America’s Oldest Beacon – Over 300 Years
In the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Boston was a major shipping port for the British and its colonies. The harbor however has numerous rocky islands, shoals, and ledges where many shipwrecks occurred with New England’s ever changing stormy weather. In 1716, the Colony of Massachusetts Bay constructed and lit the first light tower in the “New World” overlooking Boston Harbor. At this time, there were only 70 lighthouses in existence on earth. The beacon’s first light was a two-tiered chandelier with seven candles on each one. Boston Harbor lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the country, built on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. The tower itself is the second oldest technically, because it had to be rebuilt in 1783.
The first keeper was George Wothrylake. On a cold November day, in 1718, he was heading back to the lighthouse on a sloop from Boston after collecting his pay and gathering supplies with his wife, one of his two daughters, and a friend, John Edge. The seas were choppy from the gusts of wind that were kicking up from an approaching storm. The sloop was anchored a distance from the lighthouse. Their servant and dedicated friend on the island, who went by the name of Shadwell, went out in a canoe to bring the four passengers back to the lighthouse. The keeper’s other daughter watched on the shore with a friend as she waited to greet everyone. As the wind picked up, his daughter witnessed in horror as the canoe capsized from the weight of the five passengers, spilling them into the freezing waters and drowning all five.
Later that year, a young 12-year old Benjamin Franklin, was encouraged by his brother to put his locally known writing skills to work in creating a poem based on the disaster. Franklin wrote a poem called “The Lighthouse Tragedy” and made copies to sell on the streets of Boston. The second keeper, Robert Saunders, drowned just days after taking the job.
The third keeper John Hayes asked that “a great gun be placed on the Said Island to answer ships in a fog.” He was granted his request but the tasks related to maintaining the cannon were added to his duties without an increase in pay. In anger, in 1720, Hayes set fire to the tower, and was punished of three years of his pay, about 216 pounds. Somehow, he was able to get away without having to pay for the damages. The original cannon is displayed at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.
In 1719, the nation’s first fog signal, a canon, was created and used on Little Brewster Island until it was eventually replaced by a 1375-pound fog bell operated by clockwork machinery in 1851. The light was destroyed three times by the Colonial troops during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied the beacon, then blown up by the retreating British in 1776. After the war, in 1783, the tower was rebuilt to its current status today.
In the mid-1700s, when lightning struck the tower a number of times, a lightning rod was originally approved for installation, but was hampered at first by local religious individuals who didn’t want to interfere with the acts of God. A lightning conductor was eventually placed on the tower.
In the 1840s, a keeper named Tolbia Cook set up a cigar factory on Brewster Island near the lighthouse. Here he employed young women to manufacture what he called “Spanish Cigars”. It was an effort to deceive Boston smokers into thinking that the cigars manufactured there were imported. These poor women toiled for Cook under what were considered miserable conditions. He was removed from duty when he was later discovered.
The tower still houses a Fresnel Lens from 1859 for visitors to view up close. It is an eleven-foot crystal made up of 336 individual prisms. This rotating lens projects the lighthouse’s 12 beams that can be seen for 27 miles. The climb to the 89-foot tower involves going up 76 spiral stairs, then two ladders into the lantern room to the lantern room to the lens and view of the harbor.
The 70th Keeper – Sally Snowman
Boston Harbor Lighthouse was the first to be constructed to be operated by appointed keepers, and it was the last lighthouse to be automated in 1998. The importance of the light keeper was officially recognized in 1989 when congress passed a law stating Boston Light would always be manned. It had 69 male keepers tending it during its nearly 300-year series. It remains as the only lighthouse with a full-time keeper who still tends the grounds and maintains the beacon year-round, Sally Snowman, the 70th keeper. She had been volunteering as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary at Boston Light on Little Brewster Island since 1994, and with her husband, and spent five years researching the history of Boston Light, publishing a 200-page book. With her obvious enthusiasm and dedication. Sally was designated as the first US Coast Guard Civilian “Keeper of Boston Light” in 2003 and is one of the last lighthouse keepers in the country — but the only one with the Coast Guard. She dresses and period costume for visitors each summer season for tours and helped to celebrate the beacon’s 300-year anniversary in 2016. Snowman, who holds a PhD. and previously worked as a learning disabilities specialist, not only maintains the light, but also oversees all of the tours. She also recruits, trains, and schedules Boston Light’s 70 auxiliary volunteers. She climbs the tower at least twice a day and embodies the legacy of Boston Harbor lighthouse and its predecessors.
Exploring Boston Harbor Light and Grounds
Then lighthouse is located on Little Brewster Island marking the entrance to Boston Harbor. Tours are offered to cruise pass the island and park tours are available to get on the island and explore the lighthouse during the summer months. The Boston Harbor Islands Park Service which coordinates with the National Park Service and the Coast Guard, have developed an exciting 3-hour narrated tour that not only provides a rich maritime history of Boston Harbor, along with views of Graves Light and Long Island Head Light, but docks on Little Brewster Island and allows you to climb the tower of Boston Light. You can meet the lighthouse keeper there, Sally Snowman, and find a spectacular view of the Boston Harbor from the tower. You can get close views of the lighthouse on the Boston Harbor Cruises Lighthouse Trip, which involves a Lighthouse Brunch Cruise. The lighthouse is open to private boaters if arrangements are made beforehand at (617) 223-8666.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, including stories about Boston Harbor lighthouse, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.
New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. Lots of detailed stories of famous incidents and folklore that occurred near the beacons of the New England coast. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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