Illuminating the Horizon

Boston Light becomes the first beacon to guide mariners safely through local waters.

By John Galluzzo

The city of Boston was founded in 1630. That same year, John Winthrop led a band of Puritans from England who were fleeing in the face of religious oppression and in pursuit of commerce and trade. They launched the first American-built ship in 1631, jumpstarting a shipbuilding industry that would run robustly for two centuries. Consequently, the port of Boston quickly became an important hub of trade for the young British Empire (now the oldest operating port in the Western Hemisphere). By 1648, the port of Boston was thriving, and by the end of the century, Boston had the third largest sailing fleet in the British Empire, trailing behind only London and Bristol.

Situated at the southern boundary of the channel that led ships into the city—which, at the time, was 4,000 strong and growing—the tiny seaside town of Hull posed a major problem for mariners. Ships heading for Boston had to steer clear of the Allerton Hill headland and the partially submerged rocks and ledges that surrounded it. Northeast storms also made the area a common landing spot for shipwrecks.

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On September 14, 1716 – three hundred years ago this month – Boston Light, the first lighthouse in the New World, was lit for the first time.

By 1679, the people of Hull had seen enough. They knew that their prominent position along the coast came with responsibility, and the townspeople decided to take a bold step. They sunk poles in the ground on one of the prominent northern hills (it is unclear whether it was Allerton Hill or Telegraph Hill) and placed bowls atop the poles. Inside the bowls, they placed pitch or tar and set it aflame at night, effectively creating the first nighttime navigation aids of the New World. However, being exposed to the elements, the torches were only as effective as the weather patterns allowed.

The population of Boston and the surrounding region continued to grow. Samuel Shute replaced William Tailer, the acting governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and it was under his watch that the region’s first lighthouse was constructed.

The lights at the mouth of Boston Harbor were difficult to maintain, and the north side of the passage into the harbor was particularly dangerous. Small, rocky islands in the passage had been named for Pilgrim Elder William Brewster less than a century earlier. The island known as Little Brewster, located nine miles east of the city and about a mile and a quarter off the coast of Hull (which it belongs to), was deemed capable of supporting a lighthouse and a keeper, and even a family if need be. The island could also act as a collection station for a tonnage tax (one penny per vessel, except for those in the coastal trade) and the funds would pay for the future maintenance of the lighthouse.

And so a lighthouse was built. When completed, Boston Light stood between 50 and 75 feet in height (we don’t know for sure, as it was rebuilt in 1783 at 75 feet). Historians aren’t certain whether or not oil or candles were used, since some of the details have been lost to time. What we do know is that it cost £2,385 to build—the equivalent of $3,175.

On September 14, 1716—300 years ago this month—Boston Light was lit for the first time. By then, Massachusetts had grown to include 94 incorporated towns, and the beacon that shone forth proved that the first century of the city’s growth had been a tremendous success.

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Join the Celebration

SEPT 14: Boston Light’s 300th Anniversary Ceremony, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, will take place at Long Wharf in Boston. 10-10:45 a.m. The event is free and open to
the public.

SEPT 14: U.S. Coast Guard Band performance and Boston Light relighting ceremony will be held at the Hull High School ballfield. 180 Main St., Hull, from 6-7 p.m., followed by an open house at the Hull Lifesaving Museum, 1117 Nantasket Avenue, Hull.

For more information, click here.

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