Local volunteers band together to maintain Plymouth’s historic lighthouses
“To almost every man and woman there is something about a lighted beacon which suggests hope and trust and appeals to the better instincts of all mankind.”
— Edward Rowe Snow, “Famous Lighthouses of New England,” 1945By Jennifer H. McInerney | Above photo courtesy of Project Gurnet and Bug Lights
For hundreds of years, local painters and photographers have immortalized the picturesque lighthouses along the Northeastern coast, accurately portraying them as hardy, unyielding protectors—guards of waterways and guides of mariners. Plymouth holds the distinction of harboring not one, but two, historic lighthouses in its nautical neighborhood.
Plymouth Light, also known as Gurnet Light, initially distinguished itself as the nation’s first “twin-lights,” comprised of matching lantern towers; today, Gurnet stakes its claim as the oldest remaining free-standing wooden lighthouse in the United States. On the northerly side of the channel leading into Plymouth Harbor stands Duxbury Pier Light, also called Bug Light, which was the first cast-iron caisson-style lighthouse in the country.
While they have weathered countless storms and shipwrecks, Gurnet and Bug Lights are in no way impervious to external elements. During the past several decades, both lighthouses have been exposed to numerous risks, including extinction, disrepair, and erosion. As a result, these life-saving beacons needed saving themselves. Fortunately, a “salty band of volunteers” hailing from the Plymouth County region stepped forward to answer the distress call.
In 1983, the Coast Guard slated Bug Light for elimination, in favor of a fiberglass pole and light in its place (similar to the fate of Deer Island Light in Boston Harbor). In response, a group of concerned citizens established a preservation effort—then called Project Bug Light. A fresh wave of support and fundraising prevented the replacement of the historic lighthouse, which is surrounded by water and only accessible by boat. Again, in 1993, the Coast Guard’s proposal to give Bug Light the heave-ho resurfaced. Once again, Project Bug Light came to the lighthouse’s rescue. This time, the late Duxbury pediatrician Dr. Don Muirhead, an avid sailor, enlisted fellow residents to reinvigorate preservation efforts and take over stewardship of Bug Light.
Muirhead invited Dolly Snow Bicknell, of Marshfield, to become involved with Project Bug Light. Bicknell, whose father was noted historian and author Edward Rowe Snow, has a particular fondness for lighthouses dating back to her childhood. She accompanied her dad on “Flying Santa” deliveries of Christmas gifts to lightkeepers and their families.
“Lighthouses are in my blood,” says Bicknell.
The organization has extended its reach to include Plymouth Light/Gurnet as well, changing its name to Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, Inc. (PG&BL). The organization assumed responsibility for Gurnet Light since 1999, after the Coast Guard moved the lighthouse 140 feet back from the edge of an eroding cliff.
“These lighthouses are an important part of our maritime history,” says Bicknell. “If we don’t take care of them, they’ll disappear.”
Today, Bicknell serves as president of PG&BL, which actively continues the commitment to restoration, preservation, and maintenance of the two lighthouses. While the organization preserves the structural aspects of the two lighthouse properties, the Coast Guard maintains the towers’ navigation aids: the lanterns, foghorns and solar panels.
Due to regular maintenance, the lighthouse structures themselves are in no immediate danger. However, the coast is not clear: “Our biggest concern right now is erosion, particularly of the cliff where Gurnet Light is located,” says Bicknell. “As the cliff continues to erode at an alarming rate, Gurnet’s solar panels and foghorns are now in danger.” The group has been reviewing possible mitigation solutions, many of which are costly and will require significant fundraising to get underway. For additional information, to donate funds or to offer volunteer hours, visit buglight.org.