On February 5, 1784, the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a resolution providing for a lighthouse to be built at Sandy Point. A wooden tower was quickly built and the station was activated that October with Captain Paul Pinkham, a former whaler and author of a chart of the shoals of Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds, as keeper. Since there was initially no keeper’s dwelling, Pinkham was forced to travel seven miles back and forth along the barrier beach to reach the lighthouse. He was initially paid a salary of $166.66 per year, but that was soon increased due to the unusual hardship of serving at the station. After three years of this routine, a residence was finally built at the station, much to the keeper’s relief.
Pinkham was the first person to accurately map the dangerous shoals near the station, which was an invaluable aid to mariners traversing the area. When Pinkham died in 1799, George Swain took over keeper’s duties and served until 1812, when Jonathan Coffin was made keeper. Shortly after Coffin arrived at the station, the keeper’s house burned down, forcing him to resume the tradition of a long daily commute to the lighthouse. Coffin asked for and received a pay raise due to his hardship. Then, in 1816 a fire of suspicious origin destroyed the original wooden tower. Winslow Lewis visited the site and stated, “It can hardly admit of a doubt…that the Lighthouse…was purposely set on fire.” The actual cause of the fire was never proven.
Because of the lighthouse’s importance, $7,500 was quickly approved to build a new tower, and a temporary light was displayed on the point in the form of lantern with a diameter of three-and-a-half feet that was hoisted on a triangle. A sixty-foot-tall whitewashed stone tower was completed in 1818, whose lamps were visible up to twelve miles away. A replacement for the burned keeper’s house – a stone structure with a covered walkway connecting it to the tower – wasn’t finished until 1825
Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender, writing in the 1838 Lighthouse Board Report, showed concern over some of Keeper Caleb Cushman’s practices:
This light is 70 feet above the level of the sea, in a stone tower 60 feet high. It consists of 14 lamps, 3 with fifteen and 11 with sixteen-inch reflectors, arranged in the usual way, in two circles parallel to each other and to the horizon. The keeper has removed 7 lamps from the chandelier, and placed them on a shelf against the window, on the familiar principle of doing the same when we would throw a light into the yard. I confess the lamps against the window seemed to show with more power than those back among the chandelier near the centre of the lantern. The principle advantage he hopes to derive from this arrangement is in the prevention of frost on the glass by the heat of the lamps. The objection to this plan is, that the attendant, standing in the centre of the lantern, will have the reflectors between him and the light. If he should have trimmed the lamp too much or too little, he may not discover his mistake before leaving the lantern; whereas, now, he passes around the lamps, in view of them, and may readjust any that happen to smoke or do not burn sufficiently high.
This light is one of the highest importance to our coasting trade, placed as it is at the entrance of a great thoroughfare, celebrated among seamen for the intricacy and danger of its navigation No establishment on our coast requires a more efficient light, and not one save Monamoy, on the opposite side of the same channel, is in so bad condition in respect to the illuminating apparatus and effects produced by it; nor is there any thing by which a stranger can distinguish one from the other, both being fixed lights, both located on flat sand beaches, and both environed with shoals and currents of the most dangerous and deceptive character.
Improvements finally came in 1857, when a third-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors, the tower was lined with brick and equipped with an iron staircase, and a dwelling was built for an assistant keeper. Despite the powerful new optic, many ships still ran into trouble in the area. A journal kept at Great Point Lighthouse between 1863 and 1890 shows forty-three shipwrecks during that twenty-seven-year period. The biggest problem was that mariners had trouble distinguishing the lighthouse from two nearby lightships, the Cross Rip and the Handkerchief.
In September 1866, the schooner Leesburg ran aground on Great Point Rip. In an interview with Captain Smith of the vessel, Keeper George F. Coggeshall asked, “How came you on the Rip?” The captain’s reply was, “I mistook the light for the lightship.” The keeper then asked, “What kind of a light was there?” When the captain said, “As good a light as ever was anywhere,” Keeper Coggeshall ended his questioning, reassured that his lighthouse was not at fault.
But the shipwrecks continued. Less than a month later, on October 4, 1866, Captain Samuel Thompson mistook Great Point Lighthouse for Handkerchief lightship and ran his ship, the Storm Castle, onto the rocks. The 1888 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board notes “Orders have been given that a red cut be placed in this light to cover Cross Rip Shoal.” The added red sector largely took care of the mistaken identity problem, and the number of shipwrecks decreased.
Mineral Oil replaced lard oil as the illuminant for Great Point Lighthouse in August 1882. In 1889, the station’s old double-dwelling was demolished and atop its foundation was built a new frame double-dwelling, measuring thirty-seven by twenty-seven feet and having an ell measuring twenty-seven by sixteen feet.
Henry L. Thomas was serving as head keeper of Great Point Lighthouse during World War I, when keepers were urged to cultivate more food to help the war effort. During the summer of 1917, Keeper Thomas raised potatoes of a good quality in the beach sand near the lighthouse, as there was no soil in the vicinity, and his success was published in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin “for the benefit of other employees similarly situated.” Also during 1917, Keeper Thomas and Charles Stoll, his assistant, assisted to shore the eight crewmembers of the disabled steamer A.T. Serrell that was caught in ice pack and quartered them at the lighthouse until the arrival of the Coast Guard.
On the morning of September 23, 1931, the fishing vessel Elizabeth M. Foley caught fire about two miles off Great Point and shortly thereafter its fuel tanks exploded. The crew of the vessel hastily put off in a dory, but this small craft was soon foundering. Fortunately, Keeper Theodore Chase and Otis Walsh, his assistant, were alerted to the accident and arrived on scene in the station’s boat in time to rescue the crew. The shipwrecked men were taken to Great Point Lighthouse where they were lodged and fed.
Archford Vernon Hasksis served from 1937 to 1944 as the final principal keeper at Great Point before Coast Guard crews were stationed at the lighthouse. One of his daughters, Jeanette Haskins Killen, shared the following with author Edward Rowe Snow about her time at Great Point Lighthouse.
I always loved storms and still do. The storms there were beautiful. The wind swept along the dunes and at the top of the house, but never came low in our little valley. I used to love to walk in the brisk wind along the beach and feel the sting of the sand.
It is strange how I feel about God, too. Living as I have has influenced my belief. We have never had a chance to attend church regularly, but when I look at all the beautiful things of nature I feel my religion lies there. I feel that such a service as the lighthouse has something to do with God. When men are lost at sea most of them pray for a light and when the light is seen it might be a beacon guiding these men back to shore and life. When I light the light (which I do sometimes), I feel as if I am believing and helping God.
Through the 1970s and ‘80s, erosion brought the tower closer and closer to the water. Although the Coast Guard repainted and refurbished the tower in 1983, no action was taken to actually move it away from the water, something that had been discussed. Then on March 29, 1984 a hurricane-force storm toppled the lighthouse and cut through the barrier beach, leaving the remains of the tower on an island.
The Coast Guard planned to replace the lighthouse with a white, British-made, fiberglass tower that had been serving at Deer Island Lighthouse in Boston Harbor for a couple of years. Fog made the white tower difficult to see at Deer Island so a brown tower was being erected in its place. Residents of Nantucket successfully nixed the thought of replacing their historic stone tower with a modern fiberglass structure, and instead, the influence of the powerful Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy was called upon to secure two million dollars in federal money for rebuilding the Great Point Lighthouse three hundred yards from its former location. The new tower, built of reinforced concrete with a rubblestone exterior that includes some material from the 1818 tower, was dedicated on September 7, 1986 with Senator Kennedy raising a flag, smashing a bottle of champagne against the lighthouse, and declaring “Great Point is alive and well again.”
The new tower was built by Hydro-Dredge of New Bedford with assistance from Rosado and Sons of Boston, and it remains an active aid to navigation, showing a white light flashing every five seconds. Surplus funds were used to rehabilitate the lights at Cape Poge and Monomoy Island.
The third-order Fresnel lens from Great Point Lighthouse is on display on the grounds of the Nantucket Lifesaving Museum.
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