouse first shone on October 1, 1858, it marked the end of service for Point Gammon, but not for Keeper John Peak. He transferred over to become Bishop and Clerk’s first keeper.
When Point Gammon Light was abandoned, it began to deteriorate bit by bit, despite middling attempts to keep it in repair. In 1865, there was talk of its destruction. “The structures standing at the discontinued light-house station at Point Gammon, being found to be in a rapid course of demolition from lawless persons, fishermen and others, it was deemed prudent to have them taken down and removed to a place of greater security. Some of the materials, lumber, &c., have been used in the erection of buildings needed at other light-stations.” The government, however, ended up leaving the station mostly intact and selling it in 1872.
550-acre Great Island, where the Point Gammon Lighthouse stands, was purchased in 1882, by the Bostonian ornithologist Charles Barney Cory for use as a game preserve stocked with pheasants, elk, deer, antelopes, and other game. Non-game birds were protected; and the island became one of America’s first bird sanctuaries. At some point, Cory placed a tall structure atop the tower, whose lantern room had earlier been removed, to facilitate its use as a viewing station.
Following Cory’s financial ruin in the stock market, the island was sold in 1914 to Malcolm G. Chace, a Rhode Island banker with fond boyhood memories of visiting the island.
In 1935, the old one-and-a-half-story stone keeper’s house at Point Gammon was dismantled and the stones used to build a new house on Great Island. Then in the 1970s, Arnold Chace converted the old tower to a summer residence and spent several summers there, with the lantern room serving as his bedroom. The majority of Great Island remains privately owned by the Chace family and public access is not allowed.
The Point Gammon Lighthouse continues to live up to its name. While mere rubble remains of the Bishop and Clerks Lighthouse, which ceased operations in 1928 and was blown up in 1952, the Point Gammon tower still stands picturesquely at the entrance to Hyannis Harbor. The Point Gammon Light has thus lived up to its name and gammoned its replacement by outlasting it.
Head Keepers: Samuel A. Peak (1816 - 1824), John Peak (1824 - 1858).
Located on Point Gammon on the eastern side of the entrance to Hyannis Harbor. The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Though the 2009 movie "The Lightkeepers," focuses on life at Race Point Lighthouse, Point Gammon Lighthouse also appears in the film.
See our List of Lighthouses in Massachusetts
Pictures on this page copyright Frederick Medina, Kraig Anderson, used by permission.