|Wings Neck, MA|
Description: The white wooden keeper’s house and lighthouse tower, perched on the very tip of Wings Neck Point, gleam so brightly in the sunshine they almost appear to glow. Mere inches from the shore, the structures provide an unparalleled view of Buzzards Bay. It is this view and the love of lighthouses that lure visitors to this former keeper’s house, which now operates as a rental property.
“Even with all [its] homey comforts, the principal attraction remains the view, best seen from atop the tower,” reports a Coastal Living article. “Climb the flight of worn mahogany steps, ascend 12 more feet by ladder, catch your breath, and just say, ‘whoa.’ Standing in the turret, with the Atlantic stretching out before you, you’ll see why so many hardworking keepers turned their backs on the world and tended their lights in splendid isolation.”
And that is precisely what Wings Neck is known for: its hardworking keepers who diligently served in this remote spot for many years.
The history of Wings Neck Light in Pocasset (which later incorporated into the town of Bourne) can be traced to 1837, when the pleas of merchant ship captains were heeded by Congress, and a $5,000 appropriation for a lighthouse was approved. Before work could begin, however, debate over its necessity arose.
In the light’s favor were the prevailing winds of Buzzards Bay, which defined it as an excellent sailing destination on the Atlantic seaboard. Additionally, Pocasset served as the port for the town of Sandwich, where a major glass manufacturer churned out, amongst other products, the whale oil lamps that lit many New England homes.
It was not until 1848, when Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, requested a lighthouse on Wings Neck that the long-planned light became a reality. Unfortunately, Pleasonton was well known for his penny pinching, and the original budget was slashed by nearly one-third to $3,500.
Although it was possible in 1848 to buy nearly ten acres of land and for contractor John Vina to build a white, Cape-Cod-style stone keeper’s house topped by a hexagonal wooden tower and lantern for under $3,500, it may not have been enough to build a sturdy structure. Records show that the lighthouse, which ended up costing $3,245, needed renovation a scant eight years later. Its fixed, white light, set thirty-eight feet above the ground could be seen for fourteen nautical miles.
Lighthouse keeper positions were political appointments, and Edward Doty Lawrence received his appointment to Wings Neck in 1848 because his father, David Lawrence, a resident of Sandwich, was a Whig and a major campaign contributor to President Zachery Taylor. Positions were also lost as a result of elections, and Keeper Lawrence was removed from his post in 1854, shortly after the Democrat Franklin Pierce became President.
Following the appointment of Lawrence’s replacement, Samuel Barlow, an article was printed in The Register on February 17, 1854, which read in part:
Samuel Barlow has been appointed keeper of Wings Neck Light in Sandwich, in place of Edward D. Lawrence, removed. Mr. Lawrence was a faithful, capable man and was appointed at the time the lighthouse was built, no one being turned out to make room for him. His crime consisted in having been appointed by the Whigs.
John Maxim, another keeper in the 1850s, was killed during the Civil War, in the battle of Gettysburg. Edward D. Lawrence was returned to his post in 1865, in appreciation of his son’s service, after his son lost his life fighting Confederate troops in the Civil War. The only lighthouse keeper’s logbook available in the National Archives is the one begun by Edward D. Lawrence on January 1, 1872, when he wrote:
Once again on glittering gems and diadems,
Following that outrush of sentiment, the journal contains mainly terse, single-sentence entries, such as: “January 17th some snow fell. February 26th Very high winds and cold. March 3rd a blustering snow storm. April 1st There was more geese flew than ever was known. September 1st a beautiful day. October 8th Rainy. Very pleasant. November 3rd Rainy. December 1st Wind Southwest. Snow squalls.”
One of Lawrence’s longest entries was September 2, 1876: “A boat with two men in her was capsized over to ‘dry ledge’ and drifted ashore a short distance from here. We gave them what assistance we could. Had them come to the house and let them have dry clothing and something to eat. They had been in the water about 4 hours. Ware [sic] near the shore when discovered by us.”
Changes to the lighthouse itself over the years were noted in the Lighthouse Board records, which show that in 1857 a fourth-order lens replaced the multiple whale oil lamps and reflectors. The entry for 1863 states that repairs to the building were completed, including the installation of a new lantern.
On September 15, 1887, an entry in the keeper’s log marked the end of Lawrence’s term as keeper: “Edward D. Lawrence Keeper Wings Neck Light died September 15, 1887 been principle keeper at this station for the past 21 years.”
Alfred B. Gifford, who was said to have been “practically in charge of the light for the past eight years” was appointed Lawrence’s replacement. Gifford’s wife, Carry, became his official assistant keeper. Carry, or Caroline as she was named, was the daughter of Edward D. Lawrence. Alfred Gifford also remained keeper at Wing’s Neck until his demise.
Edward D. Nickerson, a local undertaker, described the haunting scene he found after learning of Gifford’s death in October 1908:
One mean and foggy night he died in his house. I hitched up my old nag and drove down there. Mrs. Gifford was alone [and] as I worked on his body, she carried on through that beastly, cold, foggy night, tending the light and clocking the fog bell. After finishing my work I stayed the night there. I could not leave her way out there alone with her husband dying in the parlor. The light streaming out into the foggy night and the weird clang-clang-clang of that great bell ever ½ minute. I never forgot that night or the woman all alone there sticking to her husband’s responsible job.
For two weeks Carry Gifford remained at her post before Wallace Eldredge, son of a Nantucket whaler, came to relieve her.
Keeper Eldredge and his wife Louise were pleasantly described in a 1916 article: “The keeper’s wife is fully as popular as her husband—one of those women who never tire. The polished floors and walls and the immaculate ceilings assure the visitor that the man of the house should share with his better half in the credit for this model of tidiness.”
With its western entrance not far from Wings Neck, the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 dramatically increased maritime traffic in the area. Due to its location near the canal, some believed Wings Neck to be the most important lighthouse on the Atlantic. Wings Neck keepers had to watch for vessels nearing the canal from the south, then telephone for a tugboat and pilot to meet and assist them through the canal. For a short period, Louise Eldredge served as the canal’s official day dispatcher and was also responsible for flying storm signal flags.
For his excellent service at Wing’s Neck, Keeper Eldredge earned five Efficiency Gold Stars. In 1921, when he retired at age 65, after thirty-three years of lighthouse keeping, Eldredge boasted he had never “tasted a drop of a doctor’s medicine” during that time, even though once an accident cost him part of his right thumb.
George Addison Howard became keeper in 1921, after having worked at other Massachusetts lighthouses, and his brother, William James Howard became his assistant in 1926. George and William, sons of the captain of the Cross Rip Lightship in Vineyard Sound, achieved national fame for their lifesaving. In the first eight months of 1932, they saved eight lives, and William Howard went on to save at least thirty-seven lives during his career.
Genealogical records suggest that the great aunt of George and William Howard was Elizabeth Brown Howard, wife of Edwin Doty Lawrence, Wing’s Neck Light’s first keeper.
In 1923, the keeper’s house from Ned’s Point Light was floated across Buzzards Bay to become the assistant keeper’s house at Wing’s Neck Light Station. The light was changed from fixed to flashing through the substitution of a new lens in 1928, and the beacon was converted to electricity in 1934.
Following the construction of Cleveland Ledge Light in 1943, Wing’s Neck Light was decommissioned in 1945 and sold in 1947 to Frank Flanagan of Boston for $13,738. Irene Kelly Flanagan, his wife, enjoyed regaling guests with tales of her surprise when Frank returned home one day to ask, “How’d you like to live in a lighthouse?” The Flanagans were a musical family and often hosted barbershop quartet concerts on their lawn and had as their guests the famous von Trapp family singers of Sound of Music fame. The lighthouse is still owned by the descendants of Frank and Irene Flanagan.
Located at the end of the Wings Neck Peninsula in Buzzards Bay. The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.