|Nobska Point, MA|
Description: Nobska Point Light, a classic New England-style lighthouse situated at the entrance to Woods Hole Harbor, Massachusetts, welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each year to the northerly side of Vineyard Sound. As the former keeper’s dwelling is home to a U. S. Coast Guard commander, the tower is only open to the public a few days each year, but the grounds are open to the general pubic and for special events.
For three years ending in July 2001, Captain Russell and Elizabeth B. Webster enjoyed the peaceful setting at the light station. However, the public did infringe on their privacy on a few occasions. One evening the Websters returned home to discover a huge tent packed with over 200 people, more than forty cars parked on their lawn, and a state trooper who forbade them entrance to their own home. Shortly thereafter, wedding parties were restricted to fifty persons or less.
Mrs. Webster related to The Boston Globe that it was not uncommon for people to approach them in their home, even late in the evening, stating that as the lighthouse was federal property, it was their right as a taxpayer to enter.
The Nobska Point Light (or Nobsque Point Light, as it was known in its early days) was built in 1828 for $2949.30. The original lighthouse was in the typical Cape Cod-style with an octagonal tower atop a keeper’s house, which had three rooms on the first floor and two small ones upstairs. The lantern held ten lamps with 14” reflectors, producing a fixed white light, seventy-eight feet above the sea.
While a common lighthouse design, unfortunately, it was a poor one. The weight of the 8-foot diameter tower topped by an octagonal iron lantern put severe stress on the dwelling’s roof, and ultimately on the keepers and their families. Several tenants complained that when it rained the entire family was forced to maneuver their beds to avoid the leaks.
Throughout much of the 19th century, keepers were required to track maritime traffic in a Journal of Vessels and submit it monthly—e.g., in 1829, 10,000 vessels were recorded passing Nobska Point. In the month of November 1864, there were 833: Ships—1; Barks—8; Brigs—69; Schooners—652; Sloops—82; Steamers—21. During a single day in 1864, Nobska Point Keeper Frederick Ray counted 188 vessels, including 175 schooners.
For several years during the tenure of Oliver A. Nickerson (from 1874 to 1911—the longest of any keeper at Nobska), his daughter, Florence, was the designated “observer” tasked with tracking ships that passed during the day. A 1908 article described her as “shrewd and kindly, one of those Yankee girls who fear nothing and take life cheerfully.” Besides her lookout duties, she also tended the chickens and kept house.
The state of each lighthouse and the quality of the keepers’ work was evaluated for the Lighthouse Service on a regular basis. In a November 1, 1838 report, Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender, U.S.N., praised the keeper for his “neatness and reputation” but pointed out that the 10 lights, six lower and four upper, could be reduced to only the lower lights, as the upper ones were “entirely superfluous.”
Carpender asked that an exception be made to the Lighthouse Service rule refusing the issuance of boats to keepers on the mainland. “Should the regulation be waived in the favor of any one, I hope it will be extended to this individual, who once had it in his power, with the Government boat, no longer serviceable, to rescue some persons from drowning.”
Peter Daggett, a veteran of the War of 1812, was keeper in the 1840s at Nobska Point and some of his papers are in the hands of the Falmouth Historical Society. Although a poor speller, there is evidence he took pride in his work. Several times he complained to his supervisor about the poor quality oil he received for the light. One December report states:
This Month Nothing to remark onely have a Great Deal truble to Mak the Oil burn. Everything in Good Order But the Ventilators that wase Put up on the Chimnyes Is bloon of in the hard Gales It will Lum Smith to alter them a Little in the Spring so Thay will Not blow of.In 1845, Daggett used 209 gallons of summer oil and 130 gallons of winter oil (the winter oil was much lighter than the summer, so that it would stay liquid in the unheated lighthouse).
A newspaper article praised Daggett’s service: “No light in the world was better kept. Honesty, fidelity and capacity in the keeper were evident to all.”, but then noted that during the summer of 1849, Daggett was removed, “for no other reason than because he is a democrat.” Lighthouse keeping posts were political appointments at the time and subject to the whims of elected officials.
In 1876, the Nobska Point Lighthouse was rebuilt as a 40-foot, cast-iron tower lined with brick. The pieces were cast in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and transported in four sections. A new 1.5-story wood-frame dwelling was also built. The tower was painted a dark reddish brown and had a rare adornment in the form of miniature lighthouses on top of each baluster that encircled the lantern room.
A covered walkway connecting the tower to the keeper’s house was added in 1899, and in 1907 a second dwelling was constructed to house an assistant keeper. Despite strong opposition from nearby residents, in 1910, a brick fog signal building was built to house a compressed air fog whistle that was sounded by the keepers when visibility dropped below five miles.
Even with the light and fog signal, the area still proved hazardous. Keeper George I. Cameron was on duty in August 1911, when the Boston-bound steamer Bunker Hill, carrying over 300 passengers, ran aground on a clear, calm night. “If the pilot or captain, whoever was in charge of the steamer, was trying to hit Nobska Lighthouse,” wrote a passenger, “he was a very poor shot, as he didn’t come within 100 feet of it, and if he was trying to avoid hitting it he was equally a poor shot, as he had plenty of water in the broad Vineyard sound to escape striking the beacon, the rays of which must have blinded him as he was running his vessel toward it.” Help was summoned by the keeper and all passengers were safely unloaded.
While Cameron was keeper, Herman, the son of Keeper Nickerson, was allowed to remain at the light as a boarder—a decision that was to have repercussions. A newspaper in October 1911 noted that Cameron’s wife took their six children and ran off to parts unknown with Herman.
In 1948, a 125-foot steel radio beacon tower was erected on the station, and the fog signal was changed from a reed horn to a diaphragm operated by compressed air that sounded two-second blasts every thirty seconds. The fog signal could be heard for five miles and was activated by a sensor that measured the moisture content of the air.
Joseph Hindley took over as keeper in 1968, and when he retired on November 3, 1972, after forty-four years of service, he was believed to be the last civilian lighthouse keeper in New England. His wife, Charlotte, described their years at lighthouses as “very uneventful,” even though she was fully aware that people always try to romanticize the keeper’s life. She feared that after so many years of having to talk between foghorn blasts, it would be hard to sleep without the noise.
Following its 1985 automation, the station became home to the commander of the US Coast Guard Group Woods Hole and was “adopted” by members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-01. One volunteer was Payson A. Jones of North Falmouth, an Auxiliary veteran with over forty years experience, who loved to greet visitors in his old-fashioned keeper’s uniform during open house days. He would tell children, “We don’t do two things at Nobska. We don’t go out on the catwalk at the top of the light, and we don’t touch the 100-year-old Fresnel lens that’s valued at $250,000.”
Photo Gallery: 1
Located in Woods Hole near the ferry landing. The tower is occasionally opened for tours by the Coast Guard Auxiliary
Flotilla 11-2. Click here for contact information and a tour schedule. To arrange a ceremony at Nobska Lighthouse, call (508) 477-3219.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and is home to the commander of U.S. Coast Guard
Sector Southeastern New England. Grounds open, dwelling closed, tower open during open houses.
The tower is occasionally opened for tours by the Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-2. Click here for contact information and a tour schedule. To arrange a ceremony at Nobska Lighthouse, call (508) 477-3219.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and is home to the commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England. Grounds open, dwelling closed, tower open during open houses.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.