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Billingsgate Lighthouse

1838 – Billingsgate light.—Fifteen miles from Barnstable along the western shore of Cape Cod, at the entrance to Wellfleet bay and harbor, stands Billingsgate light. This is a useful light to this navigation. It is larger, however, than is necessary. There are eight lamps in it, with 13 ½-inch reflectors, in two equal and parallel series. Race-point light is but 15 miles off; afterwards Provincetown-harbor light has to be passed; and if vessels come from the south shore, they can make but a short run before they arrive at this light, which is forty feet above the level of the sea. I doubt, not one of the present-series would be sufficient, but I shall recommend six lamps, suppressing two as entirely superfluous. The six to be compactly arranged to suit the navigation.
I visited this light in the afternoon, and found the keeper absent to a distance, without having first prepared his lamps, reflectors, and glass for the night. Indeed, the reflectors had the appearance of not having been burnished for some time.
Premises in sufficient order.
There is a rock to the eastward of this light, directly in the channel-way of the harbor, called Channel rock, which has damaged many vessels. Agreeably to the wishes of the people of Wellfleet, and in accordance with my own judgment, I recommend a buoy for this rock.
I was surprised to find a light-house building on Mayo's beach, at the head of this harbor, and wrote to you in hopes of arresting the work.
This harbor is but about four miles long, and, when vessels get within Billingsgate light, they are as safe as they can be in any part of the harbor. I inquired of the people of Wellfleet the necessity for this light, and the only advantages they promised themselves from it were, in running a straight course over the flats at high water, and “seeing the shore in winter when the snow was on the ground.” This harbor, as I am informed, is frozen over most of the winter, the sea not heaving in with sufficient violence to break up the ice after it is once formed; and when the tide will admit of a straight course being made up the harbor, it can as well be done by compass as by a light. At other times, the channel is too narrow and intricate to render a light of much use, except at intervals. Some venerable old fishermen and pilots belonging to the place, whom I also consulted, declared their opinion openly and publicly against the light; and elsewhere on the Cape, when this light was mentioned, it raised a smile. Should Government, however, continue of opinion that a light is necessary in this place, then I recommend it should be a tide-light, to consist of one lamp, to be lighted an hour before, and kept lit an hour after high water. But, according to my judgment, it should be entirely suppressed.

1838 – Billingsgate light to be reduced from 8 to 6 lamps, to be compactly arranged, so that all their light may be seen seaward. A buoy for Channel rock in this harbor.

1842 – I.W.P Lewis Report: The light-houses of Massachusetts are constructed of rubble stone, brick, or wood, the details being in all respects the same as those upon the coast of Maine. The same neglect of securing the foundations is common to all. This defect is most remarkable among the brick towers, as well as keepers’ houses, erected upon the sands of Cape Cod and other locations. The contractors have simply smoothed off the surface of the sand to a level and laid their brick-work thereon, without footings, platforms, or any preparation whatever. At Ipswich there are two brick towers, their bases being eight courses below the surface. On scraping away the sand, the base course of brick could be removed by hand, and the mortar had apparently never set. At Billingsgate island, the keeper stated, that, a few months after his dwelling-house was erected, (of brick laid on the sand, tower of wood on the roof,) the front wall fell entirely down, leaving the interior exposed to view. All the brick light-houses and keepers’ dwellings that were visited were of a similar character. The contractors, to save material, filled the interior of the walls with rubbish of various kinds.

1842 – I.W.P. Lewis Report
Billingsgate Island
Fixed light of eight lamps; established in 1822, rebuilt in 1834.
Condition of buildings.
A brick dwelling-house, with wooden tower upon the roof; brick work laid up in bad lime mortar; base walls resting on the surface of the sand; without and footing or foundation of any kind; roof shingled, leaky, rotten, and so open that the sand blows through to the inside of the house. This house was rebuilt above seven years ago, and, in consequence of erecting it without foundations, the entire front wall tumbled down, leaving the interior exposed to view. This defect was repaired, but the whole fabric bears the mark of hasty construction, bad materials, and worse design. The old lighthouse having been undermined by the sea, the present one was erected to replace it, and a bulkhead, of piles stuck five feet deep in the sand, cased inside with two-inch pine plank, was constructed around it, and named a breakwater. If the island should decay by the inroads of the sea, this breakwater would be dismembered at once.
The lantern is of the usual form and construction; contains eight very bad lamps, with 13-inch reflectors, arranged after the constant formula of two circular series, &c. and gives a dim uncertain light in the clearest weather.
Centre of the light is thirty-seven feet above the level of mean high water, and its reach should be 9.07 miles.
Location. On a low sand island, whose surface is barely three feet above high water level, at the mouth of Wellfleet harbor, Cape Cod bay. A very useful light to the navigators of this bay and harbor, but requires to be entirely rebuilt in a substantial manner and fitted with one lamp of a proper form, instead of eight now used. Formerly there were nine lamps here; one removed on account of it facing the door of the lantern, where it was placed by the contractor.
Statement of Abijah Gill, keeper of Billingsgate Island light, Wellfleet, September 23, 1842. I was appointed keeper of this light in 1830, upon a salary of $400 per annum. The light-house is a brick dwelling-house with the lantern erected upon the roof, and was built about seven years since by Mr. Bowker, acting as agent for Winslow Lewis. In consequence of erecting the light-house upon the sand without any foundations, the front brick wall of the house fell entirely down, and the whole structure was nearly demolished. This failure was repaired, but the house never has been, nor ever can be, made a good one. For I consider that the builder committed fraud upon the Government by the manner in which he did the work on this house. Whenever there is a storm, the sand flows through the roof, in addition to the leaks, which are all over the building. The lantern leaks all about the sashes. There are eight lamps; formerly there were nine; one was removed in consequence of its having been placed opposite the door of the lantern by the contractor. The lamps stand so far apart now as only to be seen in particular directions, while in others the light cannot be seen so far or so distinctly.
Abijah Gill, Keeper.

1842 – I.W.P. Lewis report - Barnstable and Wellfleet harbors are obscure, and only frequented by vessels owned at each place. A screw-pile beacon on the tail of Sandy Neck shoal, at the entrance of the former, and one on the extremity of Billingsgate Island shoal, at the entrance of the latter harbor, would be of the greatest utility to all the navigators of Cape Cod bay.

1850 – Billingsgate Island light-house. - 8 lamps; Francis Krogman, keeper; supplied July 31, 1850.
This establishment is nearly new, although built in part of the materials of the old light-house. The lantern is an old one, taken from the other house. Lighting apparatus is in good burning order, and clean. The island is washing away very fast. This is a new keeper, and the greatest consumer of oil that I am acquainted with.
Left July 27, 1849, 348 gallons. Received of superintendent, 121 gallons. 469 gallons. On hand 34 gallons.
435 gallons consumed in 369 days is equal to 430 gallons per year or 53 4/5 gallons per lamp.
Delivered 277 gallons spring oil, 125 gallons winter oil, 21 gallons on hand, for a total of 423 gallons.
25 tube glasses; 4 gross wicks; 20 yards cloth; 1 buff skin; 1 box tripoli; 1 box soap; 1 pair scissors; 7 burners, complete; 1 fountain; 1 oil-butt.
Spare lamps, in good order; these are the old kind of lamps.

1853 – BOSTON, November 9, 1853.
SIR: In compliance with the circular of the Light-house board of the 1st September, I would suggest that an appropriation of $30,000 be asked for towards the erection of a first-class lens light-house at Gayhead, (Martha's vineyard,) and for the erection of a new tower for a second-class lens light at Brant point, Nantucket, $15,000.
The board is fully aware of the necessity of the immediate erection of the proposed light at Gayhead. The frame of the light-tower at Brant point is so completely rotted as to require reconstruction with the least possible delay; and believing it to be the wise policy of the board to make all its future constructions permanent, I have asked the above amount for the tower. The dwelling-house is much decayed, but has a nearly new roof and weather-boarding on it, and may last for some years yet.
The beach south of Long Point light, Provincetown harbor, has worn away considerably on the east side, and made some on the west, since the survey of Major Graham; but as the progress of the change appears to be slow, I would rather watch it another year than recommend an appropriation for its preservation at present.
Billingsgate island, Wellsfleet bay, requires protection. There has been expenditures made for this object sometime heretofore; but, from the present appearance of the work, I cannot trace the design of the particular object sought to be obtained beyond that of the immediate protection of the house. The work, however, appears to have been left in an unfinished state, and wherever large rocks have been left, there has been an accumulation of sand and a partial increase of the shore. I therefore propose, during the next year, to properly arrange the loose stone that are now there, and procure enough more to make the island secure; for which I ask for an appropriation of $2,000.
I consider the protection of this island and light of the first importance, as it is the only harbor of refuge from a southeast gale in Cape Cod bay for vessels that have been unable to make Provincetown harbor.
Recapitulation of appropriations asked for new works:
Light-tower at Gayhead ..... $30,000
Light tower at Brant point ..... 15,000
Preservation of Billingsgate island .... 2,000
Respectfully submitted,
C. A. OGDEN, Major Topographical Engineers.

Secretary Light-house Board, Washington.

1855 – Keeper Elisha Cobb $400

1855 – Preservation of the site of Billingsgate Island light-house.—The repairs at this place during the last year were carried away by a gale during the winter, and the balance on hand will hardly be sufficient to preserve the light-house during the present winter.
The previous history of this island would indicate that it would be better and cheaper to build a new light-house on screw-piles, than to make further attempts to secure the permanency of the present site. I therefore ask an appropriation of $14,000 for that purpose.

1857 – The rebuilding of Billingsgate Island light-house has been commenced. It will probably be finished this season.

1858 – The rebuilding of Billingsgate Island light-house, commenced in August, 1857, is finished, and the new light was lighted for the first time on September 1, 1858.

1863 – Billingsgate island, cistern renewed and general repairs made;

1868 – Billingsgate.—Plank platforms around the buildings renewed with joists and planks; walk from dwelling to landing relaid; arch turned over top of kitchen chimney; roof of shed patched; tower stairs, pedestal, &c, painted; stove fixtures, lamp heater, supplied.

1869 – Billingsgate Island.—The illuminating apparatus and fixtures have been overhauled, two lamps fitted with cups and plugs, and burners retubed. Repairs, pointing and painting of brick walls of dwelling and tower, repainting of trimmings, window blinds, and tower stairs, resetting of glass panel in front door, and re topping chimneys, are in progress. The walls of the dwelling have settled slightly, and it is feared that a firm foundation was not secured in the sand upon which the station is located.

1870 – Billingsgate Island, entrance to Wellfleet Bay, Massachusetts.— During the month of March last the sea broke through the beach on the northwesterly point of the island and flooded a part of the light-house lot, but there has been no recurrence, and no immediate danger to the structure is apprehended.

1888 – Billingsgate Island, entrance to Wellfleet Bay, Massachusetts.—The sea is rapidly encroaching upon this island and threatens the early submergence of the station. The beach was resurveyed and a contract was made for building and finishing by October 31, 1888, brash and stone jetties for its protection.

1889 – Billingsgate Island, entrance to Wellfleet Bay, Massachusetts.—Some 560 feet of plank bulk-head and 585 feet of jetties of timber, brush, and stones were built by contract for the protection of the light-house site. The continued encroachment of the sea upon the easterly end of the bulkheads and jetties threatened to extend behind and destroy them. This encroachment was arrested by altering the direction of and extending the bulk-head and jetties respectively 100 feet and 80 feet, and protecting the beach with brush mattresses. The deposit of sand has nearly filled the spaces between many of the jetties, which seem to be accomplishing the purpose for which they were constructed.

1891 – Billingsgate Island, entrance to Wellfleet Bay. Massachusetts.—The plank bulkhead and jetties of brush and stone, built in 1888 to arrest the rapid encroachment of the sea upon the light-house site, which threatened to soon reach the structure itself, were exceptionally efficacious, and the entire works are now buried in the sand which they have accumulated.

1899 – Billingsgate Island, west side of and near the entrance to Wellfleet Harbor, Massachusetts.—A brick cistern was built, and ventilator cut through the stone underpinning of the oil room. Various repairs were made.

1903 – Billingsgate Island, near entrance to Wellfleet Harbor, Massachusetts.—A bulkhead 35 feet long was built to protect the site from the sea. Minor repairs were made.

1904 – Billingsgate Island, entrance to Wellfleet Harbor, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.—An outside course of bricks was built around the light-tower, a brick oil house built, and the dwelling repaired.

1905 – Billingsgate Island, near entrance to Well feet Harbor, Massachusetts.—About 500 running feet of sand-catching bulkheads were built.

1907 – Billingsgate Island, near the entrance to Wellfleet Harbor, Massachusetts.—A boathouse was built and various repairs were made.

1913 – Illuminant was changed from oil to acetylene sometime between July 1912 and June 1913. The light was likely automated at this time and the service of a keeper discontinued.

1915 – Illuminating apparatus was removed from Billingsgate Island Lighthouse and a new light was established 400 feet southward.

1916 – January 16, 1916: Ralph H. Goddard, lighthouse inspector at Boston, Mass., and William G. Remsen, first officer of the tender Mayflower, have been commended by Secretary of Commerce Redfield fro bravery and meritorious service in removing the lighting apparatus at Billingsgate Island light station, Mass., to a safe position after the old tower had been damaged by storms. In his ltter the Secretary says: “The department notes with special gratification that the light was exhibited every night as usual without discontinuance.”

1931 – Billingsgate Light in Wellfleet Harbor, Cape Cod Bay, Mass., has just been established. But back of this matter-of-fact announcement is 190 years of history, the first Billingsgate Light having been built upon this small island in 1822. The first light, which aided the local fishermen to safely reach port, was an arrangement of eight oil lamps with crude reflectors. This was long before lenses had been introduced into lighthouse work in this country.
Old Billingsgate Light saw occasional improvements, both in the buildings and in the lighting equipment. It consisted of a neat brick dwelling for the keeper, and an attached square brick tower topped by a lantern. In 1915 the sea had begun to seriously undermine the foundations of the tower and it was not long before it threatened to collapse altogether, having a decided list to it. The tower was secured with ropes, while men ascended it to remove the lens and lighting apparatus, after which it was abandoned and later sold.
Despite the abandonment of the tower, Billingsgate continued to shine forth each night. One night it was displayed from the cupola of a private house, and on the next night from a temporary structure.
The light remained from this time on as an unwatched light, and a dwelling was never again erected. In 1922, just 100 years after it was first established, Billingsgate Light was discontinued and the structure removed. The new structure is on the same small island and has been erected in response to the requests of shipping in the vicinity.

Keepers: Michael Collins (at least 1823 – at least 1829), Abijah Gill (1830 – 1847), Elisha Cobb (1847 – 1849), Francis Kroginan, Jr. (1849 – 1853), Elisha Cobb (1853 – 1861), Thomas R. Paine (1861 – 1869), Thomas J. Paine (1869 – 1872), Herman S. Dill (1872 – 1876), Thomas K. Paine (1876 – 1884), Ira W. Ingalls (1884 – 1892), James P. Smith (1892 – 1899), Axel Stone (1899 – 1900), Albert L. Whitten (1900 – 1902), George W. Bailey (1902 – 1910), Manuel A. Francis (1910 – at least 1912).

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