Wandering By Some of Cape Cod's Historic Lighthouses, Part One

I love lighthouses.  I don't know if it's the whole "romantic" notion of a beam of light leading home sailors who had been out to sea for possibly years at a time or the solitary lives that the light keepers led or what exactly draws me to them but I do love them and also love searching them out to photograph them.  Last week I had the chance to spend a few days out on Cape Cod and grabbed it as the perfect opportunity to search out some of the Cape's lighthouses. With my Nikon in hand and my GPS working overtime, I started out at the western end of the Cape and worked my way out to the tip at Provincetown.  I didn't find all of the lighthouses on the Cape but I did find a good number to share with you here in a two-part series.

Located on the east side of Buzzards Bay near Pocasset, a small village of the Town of Bourne, stands Wing's Neck Lighthouse. Built in 1890 to replace the original 1849 so-called Cape Cod-style structure with a white, wooden hexagonal tower and lantern room on top of a stone keeper's house, the current hexagonal tower stands 44-feet above the water and until deactivated, displayed a fixed, white light which could be seen for fourteen nautical miles. The tower is connected via a walkway added in 1899 to the wood-frame keeper's house which was completely renovated in 2003 and is now available as a historic rental property complete with access to the light tower. Do I want to stay there?  Oh heck yea but until I won the lottery that probably won't happen!

In 1923, the keeper’s house from Ned’s Point Light, located on Buzzard’s Bay near the town of Mattapoisett, was floated across the bay to become the assistant keeper’s house at Wing’s Neck Light Station.  In the photos, it is the brown-shingled house with blue trim that is located to the right of the keeper's house; the property is now a private home.

In 1928 the light was changed from fixed to flashing through the substitution of a new lens and in 1934 the beacon was converted to electricity.  After 55 years of service during which time marine traffic had increased due to the opening of the nearby Cape Cod Canal in 1914, Wing's Neck Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1945 following the 1943 opening of Cleveland Ledge Light in Buzzards Bay. In 1947 the lighthouse went up for private sale where it was bought by Frank and Irene Flanagan of Boston for $13,738. A musical family, the Flanagans often hosted barbershop quartet concerts on their lawn; counted among their guests were the famous von Trapp family singers of Sound of Music fame who spent some time at the lighthouse. To this day, descendants of Frank and Irene own the lighthouse which sits just feet from the shore and provides unparalleled views of Buzzards Bay.

The property, managed by Wing's Neck Lighthouse Trust, is located at the end of Wing's Neck Point in an area behind a private gate which makes the property available only to residents and their guests. Wing's Neck Lighthouse is best viewed via boat as I would never advocate trespassing on private property; fortunately I own a decent zoom lens which provided a decent view from the other side of the private gate!

Heading south and east from Wing's Neck Lighthouse, Nobska Point Light (also known as Nobska Light) is located at the entrance of Woods Hole Harbor on the southwestern coast of Cape Cod near the town of Falmouth between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. The light station was established in 1829 to guide the substantial amount of maritime traffic that the area saw from the large whaling fleet based in Falmouth away from the dangerous Hedge Fence and L'Hommedieu Shoals.  In 1829, when the light station was established, it was reported that in excess of 10,000 vessels passed through the area as maritime traffic increased through Vineyard Sound.

The first lighthouse at the station, another traditional Cape Cod-style structure with an octagonal lantern on top of it, utilized a lighting system made up of 10 lamps with 14-inch reflectors that displayed a fixed white light.  The lighthouse. which was built in 1828 at the cost of $2,249, was replaced when it began to show signs of water leakage due to the weight of the tower on the roof.

The current 40-foot tower was cast in four individual sections in Chelsea, Massachusetts and shipped down to Falmouth in pieces where it  replaced the original lighthouse in 1876. Lined in brick and painted a dark reddish-brown, the lighthouse was outfitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was upgraded to a fourth-order in 1888 when a red sector was added to warn ships of the dangerous shoals; that same Fresnel lens continues to light the way across Vineyard Sound to this day.

Eventually painted a solid white, the Coast Guard assumed management of the lighthouse in 1939 but didn't put their own keepers there until 1973; until then civilian lightkeepers stayed on. When Joseph Hindley, the last civilian keeper to serve at Nobska Light, retired in 1973 it was believed that he was the last civilian lightkeeper in all of New England. Hindley began his career in the Lighthouse Service in 1927 as assistant keeper at Whale Rock Light in Rhode Island and served as assistant keeper at Nobska Light from 1955 to 1968 before taking charge as head keeper.

The 1876 keeper's house currently serves as the home for the commander of Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England and while the grounds are open to the public, the lighthouse tower is only open during scheduled viewing times which are conducted by United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-2; check the schedule for Lighthouse Tours for when the lighthouse is open.  Nobska Light is located on Church Street in the village of Woods Hole with a small parking area available in front of the light.

Just outside of the seaside town of Chatham in the southeastern corner of the Cape in an area now known as Stage Harbor - an area which was visited in 1605 and 1606 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain - stands the decommissioned Stage Harbor Light also known as Harding's Beach Light. The 48-foot brick-lined cast-iron tower and keeper's houses were built after the Lighthouse Board recommended a light in that site in 1878 as Chatham is one of the foggiest points on the East Coast.  On July 15th, 1880 the tower was lit with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that exhibited a fixed white light which could be seen for 12 nautical miles as the station officially went into service.

In 1933 in an effort by the government to save money, Stage Harbor Light was decommissioned after being replaced by an automated light on a skeleton tower.  The government removed the lantern and capped the tower and before long the property passed into the hands of Henry Sears Hoyt who later found out that the property was part of a 4,000-acre parcel that had been granted to his ancestor William Nickerson, founder of Chatham, by the local Native Americans.  The Hoyt family still owns the property which has no electricity or running water except for a single pump.

The former lighthouse, which was Cape Cod's youngest light, can be viewed across the water from the end of Harding's Beach Road or Sears Road. Binoculars or a good zoom lens is highly recommended!

East of Harding's Beach watching over treacherous waters that contain dangerous shoals and strong currents sits Chatham Light, an active U.S. Coast Guard aid to navigation.  Originally established in 1808 using two 40-foot octagonal wooden towers that were approximately 70-feet apart in order to differentiate Chatham Light from Highland Light further up the coast,  the lights underwent a change in 1841 when the two wooden towers were replaced by two 30-foot brick towers at the cost of $6,750.  At that time the lighting for the towers was provided by six lamps with 8-1/2-inch reflectors with green lenses in front of them.  In 1857 the lighting was changed when the towers were outfitted with lard oil-fueled fourth-order Fresnel lenses showing a fixed white light.

Following a massive storm that hit Cape Cod in November of 1870, the erosion of the bluffs where Chatham Light stood accelerated and by 1877 the towers stood only 48-feet from the edge.  At that time the station was rebuilt across the road utilizing two 48-foot conical cast-iron towers along with two one-and-a-half story wooden dwellings for the keepers and their families.

When the Lighthouse Board began phasing out twin light stations in the early 1900s, the north light was moved up the coast to Eastham where it was established as Nauset Light.  A new rotating lens was placed in the remaining south tower and in 1939, Chatham Light was converted from kerosene fuel - which it had run on since 1882 - to electric light which increased its intensity from 30,000 candlepower to 800,000.

In 1969 the lantern and Fresnel lens were removed and replaced with aerobeacons that produced 2.8 million candlepower along with a larger lantern.  Thirteen years later, in 1982 the light was automated and the 1877 keeper's dwelling became Coast Guard housing; the aerobeacons were upgraded in 1993,

Located on Shore Road at the eastern end of Main Street in the charming seaside town of Chatham, parking is located nearby and just like Nobska Light, tours of Chatham Light are conducted by United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-2; the schedule is available by clicking on the link.

Continuing further out on the Cape in the town of Eastham, one can find Nauset Light along with the former Three Sisters of Nauset, nicknamed as such as the trio of towers were said to look like three ladies in white dresses with black hats.

The light station came into existence after residents of Eastham wrote to the Boston Marine Society in 1836 requesting a lighthouse be built on Nauset Beach halfway between Highland Light in North Truro and Chatham Light following countless wrecks on the Nauset Bars offshore; approving the appeal from the residents, Congress made appropriations for a new station in March of 1837. As a way to distinguish between the twin lights in Chatham and the single light in North Truro, it was decided that for Nauset station three lights would be built.

The original towers at Nauset were built in just 38 days and were constructed of brick standing 15-feet tall as well as 15-feet wide at the base and 9-feet wide at the lantern deck.  The lights were arranged in a straight line 150-feet apart from each other and outfitted with 10 lamps with 3-1/2 inch reflectors that showed a fixed white light.  The lights were upgraded to sixth-order Fresnel lenses in 1850 then upgraded again to fourth-order Fresnel lenses in 1873.

Due to erosion, by 1890 the Three Sisters were dangerously close to the cliff's edge and as it was impossible to move the three lights intact, in 1892 three identical wooden lighthouses 22-feet tall were built 30  feet west of the originals which were left to fall into the Atlantic.  With the exception of the material and the height, the new Three Sisters were identical to their predecessors and used the lenses from the originals.

In 1911 the northernmost sister stood perilously close to the edge of the cliff with only eight feet separating it from the sea 70-feet below so it was decided to move the lights back once again however, at this point the Bureau of Lighthouses decided to change Nauset Light to a single light.  Upon completion of the move only the middle sister - which became known as "The Beacon" - was lit displaying a triple white flash in homage to her sisters who had been decommissioned.  With both of their lanterns removed, in 1918 the north and south lights were purchased at a public auction for $3.50 and incorporated into a summer cottage on Cable Road known as "The Towers", just down the road from their original site.

The remaining sister was in pretty poor condition by 1923 when the twin lights of Chatham were being converted to a single light so it was at that time that the decommissioned 1877 cast-iron tower from Chatham was relocated to Eastham and given the fourth-order Fresnel lens of the middle sister which was then sold for $10 and incorporated into a local residence as a cupola.

In 1965 the National Park Service purchased the first two towers that had been sold and ten years later, the third sister was also bought. Reuniting the Three Sisters on Cable Road, they were placed in their original configuration about 150 feet apart in a spot about 1/3rd of a mile from Nauset Light.  In 1989 a restoration of the towers was completed with the center tower, including its lantern, being fully restored while the other two towers were partially restored (due to a lack of funding, the lanterns were not restored to the other two towers); the Three Sisters are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Meanwhile, the new Nauset Light was being plagued by continued erosion of the high bluff upon which it stood and the Coast Guard proposed decommissioning the light in 1993.  Spearheaded by local residents, the Nauset Light Preservation Society was formed and hundreds of letters were sent to the Boston Coast Guard asking for the light to be moved inland and saved.  In 1995, the Coast Guard granted the society a five-year lease for the lighthouse and shortly after that, a new site across the street was chosen for the tower.

On November 15th, 1996 the 90-ton tower was lifted and transferred to two heavy-duty dollies on which the lighthouse was moved over the space of two days to its new home 336-feet from its old location. Following its move, the tower's exterior was renovated and painted and a new exterior railing around the lantern was installed. The light remained dark until its relighting on May 10th, 1997.

In 1998 the original keeper's house, which had been donated to the National Park Service by its last owner, was also moved back from the bluffs to a new foundation near the tower and shortly afterward the Coast Guard passed ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service and Cape Cod National Seashore.  In May 2004, a partnership agreement was signed between the National Park Service and the Nauset Light Preservation Society which states that the NLPS will continue to operate the lighthouse as a private aid to navigation as well as be responsible for the maintenance of the tower and the oil house.   The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 as Nauset Beach Light and appears on countless bags as the logo for Cape Cod Potato Chips.

The NLPS holds open houses and tours of the lighthouse and oil house from May to October; the tours are free but donations are gladly accepted. Nauset Light is located at the end of Cable Road across from the parking lot at Nauset Beach where parking is available in the National Park Service lot (parking fees are collected until 4:30 pm each day during the summer months).

In my next post, I'll take you to Cape Cod Light aka Highland Light as well as several lighthouses on the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown ... or at least as close as I could get to them as they're not exactly easily accessible!


  1. I think it is cool how each lighthouse, while they all perform the same functions, has a unique look. I love how eac one has a distinct personality.

  2. a 4,000-acre parcel... can you imagine what the value of that land is now? Wow!

    I ope there won't be a pop quiz on this stuff. Just saying. :)

    Something that may interest you... There is a professional photographer in Chatham whose work I just love, especially his landscapes... although he also does portraits. His name is Christopher Seufer https://www.facebook.com/capecodphoto http://www.capecodphoto.net/

  3. Love it! The little one is adorable! My mother in law would be in heaven there. Maybe one day I will be able to take her :)

  4. Always thought it would be wonderful to stay on an island light with the waves crashing on the rocks below ... obviously way too many gothic books and movies.


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