Blindingly dense summer fogs lasting till midday that turn (in Thoreau’s words) “one’s beard into a wet napkin about the throat” provide conditions that to this day challenge even the most experienced mariner.
The letter Reverend James Freemen wrote petitioning for a lighthouse near Truro stated that in 1794 more vessels were wrecked on the east shore of Truro than in all of Cape Cod.
None other than President George Washington signed the bill on May 17, 1796, approving $8,000 for the construction of Cape Cod’s first lighthouse, Highland Light. Only the seventh to be constructed by the U.S. Government, it was situated on ten acres on the Highlands of North Truro and was usually the first light seen when approaching the entrance of Massachusetts Bay from Europe. Although Highland Lighthouse is officially known as Cape Cod Lighthouse, it remains “Highland” to locals.
The lighthouse parcel was purchased from Isaac Small, who would become its first keeper, for $110: $100 for the land and $10 for the right of way, which still exists as Lighthouse Road. The light’s forty-five-foot-tall, wooden, octagonal tower with a lantern six feet in diameter and eight-feet-tall was placed on a stone base, 500 feet back from precipitous bluffs. A twenty-five by twenty-seven foot, single-story keeper’s house stood near the tower, along with an oil vault, a well, and a small barn.
The nation’s first eclipser was installed in the lantern room to differentiate Highland Light from others on the way to Boston, but delays in receiving it pushed the inaugural illumination back to January 15, 1798. With a focal plane of 180 feet above the sea, the light, with its array of lamps and reflectors, had the potential to be seen up to twenty-four miles, but the haze that often hung over the cape reduced the light’s visibility. Sperm whale oil was initially used in the light, but the fuel was later changed to lard.
As with many other lighthouses, there were severe structural issues with the tower, and, on top of that, the eclipser did not function properly. Small’s repeated complaints that the house and tower were disintegrating cost him his position in 1812. However, he won a victory of sorts in that plans were made to correct the problems that same year.
When inspector Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender showed up unexpectedly a few minutes before sundown on November 1, 1838, an “alarmed” keeper rushed to set things in order. Despite the keeper’s “hasty rub-up,” few of the lamps were trimmed, the chimneys were not cleaned properly, the reflectors were unburnished, and the glass of the lantern was smoked.
When I.W.P. Lewis arrived in 1840 to refit the tower, for whose construction his uncle Winslow Lewis was responsible, he discovered an appalling tale of rotten wood and slipshod construction.
The window frames and staircase were pulled out by hand; and the removal of the latter brought down a portion of the inner face wall, when it was discovered that the interior of the walls was laid without mortar, the brick being loosely thrown in, and the interstices filled with sand. At the base, which rested on the surface of the ground, there was found in the interior of the wall a large number of stones, thrown in to fill up and save brick. On removing the lantern, the mortar of this superstructure was found to have so little cohesion, that the masons, to save time, shoveled off the bricks; and thirteen feet of the tower were taken down in this manner, before arriving at a part that presented sufficient surface and stability to justify a reconstruction.
I.W.P. Lewis had the tower rendered fireproof through the installation of cast-iron fittings, and Keeper Jesse Holbrook praised these and other improvements:
I was appointed keeper of this light in April, 1840, upon a salary of $350 per annum. When I took charge of this light, it was fitted with the common lantern, lamps, and reflectors, generally used in all American lights. One of the lamps faced exactly the copper door of the lantern, and the keeper whom I succeeded told me that had always been its position ever since the apparatus was set up. In the summer of 1840, the light-house was refitted with a new lantern of cast iron, glazed with large plate glass five feet by two feet square. The tower was also roofed with cast iron; the old staircase, window frames, and sashes, formerly of wood, were removed, and cast iron work substituted. Since these improvements were made, the light has been very effective, as generally allowed by all the navigation of the neighborhood. The masters of the Truro and Provincetown packets, plying to Boston, tell me they can see this light and Boston light when half-way on their passage up and down the coast. The tower never has leaked, nor any part of the light-house or lantern, since refitted; and I have much less trouble in keeping the apparatus clean than with that which was removed. This arises from the perfect ventilation of the lantern. The old one leaked very badly, as did the window frames, which, with the staircase, were all rotten, though only seven years erected.
The Highland Light-house, where we were staying, is a substantial-looking building of brick, painted white, and surmounted by an iron cap. Attached to it is the dwelling of the keeper, one story high, also of brick, and built by government. As we were going to spend the night in a light-house, we wished to make the most of so novel an experience, and therefore told our host that we would like to accompany him when he went to light up. At rather early candle-light he lighted a small Japan lamp, allowing it to smoke rather more than we like on ordinary occasions, and told us to follow him. He led the way first through his bedroom, which was placed nearest to the light-house, and then through a long, narrow, covered passage-way, between whitewashed walls like a prison entry, into the lower part of the light-house, where many great butts of oil were arranged around; thence we ascended by a winding and open iron stairway, with a steadily increasing scent of oil and lamp-smoke, to a trap-door in an iron floor, and through this into the lantern. It was a neat building, with everything in apple-pie order, and no danger of anything rusting there for want of oil. The light consisted of fifteen argand lamps, placed within smooth concave reflectors twenty-one inches in diameter, and arranged in two horizontal circles one above the other, facing every way excepting directly down the Cape. These were surrounded, at a distance of two or three feet, by large plate-glass windows, which defied the storms, with iron sashes, on which rested the iron cap. All the iron work, except the floor, was painted white. And thus the light-house was completed. We walked slowly round in that narrow space as the keeper lighted each lamp in succession, conversing with him at the same moment that many a sailor on the deep witnessed the lighting of the Highland Light… He spoke of the anxiety and sense of responsibility which he felt in cold and stormy nights in the winter; when he knew that many a poor fellow was depending on him, and his lamps burned dimly, the oil being chilled. Sometimes he was obliged to warm the oil in a kettle in his house at midnight, and fill his lamps over again, — for he could not have a fire in the light-house, it produced such a sweat on the windows.
In 1854, $25,000 was budgeted to rebuild Cape Cod Lighthouse on a proper site and to fit it with the “best approved illuminating apparatus to serve as substitution for three lights at Nauset Beach.”
Construction did not begin until 1856 on a new sixty-six-foot tower and a dwelling for the head keeper and a double-dwelling for his two assistants. The lighthouse was completed in October 1857, for $17,000, which included a new first-order Fresnel lens that produced a fixed white light. Before the addition of the first-order lens, the station had employed just one keeper.
The sixty-nine winding steps leading to the lantern room could be quite tricky for man and beast, as the Barnstable Patriot newspaper reported in 1870. “The assistant keeper…owns a dog, and the other evening his little dogship feeling perhaps a little lonely, his master having gone on the tower, thought he would follow him, but, alas for the poor dog, when he had nearly reached the top a mis-step pitched him over the edge and head-long down until his descent was suddenly checked by coming in violent contact with the top of one of the large oil butts at the foot of the tower. Singular to relate, the animal only received a lame leg from the fall. The distant from top to bottom is nearly sixty feet. A warning to those who visit Lighthouse towers.”
Like Thoreau before him, Isaac M. Small, grandson of Highland Light’s first keeper, wrote about the life of Highland’s keepers. In 1891, he published Highland Light: This Book Tells You All About It, which includes the following:
The routine of their duties is regular and systematic. Promptly, one half hour before sunset the keeper whose watch it may be at the time repairs to the tower and makes preparations for the lighting of the lamps. At the moment the sun drops below the western horizon the light flashes out over the sea; the little cog wheels begin their revolutions; the tiny pumps force the oil up to the wicks and the night watch has begun. At 8 o’clock the man who has lighted the lamp is relieved by No. 2, who in turn is also relieved at midnight by No. 3, No. 1 again returning to duty at 4 a.m. As the sun shows its first gleam above the edge of the eastern sea the machinery is stopped and the light is allowed to gradually consume the oil remaining in the wicks and go out. This occurs in about fifteen minutes. As night comes on again No. 2 is the man to light the lamp, the watches are changed at 8, 12 and 4, and so go on as before night after night.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, duplicate four-horsepower oil engines with compressors replaced the old caloric engines, reducing the time needed to produce the first blast of the fog signal from forty-five to ten minutes. In 1929, an electrically operated air oscillator fog signal was installed at the station as mariners complained that the old reed horns could hardly be heard above the heavy surf crashing on the beach below the station. Power for operating the new signal was furnished by a direct-current generator, driven by a four-cycle, internal-combustion engine that ran on kerosene.
On June 6, 1900, Congress appropriated $15,000 for changing the light’s characteristic from fixed to flashing. The new Barbier, Benard & Turenne first-order Fresnel lens had four panels of 0.92 meter focal distance, revolved in mercury, and gave, every five seconds, flashes of about 192,000 candlepower nearly one-half second in duration. While the new lens was being installed, the light from a third-order lens was exhibited atop a temporary tower erected near the lighthouse. After the new light was exhibited on October 10, 1901, the temporary tower was sold at auction.
In 1946, the Fresnel lens was replaced with a Crouse-Hinds, double-drum, rotating DCB-36 aerobeacon, which was in turn replaced during the automation process in 1987 with a Crouse-Hinds DCB-224 rotating beacon. The Fresnel lens was mostly destroyed during its removal, but a piece is on display at the lighthouse.
By the 1960s, the assistant keeper’s double-dwelling and fog horn building had been removed, and Keeper Isaac Small’s original ten acres had shrunk to little more than two. In the early 1990s, erosion seriously threatened the light. While in 1806, the tower had stood 510 feet from the cliff, by 1989, that distance had shrunk to just 128 feet.
In 1996, after $1.5 million had been raised to reposition the lighthouse a safer 453 feet from the cliff’s edge, the 430-ton structure was successfully moved intact on I-beams greased with Ivory soap. International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, with Expert House Moving of Maryland as a subcontractor, was responsible for the move.
Highland Lighthouse attracted visitors even when it was staffed by resident keepers. In 1922, 7,300 people registered at the lighthouse, while in 1929, the total was 9,517. Highland Museum and Lighthouse, Inc. was formed in 1998 as a non-profit to partner with the National Park Service in running a gift shop in the keeper’s dwelling and in offering tours of the lighthouse. After fifteen years in this role, the non-profit lost its contract due to operational issues, and on January 1, 2014, Eastern National was awarded the contract for operating the lighthouse.
Formerly a location associated with notable danger, the lighthouse, surrounded by an oceanfront golf course, is now associated with notable leisure.