|Cleveland Ledge, MA|
Description: The beautiful, white lighthouse at Cleveland Ledge is a rare example of an Art Moderne light—the only one of its kind in New England, as well as New England’s very last commissioned light—yet for three years the government was unable to give it away.
Roughly two miles from the nearest shore, Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse rests atop Cleveland Ledge on the eastern side of the southern entrance to the channel approaching Cape Cod Canal. The ledge owes its name to President Grover Cleveland, who, following his second election in 1892, established the first “summer White House” at the nearby Grey Gables mansion at Bourne. The vacationing president would often spend time fishing in Buzzards Bay near the ledge. While Grey Gables was unfortunately destroyed in a suspicious fire in 1974, there is still hope for the lighthouse, as it was sold to a private owner in 2010.
Simply for the cost of maintenance, any federal, state or local agency or a nonprofit, such as a historical society or educational group, could have claimed ownership of the lighthouse under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. However, there was a catch.
Since the Coast Guard performed three weeks of renovation in 1990, very little work has been done on the structure. James Walker, president of the Cape Cod chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, said whoever takes over the lighthouse would “need deep pockets” for renovation.
Perhaps this is why when Cleveland Ledge Light was first made available in summer 2007, the Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse Foundation "proceeded to the application phase but withdrew its application in 2009," according to Patrick Sclafani, a spokesman for the Government Services Agency, New England region. A second Notice of Availability was therefore issued for Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse on June 1, 2010, giving parties sixty days to submit a letter of interest. With no interested qualifying parties, the lighthouse was put on the public auction block that October.
With “a lot of money and a dedicated individual” Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse could be made suitable for visitors, Walker said. It can be a very pleasant place, but perhaps not as a place to live, because it remains an active guide to navigation with a 190-millimeter optic flashing white every ten seconds and an automated fog horn that can sound every fifteen seconds in foul weather.
The Cape Cod Canal, an artificial waterway that connects Buzzard Bay with Cape Cod Bay, was completed in 1916. After a German U-boat shelled a tug near the canal during World War I, the government assumed jurisdiction over the then private operation. The United States Corps of Engineers soon re-dredged the canal to a depth of twenty-five feet, and then in 1928 the government purchased the canal for $11,400,000 and began operating it as a free public waterway. Between 1935 and 1940, $21 million was spent increasing the width of the canal to 480 feet and its depth to thirty-two feet. These improvements made the canal a viable shortcut for vessels of all sizes and prompted the need for a light to mark Cleveland Ledge and the southern entrance to the canal.
A $198,851 contract for the construction of Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse was awarded to the J. F. Fitzgerald Company of Boston. The tower’s iron caisson foundation was made in New London, Connecticut and towed to its home by commercial tugs, aided by the Coast Guard ship Pequot, during a for nineteen-hour period on October 7, 1940. The fifty-two-foot-tall caisson was sunk into the ledge in twenty-one feet of water.
As WWII continued to escalate overseas, the decision was made to transfer the lighthouse to the government in September 1941 before its completion. The light, foghorn, and radio equipment had only recently been installed. After the United States entered the war, materials needed to complete the lighthouse grew scarce, and Cleveland Ledge Light was not put into service until June 1, 1943.
The top of the 52-foot-in-diameter caisson serves as the base for a two-story, reinforced concrete building. The first level of this structure is circular with eight distinct faces that feature a door or window. The second level is a cross-shaped structure stacked on the first level, with windows placed on each end of the cross. The first and second levels served as living and work quarters, and below the main deck were located the engine room, fuel tanks, and four water tanks that could hold 4,800 gallons. Atop the cross-shaped second level, a cylindrical, concrete light tower rises another fifty feet. The tower’s lantern room originally held a fourth-order Fresnel lens.
Just over a year after being commissioned, the new light would face the grueling test of the Great Atlantic Hurricane. Powerful winds first drove waves into the lighthouse from the southeast, before shifting not long after midnight to the southwest and taking out the glass block skylight on that side of the building. Immediately, tons of water flooded into the lighthouse.
Lieutenant Olie P. Swenson and his eight-man team sped into action. Down in the engine room they grabbed pails and began to bail, throwing water into the porcelain laundry tub as fast as they were able, with each wave bringing more water crashing in from overhead. Some of the men tried to block the hole, but were tossed about by the force of the waves. The water continued to rise, taking out electrical appliances with a flash as they short circuited one by one. By the time the men were finally able to build a barricade of mattresses, oil drums, and wooden boards to block the hole, water was barely two inches below the top of the batteries,
The nine men, accompanied by their truly frightened wire-hair terrier, lost their radio and telephone, but managed to keep the light burning despite waves nearly forty feet over the high water mark.
“Every member of the crew will frankly admit today that he was surprised and, to put it mildly, gratified that the hitherto untried cement and steel structure withstood the storm,” a newspaper reported. “All had misgivings about their immediate futures at one time or another throughout the night, and during those hectic, fearful hours during which they alternately hoped and prayed that the next wave wouldn’t be the one to bowl them into the sea.”
Jim Walker was on the lighthouse in April of 1963 when the USS Thresher sunk 220 miles off Cape Cod. The Navy dispatched several vessels to search for the Thresher, and one night, not long after the accident, the crew aboard the lighthouse received a call from the Corps of Engineers warning that a nuclear submarine was headed directly toward them. The crew scurried out to the rail and could see the red and green lights of the submarine bearing down on them. Just before reaching the lighthouse, the submarine turned, but the experience left the crew a bit shaken.
The lighthouse’s interior was described as “spit and polish spotless” and as “warm as toast” from the large oil furnace in an article written in December 1967. The four men who worked the station at that time had a lounge with a small television, a gallery, lavatory, and sleeping quarters. They worked for two weeks, then had one week off. Supplies were hauled up to the lighthouse in a sling from the Woods Hole Coast Guard patrol boat that came by weekly.
In 1978, an underwater cable was laid to supply power to automate Cleveland Ledge Light. The Coast Guard crew was removed in September, and the lighthouse sealed.
In the 1960s, James M. Howe of North Falmouth would often visit the Coast Guard keepers at Cleveland Ledge with his two brothers. The boys would supply the keepers with newspapers and were recruited to help with painting and repairs at the station. With these memories as inspiration, Howe obtained a lease for the lighthouse in 2005, but passed away in December of that year.
In October of 2010, the General Services Administration opened an auction for the lighthouse seeking an individual inspired to pay for and then look after Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse. After a bidder codenamed “OldSalt2” bid $10,000 for the lighthouse on October 13, three other bidders engaged in a bidding war that eventually ended on December 14, when “hadley” placed the winning bid of $190,000.
The winning bidder was later identified as Sandy Boyd of Emeryville, California who owns a dozen or so coffeehouses on the West Coast. As of 2012, Mr. Boyd was going through the permitting process to convert the lighthouse into a vacation home. Mr. Boyd spends summers in Nantucket, and his father was captain of the submarine USS Permit, so he is familiar with Massachusetts and things nautical. After renovations, the lighthouse may even be opened up to “lighthouse junkies” for overnight stays.
Located in open water near the northern end of Buzzards Bay. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Frederick Medina, used by permission.