Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Trials of Great Point Lighthouse

On this date in 1984, the old Great Point Lighthouse, completed and lighted in 1818, was knocked down in a fierce spring storm. The 60-foot tall rubble-stone tower had stood for 166 years.

The first lighthouse on Great Point was a wooden tower built in 1784. The point, then called Sandy Point, projected far into the sea on the northeastern side of Nantucket, marking the waters between Nantucket and Monomoy Point (on the Cape Cod mainland). The original light tower was illuminated with whale oil lamps in October 1784 and was dubbed Nantucket Light. Captain Paul Pinkham, a seasoned sailor, was the first lightkeeper. He had to commute 14 miles roundtrip every day to tend the lighthouse, since there were no quarters at the site. There were few lighthouses in America at this time, and other than Boston Light, this lighthouse likely was the most important one in New England. The whaling industry was in its heyday, and ships headed into ports like New Bedford and Nantucket itself had to pass Great Point.


A keeper's house was built in the early 1800s, but in 1812 it burned down. The lightkeeper, Jonathan Coffin, resumed the old and tiresome routine of commuting across the sands from his home to the lighthouse. In 1816, the lighthouse itself burned down. Most citizens suspected arson, but it was never proven.

The residence for the keeper was quickly rebuilt and a temporary light on a post was displayed until 1818 when a new rubble-stone tower was built. The same lamps were installed in the new tower, but this time using a reflector system designed by Winslow Lewis of Cape Cod. In 1857 the tower was given a new third-order Fresnel lens. At this time, the tower also was fortified with a brick lining and the old wooden stairs were replaced by iron stairs.

The lighthouse continued its work dutifully, but when lightships were anchored at Cross Rip and Handkerchief Shoals, ships sometimes mistook the Great Point Light for one of the lightships. This eventually was rectified by changing the signature of the Great Point Light with a red sector, but not before several shipwrecks occurred, including the Leesburg and the Storm Castle
Great Point Lighthouse was a beloved landmark on Nantucket. In 1920, Everett Fitch wrote a poem about it after he left the sea trades and retired ashore:
Good-bye, old friend, old friend, good-bye.
For me you held the light up high.
Through all the years I sailed the sea,
But now you are no more to be.
Alas! I miss thy kindly beam
That from your tower did nightly stream,
And can but heave a heavy sigh.
Good-bye, old friend, old friend, good-bye.
The lighthouse was automated in 1950 and its ancillary buildings were razed, including the house after its was set fire by vandals. The tower stood alone on the point, working well. In 1971, the beautiful Fresnel lens was removed and placed on display at Nantucket Lifesaving Museum. The tower then exhibited a 190mm modern beacon.
Photo by Kraig Anderson
But the point slowly eroded and repeated storms began to undermine the light tower. On March 29, 1984, hurricane force winds tore out the foundation of the light tower and it collapsed. The point was breached by the storm as well, leaving the tip where the lighthouse had stood an island.
The lighthouse community expressed sadness at the loss of the lighthouse and then outrage when the Coast Guard announced that a skeleton tower would replace the old stone tower that had saved so many lives and served steadfastly for 166 years. Fortunately, Senator Edward Kennedy was able to secure $2 million in federal funding to rebuild the lighthouse using many of the old stones that lay on the beach as exterior facing on a reinforced concrete tower. Like the fabled Phoenix, the new tower rose and was lighted on September 6, 1986. Senator Kennedy was on hand to dedicate the new tower and baptize it with champagne.
It continues to shine brightly, carrying on a long American tradition of making the seas safe for mariners.

Photo by Kraig Anderson


All images from the author's collection or the U.S. Coast Guard Archives, except where otherwise noted.

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