|Duxbury Pier, MA|
Description: When Harry Salter arrived at Duxbury Pier Lighthouse in 1944, one look at the isolated tower, painted a “depressing” dark brown, convinced him that this assignment was his punishment for unintentionally breaking up a “hanky-panky” cruise involving four drunk naval officers and several women. Returning from a wartime patrol off Nova Scotia, Salter had noticed a darkened vessel off Biddeford, Maine, and when it didn’t respond to a flashed message or a burst of fifty-caliber tracers, he fired a couple of live rounds into what he suspected was a German submarine. The rounds caused a flurry of activity aboard the vessel, and the true identity of the ship and its occupants was soon revealed. Salter was ordered to delete any reference to the incident from his logs and was promptly reassigned.
Life at Duxbury Lighthouse was difficult even by lighthouse standards. It took around ninety minutes of solid rowing in good weather to reach the tower’s solitary perch on Duxbury Reef, and once there, one’s imagination was the only escape from the secluded outpost until the next trip to town.
Congress appropriated $5,000 for the 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 47-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.
In early February 1875, the alert captain of the revenue steamer Gallatin noticed Duxbury Light flying its distress flag. The ice was so thick that reaching the tower by boat was impossible, but the steamer was able to get within shouting distance. Keeper Atwood and his wife had been trapped at the lighthouse since December 22 and had exhausted their stores of food and water. For some time, Atwood and his wife had been surviving on just a pint of water per day.
To address the water storage issue at the station, two iron water tanks were installed in 1882. 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 in February of 1888 when he was appointed keeper of Highland Light on Cape Cod.
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 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 rowing with all his strength. Rescuers finally located the exhausted keeper far out in the harbor.
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 Bohn 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 in 1942, 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.
When Harry Salter became the Coast Guard officer-in-charge in 1944, he didn’t much like his second man Ellis Wood, whom he considered a bit of a “mamma’s boy.” Salter did, however, become inseparable pals with a one-legged seagull that he hand fed strips of raw bacon and named “Pete,” after Disney’s Peg-Leg Pete.
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 Light 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.
Located at the entrance to Duxbury Harbor and Plymouth Harbor from Plymouth
Bay. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard, but Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, Inc. helps with maintenance. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard, but Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, Inc. helps with maintenance. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.