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New England Lighthouses | A Lighthouse Life List

The offshore Cleveland East Ledge Light in Buzzards Bay is New England’s only Art Moderne lighthouse, and the last built here (1943). But the oddest? South Portland, Maine’s 13-foot-tall Breakwater (“Bug”) Light is modeled on the fourth-century b.c. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, complete with fluted columns.

Lighthouses were of little use for navigation unless a ship could tell one from another. To set them apart, some were made to blink, others had red lights instead of white, and some had two beams instead of one. There was also one triple light: the original Nauset Light, also called Three Sisters, on Cape Cod. These three identical shingled lighthouses were ultimately deactivated–and moved away. Where are they now? In the last place you’d expect: tucked into a clearing in the Eastham woods, along a marked path called Cable Road, about a third of a mile from the water.

The keepers of York, Maine’s Boon Island Light often saw the ghost of a sad-faced young woman in white, said to have been either the mistress of the captain of the Nottingham Galley, wrecked in 1710, or the widow of a keeper who died at the lighthouse.

Keepers assigned to Sankaty Head Light on Nantucket’s east coast reported strange events, too, including pots and pans that flew around the kitchen. At Minot’s Ledge Light, located on the storm- and shipwreck-prone Cohasset Rocks of Massachusetts Bay, off Scituate, keepers saw doors open and close by themselves, and heard a tapping on the walls: a signal system once used by Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson, assistant keepers killed when the first lighthouse, a spider-like cast-iron tower on piles, was demolished in a storm in 1851. (It was replaced by a sturdy granite-block tower, which took five years to build atop the submerged ledge, but has endured since 1860. )

Keepers at New London Ledge Light in Connecticut swore that the steel door of the tower, which was bolted from the inside, used to open by itself. That’s the door from which keeper John “Ernie” Randolph, in 1936, is said to have jumped to his death after cutting his own throat when he learned his wife had run off with a Block Island ferry captain.

But the most haunted? Seguin Island Light, off the coast of Georgetown and Popham in Maine. In the mid-1800s, one keeper’s wife couldn’t stand living at this desolate station. To appease her, he arranged to buy a player piano. When it arrived, however, there was only one piece of music, and she played it over and over for hours at a time. Driven mad, the keeper strangled his wife and took an axe to the piano. Now witnesses say that at night they can hear a phantom piano playing from the lighthouse.

Some of the villagers of old Provincetown–then called Helltown–would have preferred that no lighthouses had been built there. They made their living salvaging the many shipwrecks, even using false lights on nights with no moon to lure ships to their doom. Since 1872, though, Wood End Light, the third lighthouse built here–with a distinctive 38-foot square brick tower, foghorn, and, perhaps appropriate to its history, a beacon that flashes not white, but red–has guided mariners safely around Provincetown’s southernmost spit of land toward Long Point and the harbor entrance.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took what he called his weekly “walking constitutionals” to Maine’s Portland Head Light, and it was at this favorite spot that he was inspired to write the foremost lighthouse poem in American literature, called (of course) “The Lighthouse,” published in 1850:

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
They wave their silent welcomes and farewells.

The Graves Light in Massachusetts Bay, off the coast of Winthrop, served as one location for David O. Selznick’s 1948 film Portrait of Jennie. Edgartown Light on Martha’s Vineyard was featured in 1975’s Jaws, and Nantucket’s Brant Point Light in the 1996 film To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. But when Hollywood wanted the archetypal lighthouse to punctuate Tom Hanks’s cross-country run in 1994’s Forrest Gump, they made an Oscar-winning casting choice: Marshall Point Light, Port Clyde, Maine.

Look closely: Goat Island Light, which marks dangerous rocks off Cape Porpoise Harbor, east of Kennebunkport, Maine, sometimes serves as an outpost for Secret Service agents guarding the Bush estate at Walker’s Point. It also was the next-to-last full-time-manned lighthouse in the country, before it was finally automated in 1990. Boston Light, though now automated as well, is currently the sole professionally manned lighthouse in the United States.

Well before most other occupations opened to them, many women served as lighthouse keepers. The most famous was Idawalley Zorada Lewis, keeper of Lime Rock (now Ida Lewis) Light in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. When her father had a stroke in 1857, Lewis not only tended the light (and her father) but also rowed her three siblings to school every day. She is credited with rescuing at least 18 people from Newport Harbor during her career, including four boys whose sailboat capsized and three men and the wayward sheep they’d been trying to fish out of the harbor. One of her visitors was President Ulysses S. Grant, in 1869, who landed in ankle-deep water when he got out of his boat. “To see [Ida Lewis], I’d get wet up to my armpits,” he said.

When Lewis died on October 24, 1911, all the vessels anchored in Newport Harbor tolled their bells in her memory; in 1924, the name of the craggy island where she’d lived was changed to Ida Lewis Rock, the only such honor ever paid a lighthouse keeper. The light station itself, since deactivated, is now the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.

In the darkest days of the War of 1812, five British warships lined up off the coast of Stonington, Connecticut, and attacked the town. The bombardment is commemorated at the site’s Old Lighthouse Museum inside Stonington Harbor Light.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, June 22nd, 2009

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4 Responses to New England Lighthouses | A Lighthouse Life List

  1. T. Rodrigues July 2, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Just finished reading this article in the print version of Yankee – we are amazed (and disappointed) that Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was not listed. It’s simply the best lighthouse – and grounds – imaginable. Just take a look at the Maine State Quarter!

  2. Jackie Normile July 28, 2009 at 8:58 am #

    I consider it a great day-if I am not working, the sun is out & I find myself at a lighthouse near to sunset…Yesterday it was Nobska and recently Chatham. Pemaquid is a wonderful lighthouse-both from the water and land. New England has so many that you can see, and some that should be more accessible.

  3. Greg Rogow August 30, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    Thank you , I really enjoyed your article. I have had the opportunity to photograph eighteen of the lights mentioned and hope to eventually shoot the rest.

    Another light worth mentioning is Scituate Light. The first keeper was Simeon Bates, who stayed at the station until his death in 1834. Bates and his wife, Rachel, had nine children, including two daughters, Rebecca and Abigail. These two sisters would become heroic figures in the history of American lighthouses.

    During the War of 1812, British warships frequently raided New England coastal towns. On June 11, 1814, British forces plundered and burned a number of vessels at Scituate. Keeper Bates fired two shots from a small cannon, angering the captain of a British warship as it departed.

    Less than three months later, Keeper Bates and most of his family were away, leaving 21-year-old Rebecca and 15-year-old (or, according to some accounts, 17-year-old) Abigail in charge. The sisters were horrified to see a British warship anchored in the harbor. They proceded to play a fife and drum while out of sight of the warship. The British thought the sound of the fife and drum signaled the approach of the Scituate town militia, and they hastily retreated.

    This is another of many interesting stories associated with New England lighthouses

  4. jacki wilmot April 15, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    what facinating stories and a part of NE I haven’t had the opportunity of exploring yet. thank you. We should all make a point of learning about these famous lighthouses.

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