|Mayo's Beach, MA|
Description: To visit Mayo’s Beach Light Station, first you must travel to Cape Cod in Massachusetts and go a little past Wellfleet Marina in Wellfleet Harbor to Mayo’s Beach, where you will find the privately owned, immaculately kept former keeper’s house and oil house nestled picturesquely amongst pink and white beach roses. Adjacent to the dwelling is a foundation ring that indicates where a lighthouse used to stand, but to see this tower you will need to travel approximately 3,000 miles west to Point Montara, California, near San Francisco, where the lighthouse was transplanted in 1928.
It was widely believed that the iron Mayo’s Beach tower had been razed in 1938. However, in 2008 lighthouse enthusiast Colleen MacNeney found a photograph of it at the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s office in Washington D.C. in a file for Point Montara Lighthouse. The picture was dated 1928 and inscribed, “This tower formerly used at Mayo Beach, 2d District.” While some heralded the discovery as “a journalistic scoop,” others on the West Coast, such as historian and lighthouse book author Ralph Shanks, did not view the news as a revelation. “It was no big surprise to me,” Shanks said. “I’d heard of this 20 years ago.”
Prior to the American Revolution, Wellfleet had been a major whaling port, but its importance declined after the British blockaded Cape Cod ports during the war. Some local men died on prison ships, and other families moved away. By 1835, the town had begun to recover, and Wellfleet’s Commercial Wharf was built. Local vessels shifted their focus in the mid-19th century from whales to mackerel fishing, and related onshore businesses began to flourish. After the railroad arrived in 1870, the harbor’s oysters took precedence, and they were shipped throughout New England. Thought to be named for the Wellfleet oyster beds near the River Crotch in Essex England, Wellfleet Harbor is a lovely sheltered harbor
In 1822, a lighthouse was built on Billingsgate Island to guide vessels into Wellfleet Harbor, but some felt another beacon was needed on Mayo’s Beach at the head of Wellfleet Bay, a few miles to the north, to direct mariners to the wharf. Congress appropriated $1,000 in 1837 and another $2,000 the following year for construction of Mayo’s Beach Lighthouse, but when Lieutenant Edward Carpender visited the area while the lighthouse was under construction, he saw little need for the light and tried to have the work stopped. “Some venerable old fishermen and pilots belonging to the place, whom I also consulted, declared their opinion openly and publicly against the light,” Carpender noted, “and elsewhere on the cape, when this light was mentioned, it raised a smile.” Carpender recommended that if the government completed the light, it should operate as a tide-light with a single lamp exhibited from one hour before high tide to one hour after to guide vessels over the flats.
Carpender’s recommendation was ignored, and instead, ten oil lamps backed by reflectors were employed in an octagonal lantern room, which was mounted atop a short tower on the roof of a brick keeper’s dwelling. In 1843, Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton, noting that the light was useful “to a few fishermen only, who could very well enter the port without it,” ordered that the ten lamps be reduced to three.
The original brick keeper’s dwelling had three rooms on the first floor and two on a small second floor. This style of lighthouse was convenient in that those who tended it were not forced to go out into the weather.
Although a salary of $350 per year was considered a good one, the first Mayo’s Beach keeper, Joseph Holbrook, must have felt the salary was not just compensation for the price he paid for living there.
“The very wretched manner in which this house was built renders it almost uninhabitable,” Holbrook wrote. “The walls always and the roof continually leak. In consequence of this and being compelled to use the water caught from the roof, which constitutes my only resource, two of my children have died and I solemnly protest entirely on account of the unhealthily conditions of the house and from using stagnant water of the cistern.”
“When it blows hard the lantern on the roof rattles and shakes so as to require my constant attendance to keep the light from being shaken out, breaking the tube glasses and spilling the oil. The whole weight of the lantern room where it rises from the roof causes numerous leaks therein by the manner in which it is shaken in the wind.”
Besides a few minor repairs, no significant improvements were made either to the dwelling or tower for many years until 1856, when a new Fresnel lens replaced the old oil lamps and reflectors.
Following Holbrook, William Newcomb Atwood took charge on April 1, 1865, also at $350 per year. A Wellfleet native, Atwood went to sea as a boy. In the 19th century it was common for boys as young as twelve years old to go to sea, frequently as a cook. After Atwood lost his arm during the Civil War at the Battle of Fredericksburg, he returned home and married Sarah Cleverly in 1863. No longer able to work aboard ships, he was given the post of keeper at Mayo’s Beach as compensation for his patriotic sacrifice. In 1876, his annual salary was increased to $500.
Upon William’s death, his widow, Sarah, with four small children to feed, applied for and was temporarily appointed the station’s first female keeper on July 8, 1876. By August 26 that year the job became permanent. Her appointment was likely influenced by the fact that tending Mayo’s Beach Light did not require going outside in foul weather.
By 1878 it was clear that the house and tower required replacement, and $8,000 was allocated for construction of a new dwelling and a detached cast-iron tower with an internal spiral staircase. The dwelling and tower were completed in 1881, at a nearby location, and a bulkhead was constructed around them for protection from the sea. The lantern exhibited a fixed white light that could be seen six miles away. Over the years, the tower would sport a variety of paint colors. A screen was built around the light to protect it from birds that crashed into the lantern with enough force to break the glass.
Despite the hardships of living at Mayo’s Beach, Sarah Atwood supported her family there for twenty-six years, until she resigned on May 7, 1891 and moved to East Commercial Street. At that point, James Smith assumed the role of keeper. In 1907, a brick oil house was added to store the volatile kerosene then used in the lantern.
The government finally accepted the argument that Mayo’s Beach Light was not necessary and decommissioned it on March 10, 1922. The government sold the property, along with the dwelling and oil house, to Captain Harry Capron at auction in 1923.
Many assumed that the tower was torn down in 1938. However, the Lighthouse Service, known for its frugal ways, simply unbolted the sections of the thirty-foot tall, cast-iron tower and sent it west, presumably aboard a seagoing buoy tender. It arrived at Yerba Buena Station in San Francisco Bay in 1927. From there, in about 1928, it was sent to Point Montara, which had been in need of a new tower since 1912.
When Wayne Wheeler, former president of the United States Lighthouse Society, was asked why no one seemed aware of the transfer, he replied, “Nobody asked.”
Located on Mayo Beach in Wellfleet Harbor. The dwelling is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling closed.
The dwelling is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.