|Tarpaulin Cove, MA|
Description: The peaceful, pastoral landscape of Naushon Island, in Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts, with its gentle anchorages and stretches of sandy beaches, belies the danger hidden offshore in the deep, blue water where treacherous currents can drag vessels sideways onto unseen shoals. During the 18th century, Vineyard Sound, with its sly currents, blankets of fog, and unpredictably severe weather was considered the second busiest shipping passage in the world, next to the English Channel and one of the most dangerous.
Seven-mile-long Naushon Island is the largest of the sixteen Elizabeth Islands, which were discovered by the 17th-century English explorer Gosnold and reputedly named for his little girl. Livestock would later be brought to graze on Naushon’s bucolic fields, with about 2,000 resident sheep on the island in the early 19th century.
On the eastern side of the island, Tarpaulin Cove provided a haven for farmers doing brisk business with the crews of sojourning ships. It was there that the ambitious Zaccheus Lumbert established a tavern to provide sustenance and a place to rest for mariners.
Recognizing that his livelihood was inextricably linked with the seafarers and seeking to protect his income and/or to do a good deed, Lumbert, a former Nantucket resident, privately established a light in 1759, kept burning with Nantucket “Oyle out of their own courtesy.”
In 1762, Lumbert sent a letter to Governor Francis Bernard requesting financial support for the light: “Zaccheus Lumbert … Innholder [showeth] that he hath for the public good of Whalemen and Coasters built a Lighthouse at said Cove … [which] has been the means of saving many vessels from being lost ..., he hopes that your Excellency will make him an allowance … that he may be excused from paying any Duty of Excision on the liquors he sells.” A “grateful” governor responded with the order that Lumbert be paid six pounds.
Lumbert kept the light burning until he sold the tavern in 1764, and it seems that subsequent tavern keepers carried on the work until 1818.
Some reports describe the government-built tower as being thirty-eight feet tall, but Lighthouse Board records list it at twenty-five feet. John Hayden, the first keeper, was there when the new tower debuted its fixed white light in October of 1817.
Hayden, who remained at the light for twenty-five years, provided the following grim statement about the miserable conditions at Tarpaulin Cove for engineer I. W. P. Lewis’ 1843 inspection report.
The tower is leaky from top to bottom, so that I have to cut the ice off the staircase in winter. All the staircase and window frames are more or less rotten—the landing of the stairs dangerous to tread upon. The lantern sweats so as to make quantities of ice on the glass and floor. The tower is not high enough to clear the land to the westward, so that the light in that direction is of no use to vessels near the shore. The dwelling-house leaks badly about the windows, the frames of which are rotten; cellar stairs rotten, and ridge boards of the roof old and rotten…. There is a boat-house and landing; the landing is a kind of trestle bridge made of rough poles, and is nearly knocked to pieces in the surf. . . . I have a well, thirty-six feet deep, without a drop of water in it.
After two more years of living with a dry well, funds arrived to dig a new one. The lighthouse log shows that Francis Burt and William Cummings took 35 days at $1.50 a day to dig the well, and Tristram Cleveland took 24 days at $1.50 to build the well.
John Hayden’s annual log listed that one year he used 195 gallons of summer oil, 130 gallons of winter oil, 133 tube glasses (chimneys), and eight and one-half gross of wicks (over 1,200). It is interesting to note that two years later he used only 180 wicks and twenty-four tube glasses. In 1846, his salary was $87.50 per quarter, or $350 per year.
In 1871, Keeper Richard Norton obtained his position after the Confederate raider Alabama sank the square-rigger he captained and partially owned. The lighthouse job was given as partial compensation for his loss. Also that year, the tower and house received a coat of white paint.
At last in 1888, something was done about the dilapidated, leaky stone house built in 1818. After demolition, a 25’ x 26’, two-story house with an ell and a basement was built on the old foundation for $3,000. In 1891, a new twenty-eight-foot brick tower, with a new fourth-order lens, took the place of its crumbling predecessor. A 1,200-pound fog-bell and bell tower were installed. During construction, a temporary structure housed the light from April 25 to June 30, 1891.
Frank Davis was keeper in the 1920s when the schooner Tanzy Bitters caught fire. He rescued two badly burned men and brought them to his kitchen, where his wife tried to care from them while he hurried to Martha’s Vineyard to fetch the doctor. Although the men died, the doctor said he couldn’t have done more than Mrs. Davis had. On occasion, Mrs. Davis also tended the light.
The 30-foot fog bell tower at Tarpaulin Cove was destroyed in the great New England hurricane of September 21, 1938, and was not rebuilt.
Tolman Spencer, who had been keeper since 1928, resigned his position on September 4, 1941, when the light was automated and taken over by the Woods Hole Coast Guard. By 1958, the light was considered less important, and its candlepower was reduced from 7,500 to 700. The house and other structure deteriorated and were torn down in 1962. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern room in 1967, but today it is a modern optic that sends out a flashing white every six seconds, with a nine mile range.
In August 2001, a three-year effort by the Cuttyhunk Historical Society and the Naushon Trust to become caretakers of the Tarpaulin Cove Lighthouse won a twenty-five year license for the tower from the Coast Guard.
As Naushon Island is maintained in its rugged, natural state on a second 99-year lease from the government to the Forbes family of Boston, the public is not allowed to land on the island, and since no public cruises pass close to Tarpaulin Cove, viewing the lighthouse is difficult.
Located on the eastern side of Naushon Island, a privately owned island that lies between
Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and maintained by the Cuttyhunk Historical Society. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and maintained by the Cuttyhunk Historical Society. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.