The Gurnet, a twenty-seven-acre peninsula forming the northern boundary of Plymouth Bay, is located 3.8 nautical miles northeast of Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims knew the land as “the gurnett’s nose,” apparently naming the area for similar headlands in the English Channel, where the gurnet fish flourished along Devonshire’s shores. Along with its cold, protected waters rich in sea life, the Pilgrims and other earlier settlers may have been drawn by its wild beauty. Springtime finds the crisp salt air scented by beach rose, pine, and cedar, dune grass sways in the breeze, light plays off the water onto the pebbled shore, and new plants gleam like emeralds.
The Gurnet became part of Plymouth on January 7, 1638. By the 1770s, seventy-five fishing vessels were based in the area, and at one point, nearby Duxbury was one of the world’s leading shipbuilding centers.
Under the direction of the Massachusetts Legislature, the first Plymouth Lighthouse, a wooden keeper’s dwelling measuring fifteen by thirty feet and equipped with a lantern at each end of its roof, was completed in September 1768 at a cost of £660. The twin lights, exhibited at a height of eighty-six feet above the sea, distinguished the station from the single light used at Boston.
The lighthouse was built on land rented for five shillings a year from John and Hannah Thomas. John, a surgeon, was hired as the first keeper and served until he joined the Continental Army. He recruited a regiment of volunteers from Plymouth County to help repel the British in the Siege of Boston, and then as a major general led troops in Quebec, where he died of small pox on June 2, 1776. Along with raising their three children, Hannah took over John’s lighthouse post, making her the first female lighthouse keeper in America.
In 1776, after Fort Andrew was erected at Gurnet Point, the H.M.S. Niger reportedly sailed around the Gurnet toward Plymouth Harbor, exchanging fire with the fort’s six-cannon battery and, many believe, destroying one of the lighthouse beacons in the process. At least one local historian, Richard Boonisar, disputes that that event ever took place, but it is known that for strategic reasons the lighthouse was not lit during a portion of the war, although the exact dates are unclear.
Plymouth’s worst shipwreck occurred in 1778, when the American privateer General Arnold was trapped in a blizzard less than a mile from Plymouth Light. Choosing to forego the risk of entering Plymouth’s inner harbor without a pilot, the captain dropped anchor and hoped to ride out the storm. As the gale rose to hurricane force, the vessel drug anchor and ran aground on White Flats. Before residents of the Gurnet could construct a causeway over the ice to reach the stranded vessel, seventy-two of the vessel’s crew of just over a hundred froze to death in view of the light.
After the Revolutionary War, the lighthouse was refurbished and put back in service with Hannah Thomas as keeper. Hannah hired Nathaniel Burgess to serve as keeper in 1786, and that same year a coasting sloop traveling from Boston to Plymouth struck a sand bar near the Gurnet. Two of the seamen from the vessel trudged seven miles through a bitter snowstorm to reach Gurnet Lighthouse. Keeper Burgess fed and warmed them beside the fire, dispatching his assistant, possibly Hannah’s son John, to bring in the rest of the crew.
In 1790, the light was ceded to the U.S. government, and John Thomas took over as keeper. His salary of $200 per annum was lower than at other lighthouses because the Gurnet was deemed an acceptable place to live with ample fishing and land with good soil to garden. Keepers at less hospitable locations, such as Thatcher Island or Boston Light, earned $266.67.
Joseph “Uncle Joe” Burgess, son of former keeper Nathaniel, took over on October 16, 1812, and remained in charge until 1851. According to an 1896 article, Uncle Joe faced a tragedy at the station. When his sixteen-year-old daughter Eunice fell in love with a soldier at the nearby fort, Burgess refused permission for her to wed. The depressed girl leapt to her death near the light from a great rock, known afterward as “Lover’s Rock.”
Lt. Edward W. Carpender’s 1838 report noted a number of complaints of the lights blending and appearing as one caused by the distance between the lights being too small. Carpender suggested that a single new tower, fifty feet tall, be constructed that would display two lights, one in a lantern room atop the tower and a second from a lantern attached fifteen feet up the tower. This perpendicular arrangement, as opposed to the two horizontal lights, would prevent the lights from merging into one. Carpender also proposed that the wooden keeper’s dwelling be replaced with one of brick or stone, but neither of his recommendations was enacted. At the time of Carpender’s visit, six lamps, set in eight-and-a-half-inch reflectors, were being used to produce a fixed white light in each of the towers.
In a letter to the Chairman of the Committee of Commerce dated April 27, 1842, Stephen Pleasonton, the man responsible for all U.S. lighthouses, noted that for several years he had requested funds to rebuild the Plymouth Lights, which were “in so decayed a state as to be unworthy of repair.” Pleasonton’s fear that the towers would “fall to the ground in the course of the summer,” must have prompted quick action, as funds were soon made available and work on two new octagonal twin towers and a spacious keeper’s dwelling commenced later that same year. The spacing between the lights was increased by just one foot, so not surprisingly, more complaints about the lights appearing as one were received.
In 1871, the Lighthouse Board noted that the sixth-order lights, installed in the lantern rooms in 1856, were “entirely too small” and could “readily mistaken for the lights in a dwelling house, when they can be seen at all.” Installing fourth-order lights was recommended along with increasing the distance between the towers. Though fourth-order lenses were installed in the tower’s lantern rooms by 1879, attempts to rectify the spacing problem failed due to difficulties in obtaining another site.
Visitors were allowed at the station for two hours each day, except Sundays and holidays. An article from 1904 chronicles one such visit, during which Arthur Hewitt observed Keeper Willis Higgins cleaning one of the lanterns and fishing. Hewitt wanted to take a picture of Higgins in his “knockabout clothes,” which the keeper called his “undress uniform,” but Higgins refused and donned his full lighthouse keeper uniform, saying that he was an officer of the U.S. Government Lighthouse Establishment and wanted to be recognized as such.
A 1,500-pound fog bell, mounted on a wooden, pyramidal tower and tolled by a striking machine, was established at the station in 1907. Two years later, a first-class Daboll trumpet became the station’s fog signal, sounding a three-second blast every fifteen seconds, but the bell was kept at a back-up in case the foghorn was disabled. The position of assistant keeper was added to the station in 1909 to help with the extra workload required to operate the fog signal, and the keeper’s dwelling was expanded to create a duplex.
On November 28, 1920, the minesweeper USS Swan was trying to refloat a wrecked oil barge in Cape Cod Bay, when heavy seas came up quickly and drove the vessel on the beach near Plymouth Lighthouse. William L. Anderson, Jr. was serving as head keeper at the time, with Gerald M. Reed as his assistant, and the two helped the Gurnet Beach Coast Guard bring all fifty-six sailors aboard the minesweeper to shore using a breeches buoy and surfboat. The minesweeper survived most of the winter on the beach before being refloated on February 22, 1921. The USS Swan was in port at Pearl Harbor during the attack which drew the United States into World War II. Not long after helping rescue the sailors, Keepers Anderson and Reed served as impromptu firemen in extinguishing a fire in a cottage near the station.
In 1924, the northeast lighthouse was torn down, and a revolving beacon was installed in the remaining tower to produce a unique flashing characteristic of one flash alternating with a group of two flashes every twenty seconds. The remaining tower is the oldest wooden lighthouse tower in the United States, not including a couple of small towers built on the roofs of keepers’ houses (Rhode Island’s Poplar Point Lighthouse and New York’s Selkirk Lighthouse).
While life for lighthouse families could be arduous and challenging, it could also be filled with fun, adventure, and beauty.
In 1925, Frank Allen Davis transferred from Tarpaulin Cove with his wife Olive and their three children. Olive would drive the children to school every day in a Model T, always carrying a special wrench to tighten belts that slipped because of the sand. She also had the duty of raising storm-warning flags for which she was paid $11 monthly by the Federal Government. The Davis’ son Frank Arthur became a licensed lobsterman by age nine, and by ten had his own boat and hauled his own traps. He loved his life, later comparing himself to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
Keeper Davis was acknowledged in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin for rescuing two men in August 1929 who were marooned on an overturned sailboat in Duxbury Bay. Roughly a month later, Davis went to the assistance of a motorboat, which grounded on Browns Bank with several people on board.
In 1963, the old keepers house was destroyed and a new ranch house built for the Coast Guard crew. It was the only place on the peninsula that had electricity around the clock. During the 1960s and 1970s, residents would drop by to do their laundry, watch TV, and use the telephone. The station was their “connection” with the world, which is why they objected in the 1980s when plans were announced to automate the station and remove the personnel. On October 1, 1986, a modern beacon replaced the historic fourth-order Fresnel lens, and the station was automated.
The lighthouse was leased to the Massachusetts Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society in 1989. Volunteer caretakers lived on-site, and overnight stays were offered to the public by the organization, but the lease later reverted to the Coast Guard. With cliff erosion threatening, the tower was moved about 140 feet to the north in 1998 and rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise. The fog signal/generator building had to be abandoned years earlier due to erosion of the bluff.
In 1999, a lease on Plymouth Lighthouse was granted to Project Bug Light, which had been caring for Duxbury Pier Lighthouse since 1983. The organization changed its name to Project Gurnet & Bug Lights, Inc. in 2000 to reflect its expanded role. Occasional open houses are held at the lighthouse to allow the public to visit the site, which is otherwise off-limits to the public.
In May 2023, the General Services Administration offered Plymouth (Gurnet) Lighthouse at no cost to eligible entities defined as federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies or community development organizations for educational, park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes. Qualified entities were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest.
Paul Christian has provided the following gallery of historic Plymouth Lighthouse pictures. Several of the pictures show both of the towers, and Paul's uncle Bill, who grew up next to the lighthouse, is included in one photograph.