Navigating the South Shore’s five legendary lighthousesBy Jennifer H. McInerney
For three centuries, lighthouses along the Massachusetts coast have guided sailors on calm, starry evenings and through stormy seas, back home to safe harbor. They’ve borne witness to numerous shipwrecks and life-saving missions. Many have suffered damage and even destruction from wartime battles, blizzards, hurricanes, fires, erosion and the gradual decline of old age.
While several lighthouse towers have been torn down and replaced with fiberglass pole lights, many of the state’s beloved structures have been salvaged, reconstructed, restored, repaired and preserved. In addition to Boston Light, America’s oldest lighthouse, a handful of lighthouses on the South Shore have been protected by concerned citizens who never want to see the lights extinguished.
Photography by Matthew Mulligan
By 1999, Gurnet Light, also known as Plymouth Light, had come dangerously close to becoming a victim of erosion. The lighthouse, originally configured as a matching pair of lanterns, made its debut in 1768. It was the third lighthouse in Massachusetts, the eighth in the United States and the first in the nation to feature “twin lights.”
Over the next century and a half, Gurnet underwent several alterations and incarnations. During the Revolutionary War, one of the Gurnet’s towers was struck by a cannonball and had to be repaired. In 1801, the lighthouses burned to the ground and were rebuilt by the towns of Duxbury and Plymouth. Soon after, mariners complained that the twin lights were too close together and, from a distance, appeared to merge into a single beam. This phenomenon apparently created confusion, due to its resemblance to Boston Light’s single-beam signal. In response, the lighthouses were recreated as two octagonal wooden structures joined by a 31-foot entryway.
Ultimately, in 1924, the Bureau of Lighthouses decided to phase out the use of multiple lights. As a result, Gurnet’s northeast tower was dismantled and its 156-year reign of twin lights came to an end. Today, only one lighthouse tower remains at the site—making it the oldest freestanding wooden lighthouse in America.
The remaining lighthouse could have been lost forever at the end of the last century. As the bluff continued to wear away, Gurnet stood a mere 50 feet from the edge of the 45-foot cliff. Using rollers, the Coast Guard moved the tower on a track 140 feet back, away from the edge.
Thereafter, the Coast Guard granted stewardship of Gurnet Light to Project Bug Light, and the organization changed its name to Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, Inc. (PG&BL). While PG&BL preserves the structural aspects of the Bug and Gurnet lighthouse properties, the Coast Guard maintains the towers’ navigation aids: the lanterns, foghorns and solar panels.
MINOT’S LEDGE LIGHT
Photography by Kjeld Mahoney
Located off the coast of North Scituate and Cohasset, Minot’s Ledge Light has a long and storied history of inhospitableness. Early records indicate that during the first half of the 1700s, an estimated 80 ships and 400 passengers met their untimely end in the treacherous waters off Minot’s Ledge. Clearly, the area called for the guiding presence of a lighthouse, but engineers believed a traditional lighthouse tower would not withstand the violent onslaught of waves that consistently battered the reef. They settled on an innovative design, cementing nine 60-foot pilings into the rocks beneath the water to anchor the lighthouse tower. Construction finally began in 1847 and the lantern was lit on January 1, 1850.
Given the perilous examples of passing through Minot’s Ledge by vessel, one can only imagine the trials of residing inside Minot’s Ledge Light as a lightkeeper.
After conversing with a lighthouse keeper in 1850, writer Henry David Thoreau described the experience of riding out a gale in Minot’s Light: “To have the waves, like a pack of hungry wolves, eyeing you always, night and day, and from time to time making a spring at you, almost sure to have you at last.”
Sadly, the original lighthouse survived for only a year and a half before it—and two light keepers—fell victim to a raging nor’easter. The undertaking of building a new lighthouse at Minot’s Ledge took three years, since work could only be safely completed during rare junctions of low tide and calm seas. This time, crews erected a 40-foot tower comprised of solid granite, mounted on interlocking granite blocks at Outer Minot’s Rock. In addition to the keepers’ dwelling inside the lighthouse, onshore accommodations were provided in Cohasset for the keepers and their families.
In 1947, Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse became automated and the keepers’ quarters were vacated. Today, the lighthouse may be perhaps better known as “Lover’s Light” or the “I Love You Lighthouse” because of its characteristic 1-4-3 signal sequence. In 2014, the Coast Guard put Minot’s Ledge Light on the auction block and sold it to a private owner.
Photography courtesy of Project Gurnet and Bug Light
Like Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, Bug Light—officially known as Duxbury Pier Light, but technically located in Plymouth—is surrounded by water and can be accessed only by vessel. But that’s where the similarities end.
Unlike Minot, Bug Light sits in a relatively less turbulent waterway, marking the channel that leads to busy Plymouth Harbor. While Minot’s tower rises up out of the surf, this squat lighthouse appears to be “plugged in” to the ocean, reaching only 34 feet tall. Perhaps that’s where the nickname for this style of lighthouse—spark plug—is derived. Initially lit in 1871, Bug Light was the first cast-iron caisson-style lighthouse in the United States—a distinction that nearly fell by the wayside a century later.
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, at least temporarily.
A decade later, the Coast Guard revisited the plan to automate, but Project Bug Light stood its ground. The group proposed taking over stewardship of the historic lighthouse and was granted custody of Bug Light. And then, a nearby lighthouse—Gurnet Light—also needed the group’s attention.
Photography by Tommy Costello
The first lighthouse to illuminate the skies in Massachusetts was Boston Light on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, in September of 1716. During the Revolutionary War, British troops occupied the island and blocked access to the harbor. In retaliation, a small detachment of American soldiers strategically burned wooden portions of the lighthouse structure. While the enemy attempted to repair the damage, General George Washington ordered 300 men in whale boats to defeat the British and reclaimed Boston Light.
The current lighthouse, constructed on the original site in 1783, stands at 89 feet tall with an octagonal lantern. In addition to enduring the Redcoats’ invasion, Boston Light also survived the threat of modernization 200 years later. In 1989, the Coast Guard planned to automate the light and eliminate the use of light keepers. However, concerns about vandalism to an unguarded tower coupled with a desire to protect the lighthouse’s historic significance prompted then-Senator Edward Kennedy to sponsor an amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill that would retain the light keeper’s post. With the passage of Kennedy’s amendment, Boston Light took on the distinction of being the last—and only—operational light station in the state that’s staffed with paid keepers.
Today, Boston Light welcomes thousands of tourists by ferry during the fairer months of the year, inviting them to climb the lighthouse’s 76 steps to the top, where they’re treated to stunning vistas of Graves Light and Long Island Head Light, the inner islands, the peninsula of Hull and the Boston skyline.
Photography by Kjeld Mahoney
The installation of the new and improved Minot’s Ledge Light led to the displacement and deactivation of neighboring Scituate Light in 1860. While the lighthouse lay dormant for more than five decades, its early days of operation remained memorable.
Perhaps most notably, Scituate Light’s first family left an indelible mark on both the town and nation’s history. In 1811, Captain Simeon Bates, his wife and their nine children were the first to take up residence in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. Legend has it that during the War of 1812, the captain and most of his family were away when two British barges entered Scituate Harbor. Only two of his daughters, Abigail and Rebecca, were home that day, and they took immediate and decisive action. Wielding a fife and drum, the Bates girls hid from view and created such a commotion that the Redcoats apparently believed they were about to be attacked by a full regiment of American soldiers—and withdrew from the harbor. The daughters’ clever victory earned them the distinction of “The American Army of Two,” and their story continues to be heralded in local literature.
It wasn’t until 1916 that the Town of Scituate had the opportunity to stake a claim on the future of its unused lighthouse. Town officials reportedly purchased the property from the federal government at a cost of $1,000, but progress to reinvigorate the lighthouse remained slow. In 1968, town meeting voters approved a measure allowing the Scituate Historical Society to take custody of Scituate Light. Finally, in 1994—after 134 years in the dark—the lighthouse’s lantern once again cast its beam out across the harbor.
Located at the end of Lighthouse Road on Cedar Point, Scituate Light stands out from its local counterparts as being easily accessible by car and also features a parking lot. A long time since the days when the Army of Two thwarted the arrival of the Redcoats, Scituate Light today has become a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. With its crisp white exterior and unparalleled backdrop, the lighthouse continues to be a sought-after spot for prom and wedding photography.
Each August, during the annual celebration of Scituate Heritage Days, the lighthouse opens to the public for tours and other special events are held. In recent years, Scituate Light has been equipped with live cameras to capture the daily activity in the harbor and along the jetty.