While Scituate’s small, protected harbor encouraged the growth of a notable fishing community, mudflats and shallow water made entering the harbor tricky. In 1807, the town’s selectmen were petitioned by Jesse Dunbar, a shipmaster, and other residents to construct a lighthouse, and in 1810, Congress appropriated $4,000 for the task.
Three men from nearby Hingman—Nathaniel Gill, Charles Gill, and Joseph Hammond Jr.—built the one-and-a-half-story house, the twenty-five-foot-tall, octagonal, split-granite-block tower, a twelve-by-eighteen-foot oil vault, and a well for $3,200. The trio managed to finish the work in September 1811, two months ahead of schedule, and Captain Simeon Bates was appointed first keeper that December. Captain Bates, his wife Rachel, and their nine children lived at the lighthouse, where Bates remained in charge until his death in 1834 at seventy years of age.
The Boston Mariner’s Society proposed that Scituate Light be eclipsed and some of its range obscured to differentiate it from the fixed Boston Light. Some sources say the light was first lit in September 1811, but a Notice to Mariners published in January 1812, gives the date as April 1, 1812. When Boston Light was eclipsed and Scituate was established as a fixed light, many mariners were dismayed.
On June 11, 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned and plundered a number of ships at Scituate. A few months later, Keeper Bates and most of his family were temporarily away from the light, leaving his twenty-one-year-old daughter Rebecca and her younger sister Abigail in charge, along with a younger brother. The girls were horrified to spy the British warship La Hogue anchored in the harbor along with redcoat-filled barges rowing toward shore. Hurriedly, they sent the boy running to warn Scituate Village.
Rebecca knew she could kill one or two of the British with a musket, but realized the others would retaliate on the village. And during the embargo, the town could scarcely stand to lose the two vessels at the wharf loaded with flour.
Rebecca told her sister to take up the drum and she’d grab her fife. “I was fond of military music and could play four tunes on the fife —Yankee Doodle was my masterpiece,” Rebecca said. The girls hastily took cover behind a dense stand of cedar trees, playing louder and louder hoping to deceive the British into believing an American militia was massing to meet them. The British withdrew, and thus the famous story of Scituate’s Army of Two was born. The fife played by Rebecca is still on display in the keeper’s house.
Records show the British ship La Hogue was at another location at the time, but research indicates the story is likely true; the sisters were simply confused about the name of the vessel. There are those who claim that even today the sound of the drum and fife can be heard in the wind and waves at Scituate.
In 1827, complaints from mariners led to the construction of a fifteen-foot-tall brick extension to the original granite tower and the installation of a new lantern room to increase visibility. Red bricks were mortared atop the existing granite blocks to add the needed height. After the addition, seven lamps and reflectors produced the fixed white light that shone from the lantern, while eight lights and reflectors produced a red light from windows fifteen feet lower in the tower. Red glass laid in front of the windows imparted the red characteristic.
In 1841, during the tenure of Keeper Ebenezer Osborne, Scituate Lighthouse was refitted with large plate glass and fourteen-inch reflectors. The tower retained its two lights, with eleven lamps producing a white light in the lantern room and four lamps, equipped with red glass chimneys, exhibiting a red light from two windows, fifteen feet below the lantern room.
When I.W.P Lewis visited Scituate Lighthouse in 1842, he noted that the light was confusing mariners:
Ships entering [Boston Harbor] with a northeast gale, if they fail of hitting the light-house channel by drifting to the southward, are often wrecked on the lee shore of Cohasset, where a dangerous reef extends about two miles to the northward, and is annually the scene of most heart-rending disasters. For a long series of years, petitions have been presented to Congress, from the citizens of Boston, for erecting a light-house on these dreadful rocks, but no action has ever yet been taken upon the subject. One of the causes of frequent shipwrecks on these rocks has been the light-house at Scituate, four miles to leeward of the reef, which has been repeatedly mistaken for Boston light, and thus caused the death of many a brave seaman and the loss of large amounts of property. Not a winter passes without one or more of these fearful accidents occurring. Notwithstanding this fact of the mistaken location of Scituate light (which is of no local importance whatever, standing at the entrance of an obscure harbor, which is dry at low water, and at high water, spring tides, only admits a draught of eight feet) has been notoriously public for years, and nine out of ten of the wrecks on Cohasset rocks attributed to its evil influence.
Lewis noted that the interior of the tower was “coated with ice in winter, and green mould in summer,” and Keeper Ebenezer Osborn had several additional complaints: “The lamps are Hemmenway’s patent, and nine out of the eleven are so much burnt, and so very leaky, that I have great difficulty in keeping them in order. I have to wedge up the glass holders with wood, to keep them in their places, and all the wick turnscrews leak in their sockets. The lantern vibrates so much in a gale of wind as to rattle the glass chimneys out of their places; the stove pipe from the lower light passes through the floor of the upper lantern, and has broken by its heat three panes of glass; the ventilator of the lantern will not traverse, and I am obliged to keep a long pole, on purpose to turn it round.” Besides this, the wooden stairs, platforms, and window frames in the tower were rotten, the dwelling was “a miserable, leaky, smoky, and uncomfortable tenement,” and the tide ebbed and flowed through its cellar. Minor repairs were made, but major reconstruction was not undertaken as plans were afoot to build a light on Minot’s Ledge. In August 1849, James Y. Bates, the grandson of Scituate’s first keeper, took charge of Scituate Lighthouse.
After the first Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was destroyed by a storm on April 16, 1851, Scituate regained temporary importance and received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1855, but when a sturdier Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was built of granite and then placed in operation on November 15, 1860, Scituate Lighthouse was discontinued. Scituate’s lantern room and Fresnel lens were removed, and the property was leased.
Half an hour before dawn on the morning of November 15, 1860, Richardson aroused his son…Hardly realizing what it was all about, and grumbling because of the early hour, the lad stumbled into his clothes and followed his father out through the covered way to the still lighted tower. As the first red streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky, the lad looked out at Minot’s Ledge Light, the successful rival of the old Scituate beacon, and a minute later put out forever the beacon which had guided Scituate sailors and fishermen into the harbor since 1811. That same evening Edward Richardson and his father silently watched Minot’s friendly glow flashing out across the water. The career of Scituate Light had ended.
On June 10, 1891, a light, in the form of an eight-day, ruby lantern supported by a mast, was established at the end of the breakwater extending south from Cedar Point. An 1890 newspaper article reported that for several years a small light had been hung in the discontinued Scituate Lighthouse to guide the local herring fishermen. In 1896, an iron spindle replaced the wooden mast used to support the breakwater light. Ice carried away the spindle in 1904, but it was promptly reset.
In 1916, Scituate residents appealed to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to spare the abandoned light station from public auction and then raised $4,000 to buy the light from the federal government. The sale of the lighthouse to the town was authorized by an act passed on June 28, 1916. In 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the proud town built a new lantern room atop the lighthouse, declaring that “a community is judged by the condition of its public buildings; therefore the lighthouse should be well kept and in pleasing looking condition.”
In 1968, a town meeting awarded Scituate Historical Society management of the lighthouse, and under the society’s stewardship, the tower was relighted in 1994 as a private navigational aid after 134 years of darkness. In 2004, the society discovered that the outer course of poor quality bricks used in the extension of the tower years earlier was badly deteriorated. With funds provided by the town, the outer layer of bricks was replaced in the fall of 2004, and the tower was repainted the following spring.
When Ruth Downton retired in 2008 after serving as a live-in caretaker of the lighthouse for twenty-two years, a search commenced for her replacement. Of the 100 applicants, thirty-six were interviewed. Potential keepers were asked such questions as, “Do you feel your furniture will be suited?” and “How would you use this opportunity?”
Scituate Historic Society selected the Gallagher family after Mr. Gallagher mentioned his plans to blog about their life in the lighthouse and to build a curriculum for visiting elementary school students. The residents of the keeper’s dwelling are not allowed to smoke nor have pets and must pay $900 a month, which goes directly to caring for the lighthouse. As the light is automated, the keeper must simply change a bulb every six months, but in addition he must put up the flag, hang a wreath, tend the flowers, update the message board, and fulfill other obligations. You can visit Gallagher’s blog here.
Head Keepers: Simeon Bates (1811 – 1834), Zeba Cushing (1834 – 1840), Ebenezer Osborne (1841 – 1849), James Y. Bates (1849 – 1851), Anthony Waterman (1851 – 1853), Alonzo Jones (1853 – 1856), Thomas Richardson (1856 – 1859), John E.O. Prouty (1900 – 1904), Henry F. Stubeck (1904), John F. Cushman (1904 – 1924).