|Three Sisters, MA|
Description: Set 150 feet apart in a straight line, the three fifteen-foot-tall stone towers at Nauset Beach became known as “The Three Sisters of Nauset.” The origin of this nickname is uncertain. Some say the name arose because the towers resembled demure ladies in white dresses with black hats, while others claim that it was due to the fact that Keeper Henry Y. Hatch (1851-1853) had three daughters. Over the years, the Three Sisters have been torn down, rebuilt, and sold off, but now the sisters are reunited just off Cable Road near Nauset Beach, where they stand stately in a row just east of their original location.
The name Nauset or Nawsett, which came from a local Native American tribe, formerly referred to the fifteen-mile stretch of Cape Cod from what is now Brewster almost to modern-day Truro. One would think that when local residents appealed to the Boston Marine Society to build a light along this dangerous section of coast, with its changeable weather, blinding fogs, treacherous currents, and long history of wrecked vessels, that there would have been little or no opposition. That, however, was not the case.
An unusual plan was devised to build not one, but three lighthouses at Nauset Beach on five acres atop Nauset cliffs. The land was purchased for $150 from Benjamin and Sally Collins of Eastham, after Captain John “Mad Jack” Percival (a Cape Cod resident who had commanded the USS Constitution) selected the location.
Even before the towers were first illuminated in 1839, Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender wrote on November 1, 1838, that he could not comprehend why three lights had been constructed. “Nauset beach has always been considered a dangerous place for vessels, and many have been wrecked there. To guard against such disasters seems to be the object of these lights. I cannot, however, think that three lights are at all necessary. Any single distinguishable light that can be seen eight or ten miles will answer any purpose. Such a light is a revolving red light.” Carpender was puzzled why the government would pay for 900 gallons of oil annually, when 300-360 gallons for a single light would suffice.
Winslow Lewis, who regularly underbid the competition, won the construction bid for the triplicate towers. His team consisted of four masons, three laborers, two carpenters, and a cook. Before completion, one mason and one carpenter were stricken by small pox.
David Bryant, a local carpenter, was hired by the local lighthouse superintendent for $2.50 a day to monitor the work. When he viewed masons laying the bricks completely at random and shoveling sand instead of mortar between them, Bryant refused to certify the station’s proper construction. The three towers and a 20 x 34-foot, two-story keeper’s house were erected for $6,549 in only thirty-eight days.
Despite Bryant’s 1842 affidavit stating that he “considered the whole of the work as of the meanest character and description,” Winslow Lewis was able to convince his friend and stalwart defender the auditor Stephen Pleasanton that all was well. Pleasanton, whose tight-fisted decisions are believed to have harmed lighthouses and perhaps cost the lives of some mariners, even went so far as to predict that Bryant would be “indicted, and probably punished, for perjury in this case.”
Ironically, engineer I.W.P. Lewis (builder Winslow Lewis’ nephew) would harshly criticize the construction to Congress in 1843, stating that bases of the towers were set in sand without foundations and the towers were leaky and laid with bad mortar. Like Carpender before him, Lewis questioned the logic of three lights. Though no fault of Winslow Lewis, I.W.P. Lewis also found that the glass in the towers was so damaged by blowing sand that the light was almost completely obscured.
In 1850, during Joshua Crosby’s tenure as keeper, the number of lamps in each tower’s octagonal iron lantern was reduced from ten to six. Efficient sixth-order Fresnel lenses replaced the systems of lamps and in 1856, and seven years the lenses were upgraded to larger ones of the fourth-order. A new assistant keeper’s quarters was constructed in 1876, following a $5,000 appropriation.
After the relentless Atlantic Ocean brought the three stone towers to the brink of disaster, in 1892, three new twenty-two-foot-tall towers were constructed thirty feet west of the originals along with a brick oil house. Though it is a bit surprising that the use of three towers was continued, the replacements were at least constructed of wood so they could be readily moved. The fourth-order Fresnel lenses were transferred to the new towers on April 25, 1892.
The Portland Gale of November 26-27, 1898, so named because it sank the steamer Portland just north of Cape Cod, struck with such force that it actually moved two of the three towers at Nauset Beach. Nearly one month later, Keeper Stephen Lewis discovered the body of a man, uncovered on the beach by a new storm, whom he believed was one of the nearly 200 that perished aboard the Portland.
In 1911, the towers were again in danger of tumbling over the bluff (the northernmost tower was a scant eight feet from the edge) when government tests proved that the three lights could be effectively reduced to one flashing light. Although the use of three lights had been criticized for over seventy years, when the Three Sisters were reduced to a single tower that year, there were numerous complaints. One example, printed in the Boston Globe read, “In thick weather, it could be impossible to count the flashes correctly,” thus confusing it with other lights.
The two defunct towers (minus their lanterns) were auctioned off in 1918 to the Cummings family of Eastham for $3.50. The family moved the two towers to a nearby location and joined them together as a summer cottage called “The Towers” on Cable Road. Later, the building would be used as a dance studio.
The middle Sister (which was in the best condition) was moved back from the bluff and attached to the 1876 keeper’s dwelling.
When the westernmost of the twin brick-lined, cast-iron Chatham Lights was discontinued in 1923, it was relocated to Nauset Beach to replace the last of the wooden sisters, which by then was showing her age. The sister’s fourth-order Fresnel lens, which produced three flashes every ten seconds in honor of the former three sisters, was installed in the replacement tower, referred to subsequently as Nauset Light or Nauset Beach Light. Albert Hall purchased the derelict ‘Sister’ tower for $10 and incorporated into a cottage.
Thus, the Three Sisters of Nauset effectively ceased to exist as a light station — that is until the National Park Service began steps to reunite them. The Park Service first acquired the two 1892 wooden towers that had been sold to the Cummings family in 1965, and then, ten years later, successfully negotiated the purchase of the third tower from the Hall family.
In 1983, the National Park Service placed the Three Sisters of Nauset in a park setting, 1,800 feet east of Nauset Light, where visitors will find them lined up in their original configuration, a straight line with 150 feet between towers. Following a $500,000 restoration completed in 1989, the Cape Cod National Seashore now cares for the lights.
Located at Nauset Beach near the Nauset Lighthouse. The towers are owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, towers open during tours.
The towers are owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, towers open during tours.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.