Two barrier beaches, three-mile-long Plymouth Beach and seven-mile-long Saquish Neck protect the harbors at Plymouth, Kingston, and Duxbury, and a lighthouse was built on Gurnet Point, the southern end of Saquish Neck, in 1768 to help guide mariners to these protected anchorages. Just inside the mile-wide opening between the barrier beaches, extensive flats extend from Saquish Head and present a dangerous obstacle for mariners. Duxbury Beacon, a square granite pier surmounted by a four-foot-tall granite post, was built atop the flats to help mariners avoid them during the day, but a lighted beacon was needed for night-time navigation.
Congress appropriated $5,000 for Duxbury Pier Lighthouse in 1860, but this money, likely insufficient for the project, was returned to the surplus fund two years later. On July 15, 1870, Congress approved $17,931, which proved sufficient for construction of the offshore tower at the entrance to the harbors of Duxbury, Plymouth, and Kingston. William W. Burgess, Jr. observed the construction of the tower, which was the first cast-iron caisson lighthouse built in the United States, and left the following account of the work:
In April ’71 they decided to build an iron lighthouse…on the flats close to the edge of the channel, and my father contracted with the Governor Inspector to build it. It was built of iron plates, 10 feet long with flanges on each to bolt them together and form a circle 28 feet in diameter at the bottom. This section was put together in North Dock and a cofferdam built inside of it to float it, and one Sunday we towed it down with the government schooner and our sloop Rose Wood, placed it in position then broke the cofferdam and sunk it. I got $3.00 for my part of the job, which was looking on.
The lower twenty feet of the forty-seven-foot-tall iron tower, which stands in two feet of water at low tide, was filled with concrete to help the structure resist punishing seas and ice floes. Beneath the lantern room, the tower has three levels, two of which served as housing for the keeper. The tower’s unique shape has earned it many descriptive names, including Coffee Pot, Sparkplug, and Bug Light.
On September 15, 1871, a fifth-order Fresnel lens first beamed forth its light from the lantern room, after being lit by William Atwood, who served as keeper until 1878. John A. Richmond, Jr. was appointed the first assistant keeper of the light in 1872.
During the winter of 1875, the tower sustained major ice damage, necessitating the repair of its iron landing ladder and the addition of riprap stone around its base. In 1886, one hundred tons of stone were placed around the tower, and the ladder was again repaired. Another 175 tons of protective rock were required in 1890.
To address the water storage issue at the station, two iron water tanks were installed in 1886. Even more storage was made available in 1900 when a 700-gallon cistern was created in the tower’s concrete pier. Harry Salter noted that the drinking water captured in the cistern when it rained “was mixed with the sea gull crap and shells that rinsed off the metal roof with the water, making it our only source of calcium.”
In November 1887, The Boston Globe succinctly and subtly conveyed a keeper’s hope to be transferred from the light as quickly as possible: “Capt. Amasa S. Dyer, who has been keeper of the Duxbury lighthouse since January 11, has been promised a transfer to a position on shore. The locality is not yet decided upon.” Dyer, who had pursued whales from 1855 to 1882 before becoming a keeper, received his promised transfer and was appointed head keeper of Highland Light on Cape Cod.
On April 30, 1894, the color of the light displayed from Duxbury Pier Lighthouse was changed from white to red. The color of the lighthouse itself was initially red and then brown.
In December 1920, Keeper Tolman Spencer rowed ashore to visit his wife then headed back to the station to perform his duties while she went to a movie. After nightfall, Tolman’s wife became alarmed when she noticed the familiar red beacon in the harbor was not active. She promptly contacted the Coast Guard, who dispatched men to search for the missing keeper and to activate the light. The wind had conspired with the tide to prevent Tolman from reaching the light despite his rowing with all his strength. When the Coast Guard failed to find her husband, Mrs. Spencer telephoned the chief of police, who detailed an Officer Bell to help in the search. A Mr. Torrance who owned a motorboat was recruited to help, and Mrs. Spencer insisted on going along, even though the temperature was below zero. After an hour or searching, the rescuers finally located the exhausted and ice-covered keeper far out in the harbor. Keeper Spencer was taken to the lighthouse, where he was able to return to duty after enjoying a hot drink and donning dry clothing.
When Frank A. Grieder became keeper in 1930, he loaded his family’s possessions into a Model A Ford and drove to Plymouth from Maine. Grieder’s wife and children moved into a house in the Rocky Nook section of town. Years later, Grieder’s son, Bill, shared his recollections of life at “The Bug,” on which in 1902 a 1,000-pound bell, bell house, and weight box were installed.
The weather was never the same. You’d go out and a couple of hours later the weather changes and the tide changes. The thing that I used to get a big kick out of was when it came in foggy. We had a huge brass bell up on the tower, and it worked like clockwork. You’d wind it up, and it had a big hammer. You’d wind and wind and all of a sudden it’d go ‘whammo!’ and the whole tower would shake. You’d lie there at night and wonder, ‘How am I going to sleep?’ And next thing you know you’d gotten used to it. And when the fog cleared and they shut the bell off, you woke up. You couldn’t stand it—‘Why is it so quiet?’
During his time as keeper in the 1930s, Fred Bohm was involved in a number of rescues. Historian Edward Rowe Snow said Bohm saved ninety people, including thirty-six Girl Scouts, from drowning in a single year.
A scream for help one windy evening alerted Bohm to a woman swimming toward the light from her overturned boat. Knowing there was no time to launch his boat and row out to her, he dove in the frigid waters and pulled the by then unconscious woman to safety. Somehow in her struggles she lost her bathing suit, and her first sentence after regaining consciousness was to inquire into the whereabouts of her suit. “I don’t know,” replied Bohm, “but you’re lucky to be alive.” Wearing borrowed clothes, she was returned to the mainland later that night.
On a freezing December day, Bohm and a friend headed ashore to pick up provisions when their boat sprang a leak. Luckily, Bohm and his friend were rescued by a lobsterman, but not before the cold claimed two of Bohm’s fingers.
Salter was at the light when the Great Atlantic Hurricane slammed into Duxbury in the fall of 1944. “The gigantic waves were hammering this stout little light station unmercifully,” Salter recalls. “It shook so bad we had trouble keeping the oil lamps lit, and the pounding was shaking the fragile kerosene mantles to dust!”
Salter braved the elements during the hurricane and ventured out on the platform that encircled the tower in attempt to secure the boat, which had torn loose from the davits. Unbeknownst to Salter, a giant wave had crashed against the tower and forced open a trapdoor on the platform. As he approached the boat in the dark, he plunged through the trapdoor and into the frigid, turbulent waters below. Luckily, another big wave swept him against the ladder, enabling him to slowly climb to safety. When the hurricane had passed, Salter discovered that the boat, the fog-bell mechanism, and the outhouse—which he called “our favorite outdoor reading room”—had all been washed away. Pete was also apparently a casualty of the storm, as he was never seen again.
When Duxbury Lighthouse was automated in 1964, a modern optic replaced the historic Fresnel lens. The unmanned light station fell victim to vandalism, and birds began to nest in its interior. By 1983, the Coast Guard planned to replace the lighthouse with a fiberglass tower, similar to the one that had been installed at Deer Island Lighthouse in Boston Harbor. Repairs to Bug Light were estimated at $250,000-$400,000, while a fiberglass tower would cost only $63,000.
Alarmed at the prospect of losing their beloved icon, local citizens formed Project Bug Light and convinced the Coast Guard to give them a five-year lease on the tower. The group rebuilt the catwalk and repaired the roof in 1984-1985, but shortly thereafter the tower was again vandalized. A few years later, Project Bug Light had practically dissolved, the five-year lease had expired, and the Coast Guard began to reconsider the fiberglass pole, or at a minimum, removal of the lantern.
Talk of tearing down the so-ugly-it-was-cute lighthouse jump-started preservation efforts once again, and Dorothy Bicknell, daughter of Edward Rowe Snow, the “Flying Santa,” was recruited to join Project Bug Light. Soon, Bicknell became vice-president and then president of the group. A new lease was signed with the Coast Guard, and volunteers spent 420 hours cleaning, scraping, and painting the tower in 1994-1995. Duxbury Lighthouse now sports a cheerier daymark: a red base, white upper portion, and a black lantern room.
Project Bug Light expanded its restoration efforts and name in 1999, when it assumed responsibility for nearby Plymouth Light and changed its name to Project Gurnet and Bug Light. “Bug Light” remains an active aid to navigation and receives regular attention from its volunteer support group. Since Project Bug Light’s inception, the lighthouse has undergone renovations in 1984, 2001, 2008, and 2011.
In May 2014, Duxbury Pier Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was made available under the guidelines of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act “to eligible entities defined as Federal Agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations, for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.” Project Gurnet and Bug Light has submitted an application for the lighthouse and will likely be granted ownership of the structure they have dutifully preserved. In the unlikely event that the group isn’t awarded the lighthouse, it will be sold at auction.