|Clark's Point, MA|
Description: Oil has long been a valuable, highly sought after resource, both in the United States today and in Colonial America. However, in America’s early days, sperm whale oil, which burned clean and bright, was the preferred fuel, and by the 1860s the whalers of New Bedford led the world in its supply.
Rather than waiting for the U.S. government to erect a lighthouse to protect their valuable ships and cargo sailing from Buzzards Bay to New Bedford Harbor, local merchants joined forces in 1797 to construct a wooden beacon on Clark’s Point at the southern entrance to the harbor. Given the lucrative nature of the whaling business, their willingness to personally safeguard their investment was unsurprising. Whale oil prices did fluctuate, but by 1854, sperm whale oil would reach $3.84 per gallon, which in 2003 dollars would have been nearly $35 per gallon.
The first Clark’s Point Lighthouse burned down after approximately a year of use, and was replaced by a second lighthouse that was lit for the first time on October 12, 1799. To speed governmental approval and financial support of the lighthouse, on June 16, 1800, a 134-rod (2,200-square-foot) plot at the end of Clark’s Point was deeded for it. The frugal merchants’ lobbying efforts were rewarded shortly thereafter when on July 29, 1800, Congress voted to accept financial responsibility for the beacon and to appoint a keeper for it.
Congress then committed on March 16, 1804, to spend $2,500 to replace the beacon with a 38-foot-tall stone lighthouse. Upon raising the lighthouse frame into place, hungry laborers were rewarded with a celebratory 100-gallon pot of chowder. Once completed, the lighthouse sported a fixed white light at a focal plane of 50 feet.
The Light-House Board was organized in 1852. Prior to that date the light-houses were under the charge of various officers, sometimes the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, sometimes the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, and sometimes the Office of the secretary of the Treasury…. The records relative to light-houses which were turned over to the Light-House Board on its organization have been carefully preserved, but are exceedingly lacking as to the history of the early light-houses. The fact that very little can be found with regard to the light at Clarks Point is not singular.However, in addition to the Lighthouse Board, information has been preserved by local historical associations, libraries, and individuals.
An 1838 report by Inspector Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender, U.S.N. recommended that Clark’s Point Lighthouse should see a reduction to six properly cared for lamps, while noting that they were currently not receiving adequate attention. “I visited this light in the forenoon, and have good reason to think that fewer lamps, differently attended would afford equal light; one of the lamps was without a fountain, and appeared not to have been used the previous night. Two of the chimneys, or tube-glasses, were broken, and some of the others so much smoked as to show that they had been carelessly trimmed. The reflectors were not bright, and did not appear to have been recently cleaned.” He also wrote that the keeper lived in his own home, as no keeper’s dwelling was provided.
One of the keepers of the lighthouse was Henry M. Smith, a renowned wood carver who created elaborate figureheads for New Bedford ships. Smith used some of his woodworking skills to help complete a needed keeper’s dwelling in 1842.
During the 1850s the vessel that delivered supplies to New England lighthouses secretly transported a Negro slave woman and her two children, a boy and girl, to the Clark’s Point Lighthouse. The trio were sneaked into town from the lighthouse under the cover of darkness and provided with safe haven in New Bedford. The boy, Charlie, grew up there and became a well-known hack driver.
Recognizing the vulnerability of the unprotected New Bedford whaling fleet, in the late 1840s a joint local and national plan for a permanent military presence at New Bedford was developed. But it was not until September 24, 1857, that the U.S. government purchased the Edward Wing Howland farm on Clark’s Point so a fort could be constructed. New Bedford merchants must have tired of the long delay, because New Bedford Mayor Isaac C. Taber and the city council developed their own plans for self-defense.
Although the granite fort was already under construction, New Bedford’s Superintendent of Streets, Adolphus Ashley oversaw the construction of a temporary earthwork fort on Clark’s Point just west of the granite fort. Due to Mayor Taber’s keen involvement, the granite fort came to be known unofficially as “Fort Taber,” though the US Army never recognized this name.
Ironically, future Confederate General, Robert E. Lee was one of the fort’s planners and perhaps later played a hand in helping New Bedford realize its fears. Before the granite fort could be completed the Civil War broke out. Confederate ships patrolling Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay destroyed many local ships and whaling vessels caught on the open sea.
Although the threats brought by the Civil War ended in 1865, and the Clark Point Lighthouse continued to offer protection from the rocks, whalers were dealt an economic blow from yet another front. The decreasing number of whales lengthened the voyages that traversed the globe in pursuit of the leviathans to as many as three years, whereas in the late 1700s, whaling trips averaged about nine months. Rising demand and a reduced supply caused the cost of sperm whale oil to soar and spurred the drive for a more economical fuel. The net result was that kerosene would come to eliminate the need for whale oil. Even the Lighthouse Board was to convert all of its lights to kerosene.
As the seven-sided, granite fort grew it began to block the lighthouse’s beam, necessitating the relocation of the lantern room and keepers quarters to the top of Fort Taber in 1869. Lighthouse Board records indicate that: “A rectangular tower, 11x20 1/2 feet and 8 feet high, has been built in the northerly staircase tower of the fort adjoining the old site by flooring over the stone-work, carrying up the walls with wood-work, putting on a hipped roof covered with tinned iron, with a circular wooden parapet for the lantern, surrounded with an iron railing. To this the lantern, illuminating apparatus, and fixtures, were removed, and the light exhibited from its new position on the 15th of June last. Six panes lantern glass and an oil-cloth for lantern, a new cooking-stove, and wall paper for two rooms of dwelling, have been supplied. To obviate if possible the danger of breaking the lantern glass when heavy guns are fired in the fort, swing frames for two sides of the lantern are now being made. The old tower has not been torn down.”
By 1871, it had become apparent that the need for the fort had passed, and its construction was halted. Thus, the ingenious system designed to protect the light from the reverberations of the huge Rodman cannons located directly below it was never tested, as the great guns were never fired.
Amos C. Baker Jr. took over as keeper of Clark's Point Lighthouse in 1879, following in the footsteps of his father who has served there as keeper before him. Prior to becoming keeper, Amos C. Baker Jr. spent most of his life at sea, first as a 12-year-old cabin boy on the whaling ship Messenger, captained by his father, and later as the captain of his own vessel.
Clark Point Light was extinguished on April 30, 1898, after F. Hopkinton Smith completed the Butler Flats Lighthouse. After 23 years of service at Clark Point, Amos C. Baker Jr. transferred to Butler Flats, where his son, Charles A. Baker would serve as the assistant keeper. This made three generations of the Baker family who worked as lighthouse keepers in New Bedford. The abandoned 1804 tower stood near the fort until it was demolished in 1906.
The isolated location of the deserted lighthouse proved irresistible for vandals, who despite its early 1970s renovation burned and destroyed it again. As part of New Bedford’s noteworthy plan to restore three local lighthouses (including the Butler Flats and Palmer Island lights), the city relit the restored Clark Point Lighthouse on June 15, 2001 (the 132nd anniversary of the light’s first illumination).
Located at Clark's Point on the western side of the entrance to New
Bedford Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the City of New Bedford. Grounds open, lighthouse and fort closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of New Bedford. Grounds open, lighthouse and fort closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.