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

A few years back on my very first trip out to Provincetown I wanted to see Highland Lighthouse but alas, it wasn't to be on that trip so I made darned sure that I stopped by on my last trip out to P'Town at the end of April. Unfortunately I was there before the attached museum was open (Mid-May through mid-October) but that didn't stop me from walking the grounds which are open year-round on a very windy day to view Cape Cod’s oldest lighthouse, locally known as the Highland Light but which is officially named "Cape Cod Light" on the NOAA nautical chart for the region.

The original request to erect a lighthouse about a mile southwest of Peaked Hill Bars, a treacherous spot and graveyard for many ships including the 64-gun British warship Somerset which went down in 1778 incurring the loss of 21 lives, came from the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Boston Marine Society in 1792 as they requested that the governor of Massachusetts ask the U.S. Congress to fund a lighthouse “upon the High Land adjacent to Cape Cod Harbour.”

Their plea went unheeded so in 1794 the Reverend James Freeman once again appealed to the Massachusetts governor stating that there were more ships wrecked near the eastern shore of Truro than on any other part of Cape Cod. "A light house," he wrote, "near the Clay Pounds should Congress think proper to erect one, would prevent many of these fatal accidents."

Once again the plea was ignored by the governor so the Boston Marine Society decided to cut out the middle man and made a direct appeal to Congress in February of 1796 including both the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Salem Marine Society in the petition. Either third time was charm or appealing directly to Congress would have been the way to go all along as almost immediately, on May 17, 1796, Congress appropriated $8,000 towards the building of a lighthouse.

Following the purchase of ten acres of land from a Truro resident, a 45-foot, octagonal wooden tower, the first lighthouse on Cape Cod and the twentieth in the United States, was built about 500 feet from the edge of the bluff. In order to distinguish the new light from that of Boston Light, the lighthouse became the first in the nation to exhibit a flashing light following the design and building of a rotating “eclipser”, a device that revolved around the spider lamp (a simple pan of oil with several wicks) once in 80 seconds as it hid the light from view for 30 seconds during each revolution. On November 15, 1797 the lighthouse which had many firsts attributed to it, went into service exhibiting its light from 160 feet above mean high water as it warned mariners of the treacherous waters nearby.

Over the years many changes occurred at Highland Light as the tower was rebuilt several times before the current 66-foot tower was erected in 1857 at the cost of $15,000 using a Fresnel lens imported from France. With the height of the new light on a 170-foot focal plane, Highland Light was now the highest light on the New England mainland and one of the most powerful light's on the coast. In 1901, a new giant First-order Fresnel lens replaced the lens from France and when it was electrified in 1932, the light became the coast's most powerful at 4,000,000 candlepower visible at 45 miles and up to 75 miles on a clear night.

Unfortunately, the bluffs upon which Highland Light stood were starting to feel the effects of time and storms and even though the first lighthouse was over 500 feet from the edge of the 125-foot cliff when it was built in 1797, by the early 1990s, the present lighthouse stood only a bit over 100 feet from the edge due to the constant erosion.

In order to save the historic light from eventually toppling over the cliff and into the Atlantic, a group within the Truro Historical Society began raising funds for the moving of Highland Light and raised over $150,000 which, in 1996, was combined with $1-million in federal funds and $500,000 in state funds to pay for the move of the tower to a new site 450 feet back from its original location. 

In June of 1996, the 18-day operation to move the 430-ton lighthouse got underway attracting thousands of sightseers each day. The relocated lighthouse and keeper's house now stand close to the seventh fairway of the Highland Golf Links, founded in 1892 and the oldest golf course on Cape Cod. On Sunday, November 3, 1996 Highland Light was relighted in its new location.

In the summer of 1998, Highland Light - which is now owned by the Cape Cod National Seashore and operated by Highland Museum and Lighthouse, Inc. - was opened for visitors with volunteers giving tours while a museum and gift shop is located in the former keeper's house. Visitors can also take a walk any time of the year out onto an observation deck that stands just past the rock which marks the original location of the lighthouse so that one can see just how close - and high- the drop down to the ocean is.

In 2001, the lighthouse which had been automated in 1986 following the removal of the First-order Fresnel lens that was replaced by aerobeacons in the 1950s, received a much-needed facelift making it more comfortable and safer for tourists to view the lantern room.

If you're going to visit Highland Light, it's easy to get to, just follow the signs on Route 6 but make sure you look for the signs for "Cape Cod Light" as that's what the non-locals insist on calling it! There is limited handicap parking at the lighthouse and for anyone that is unable to climb the lighthouse stairs, they are welcome to come into the base of the lighthouse and view a video that includes a history of the lighthouse, the moving of the lighthouse in time-lapse photography and the relighting of the light at no charge. For those visitors wishing to climb the tower, there is a $4 fee and children must be at least 48 inches tall to climb up the stairs - no exceptions!

Continuing out on Route 6 into Provincetown, lighthouse lovers can find three more lights to visit however none of them are easy to get to like Highland Light is. To get up close and personal with any of them requires either a four-wheel drive vehicle and Oversand Beach Vehicle Permit or a boat or a lot of walking across a long breakwater followed by a long trek through a lot of sand - but if you're determined, you can get to them!  I didn't get very close to any of the following lighthouses but lucky for me, one of my co-workers and his wife did on a recent trip to Provincetown and he graciously allowed me the use of his photos.  Thanks again, Frank!

Image Credit: Frank D. Ellsworth
If you look to the left in the picture of Wood End Light above, you can see Long Point Lighthouse and that's as good as you're going to see it for this post! The 38-foot high lighthouse tower that was built in 1875 is accessible in summer from Provincetown via a boat shuttle run by Flyer's Boat Rental at the current cost of $10 one-way/$15 round-trip or it can also be reached after a long strenuous hike across a breakwater built in 1911 to Wood End Light then across sand to Long Point Light which ends up being a tough three-mile+ hike from the far west end of town.  I'm thinking that taking the boat shuttle is a much better option if you really want to see both lights - especially if you're strapped for time.

Back in 1818 a settlement was actually established at Long Point (which was visited by the Pilgrims in 1620 during the time they were exploring the area around Provincetown) and by the 1850s, upwards of 200 people lived there. The first lighthouse, built in the Cape Cod style of a lantern on top of the keeper's house, was constructed in 1826 and exhibited a fixed light 35-feet above mean high water which was visible for 13 nautical miles.

In 1856 Long Point Light was fitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens and following an inspector's report in 1873, $13,000 was appropriated for a new 38-foot brick lighthouse with a Fifth-order Fresnal lens exhibiting a fixed white light, a 1-1/2 story keeper's dwelling and a 1,200 pound fog bell.  Changes were made again in 1952 when Long Point Light was automated and the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic. In 1982 solar panels were installed and the keeper's house and fog signal building were destroyed. Licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and keep up the tower, Long Point Light is now maintained by the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation and remains an active aid to navigation.

Image Credit: Frank D. Ellsworth
By the 1860s, it was decided that another lighthouse was needed to protect Provincetown Harbor at the southernmost end of the curving spit of land so a white pyramidal day beacon was erected in 1864. On June 10, 1872 Congress appropriated $15,00 for the building of an actual tower and on November 20, 1872, the new light - a 38-foot brick tower with a Fifth-order Fresnel lens that exhibited a red flash every 15 seconds, 45-feet above the sea - went into service. In addition to the tower, which was originally painted brown, a keeper's dwelling was built about 50-feet northeast of the lighthouse which was replaced in 1896 when a new wood-frame keeper's house was built along with a storage shed and a small brick oil house for the storage of kerosene. Two years later, a 1,000-pound fog bell and bell tower were added near the lighthouse.

In 1916 the original lens was replaced by a Fifth-order lens which in turn was replaced by a modern optic when the light was automated in 1961. Twenty years later Wood End Light, which is still an active aid to navigation, was converted to solar power and, like Long Point Light, is under the care of the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation which has been licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and maintain it.

Race Point Light from Herring Cove Beach

The third lighthouse in the Provincetown area, also designed to help protect ships in Provincetown Harbor, is Race Point Light located at the northern tip of Cape Cod and established in 1816.  Like Wood End Light and Long Point Light, Race Point Light's grounds are open to the public though it's also difficult to get to as accessibility is via a 45-minute walk (a little over two miles in very soft sand) from Race Point Beach if you don't have a four-wheel drive vehicle and an Oversand Beach Driving Permit from the National Park Service. Unlike the other two lighthouses though, Race Point's 1876 Keeper's House and Whistle House are available for overnight or longer stays from spring through fall.

A slightly closer look at Race Point Light

Merchants and mariners of Provincetown had asked for a lighthouse at Race Point as early as 1808 but it wasn't until April 27, 1816 that Congress appropriated $8,000 for the building of a light station - Cape Cod's third - which went into service on November 5, 1816. Originally planned as a 20-foot octagonal tower, the light at Race Point ended up being constructed as a 25-foot rubblestone tower with its light 30 feet above the sea. In an attempt to differentiate it from other lighthouses in the vicinity, Race Point Light was one of the nation’s earliest revolving lights.

In 1852 a fog bell was installed at the light station then, three years later, an upgrade to the light itself was made when a Fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed to replace the old multiple lamps and reflectors. In 1873, the bell was replaced by a steam-driven fog signal which was housed in a new wood-frame building and a second dwelling was built for an assistant keeper in 1874. In 1875 it was reported that the tower was rapidly falling apart so in 1876, a 45-foot, brick-lined, cast-iron lighthouse replaced the old stone tower at a cost of $2,800. The new tower contained the original Fresnel lens that had been moved from the old tower and its characteristic changed from a flash to a fixed light. Around that same time the original stone keeper’s house, which was attached to the tower via a tunnel from the kitchen, was also torn down and a new larger dwelling was built.

When the light was electrified in 1957, the larger keeper's house was torn down and the assistant keeper's house was modernized and became the home of the Coast Guard's officer in charge. Following the light's automation in 1972, the Fresnel lens was removed and eventually replaced by a solar-powered VRB-25 optic.

Image Credit: Frank D. Ellsworth
In 1995, the surrounding property, which included the keeper's house and oil house, was leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation whose volunteers renovated the interior of the five-bedroom Keeper's House which they opened for overnight stays. With heat, hot water, flush toilets, refrigeration, and a stove, the 1876 house has all the comforts of home! If you're staying overnight, arrangements will be made to transport guests to the lighthouse on a four-wheel drive vehicle if you have not obtained a permit from the National Park Service for your own four-wheel drive vehicle.  For those staying at Race Point Light, there is also accessibility to the tower which has got to make a stay there even better than it would be anyway!

The former fog signal building was renovated in 2007 and is also available for rental as the Whistle House which can accommodate up to eight people in a private setting as, unlike the Keeper's House, a Race Point representative does not share the house with overnight guests. The house is available for rent from two to seven nights but guests who stay there have to have their own four-wheel drive and over sand permit from the National Park Service.  Both houses require guests to bring their own bed linens, towels, and food but what a cool place to take a vacation!

For information on staying at Race Point Light in either the Keeper's House or Whistle House, go to the Race Point Light Station website where you'll find all of the information you need. Trust me, this is definitely on my list of things to do someday as for a lighthouse lover like myself, it's got to be a dream come true to enjoy the beauty of the ocean from the view of a historic keeper's house - or better yet, the top of the tower!

For those who don't wish stay overnight at Race Point Light but wish to tour the lighthouse, it will be open for anyone to tour on the first and third Saturdays from June until October - from 10am to 2pm. Click here for available dates.

With any luck, next time I get out to Provincetown it will be with the opportunity to visit its three lighthouses closer than I was able to this time but for now, I'm always happy to even see a lighthouse from a distance. And who knows?  Maybe I'll even finally get to climb Highland Light while I'm at it!


  1. Wow..you sure don't fool around, Duchess, when you write a post. This is so chock full of info! Was Highland Light ever called Truro Light? I know I was in Truro ages ago and saw it.

    Must have been nice to be on the Cape in late April before the summer crowds move in.

    I actually got a little teary-eyed reading, since Cape Cod (and Chowdah) always reminds me of my Yankee father.

    1. I think that unofficially some folks might refer to Highland Light as Truro Light but when I was researching the history, it was always referred to as Highland and sometimes - though not often - as Cape Cod Light.

      And as far as timing goes and the lack of crowds, yes - it was very nice! Now if they'd just open things a bit sooner in the season for us "Early Birds"!

  2. Well, first of all I love Frank's photo with the gulls. Love.

    And you've captured quintessential Cape Cod! No surprises there! :)

    Your posts always leave me wanting to to move back home to New England. Then I remember I can't afford where I'd want to live. Oh... And then there's the snow and ice thing. :)

    I've only been to P'Town once and never saw any of this, of course. But then I was with he-who-would-be-my-ex and sisterdear Janice and he-who-was-not-yet-her-husband-who-and-is-still-not-my-favorite, and honestly it was not a good day for me all the way around. Oy.

    1. Barb, if you think you didn't see any of THIS in P'Town, just wait! There's a treat in store for you very soon ... though perhaps not on this particular blog!

      We'll have to get you back there one of these days and see if we can create a better memory for you; Claire has the same problem with her one trip to P'Town though for different reasons and different people (well, person really but we won't go into that!)


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