A lighthouse on what is now named Little Brewster Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor began to operate on this day in 1716. The lighthouse was called the Boston Light.
An earlier FreightWaves Classics article outlined the history of lighthouses in the United States. As noted in that article, ships today have navigational and communications aids that were almost unthinkable even 50 years ago, much less in the 1700s. Back then (and ever since) lighthouses signaled mariners as they approached land. Over the centuries, the beacons from lighthouses in the United States and around the world have saved thousands of sailors from catastrophe. Even with their 21st century equipment, many ships still rely on lighthouse beacons to guide them to safety and away from danger.
All U.S. lighthouses are now automated. But in 1716 (and well into the 20th century), lighthouses needed a “keeper” or keepers. The first keeper of the Boston Light was George Worthylake, who also worked as a pilot for ships entering the harbor. Unfortunately, Worthylake, his wife, daughter and two other men drowned in the harbor as they sailed into Boston from the lighthouse.
The first Boston Light
The 1716 structure was a circular, slightly tapered tower constructed of rubblestone. It stood about 60 feet high, and its light was provided by candles. In addition to building the lighthouse, a “a keeper’s house, barn and a wharf” were built at the same time. Three years later a fog cannon was installed.
The Boston Light guided ships for 60 years, although it was damaged by fires started by the light in 1720 and 1751, and by a severe storm in 1723. The lighthouse was repaired or rebuilt after each mishap. The most significant damage to the lighthouse happened during the Revolutionary War. The British occupied Boston (and Boston Light) at the beginning of the war. On July 20, 1775, Americans burned the wooden parts of the tower. When the British began to repair it, the Americans burned it again on July 31 and again in September 1775. When the last of the British garrison was evacuating Boston in June 1776, they blew up the lighthouse. There was no Boston Light from that time until after the war. In 1783, the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds to build a new lighthouse at the same location.
The second Boston Light
As technology improved, so did the lighthouse. A revolving mechanism was installed that created a flashing light in 1811. Further improvements were made – a chandelier with 14 lamps and reflectors was installed in 1828, and in 1844 the lighthouse’s cast iron stairs, iron window frames, balcony and large iron door were added (all of which remain). Then in 1851 a wind-up bell replaced the fog cannon.
The second lighthouse was also circular in shape and was also constructed of mortared rubblestone. However, it was higher than the first (75 feet high). The light in the second lighthouse was provided by four lamps lit using fish oil.
In 1789, the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE) was created and was an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department. All U.S. lighthouses were transferred to the federal government, which became the general lighthouse authority.
The U.S. Lighthouse Board
The United States Lighthouse Board was the successor to the USLHE, and it too was under the Department of Treasury. The new agency was begun because of complaints by the shipping industry regarding the USLHE. From 1820 until the U.S. Lighthouse Board took over, the USLHE had been under the control of one man for over 30 years.
The Lighthouse Board was responsible for the “construction and maintenance of all lighthouses and navigation aids in the United States, between 1852 and 1910.” The U.S. Lighthouse Board was a quasi-military organization that held its first meeting on April 28, 1851. At that time in particular, lighthouses were critical not only to the safety of U.S. and foreign ships in U.S. waters, but the lighthouses could warn the government of ships that might have hostile intentions.
There were many lighthouses along the coasts of the United States (as well as around the Great Lakes). Due to the Lighthouse Board’s actions, the administration of lighthouses and other aids to navigation underwent more modernization than since the beginning of federal control.
Specifically at the Boston Light, the tower was increased to 89 feet and a revolving lens was installed in 1859. In addition, the tower’s interior was lined with brick to better support it. The lighthouse’s brick entry was also added. A frame duplex was built for the assistant keepers as well.
Fog is a key peril for ships near shore. Therefore, the Boston Light’s fog signals were upgraded several times as new technology appeared: a striking apparatus was added in 1869; a whistle was attached in 1871; a fog-trumpet in 1872; and a steam siren in 1887.
Improvements to the Boston Light’s infrastructure were also made. A brick building was built in 1876 (that is still standing) to house the fog signal. Other intact buildings include: the frame keeper’s house and a brick cistern, built in 1884; a brick oil house built in 1889 (mineral oil had replaced lard oil as the light’s fuel in 1883); and a replacement boathouse in 1899. In 1913 the former wick lamps were replaced by an incandescent oil vapor lamp.
The Lighthouse Service
After nearly 60 years, the Lighthouse Board was abolished by Congress and replaced in 1910 by a civilian Lighthouse Service (also known as the Bureau of Lighthouses), which was first housed under the U.S. Department of Commerce.
U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction
However, President Roosevelt’s Reorganization Order #11 consolidated the Lighthouse Service with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), effective July 1, 1939. This was just two months before World War II began in Europe.
Following World War II, additional changes were made to Boston Light by the Coast Guard. The lighthouse was electrified in 1948. The motor that drove the rotating machinery of the lens was also electrified; the keeper no longer had to wind it by hand every four hours. However, at sundown and sunrise the keeper still had to climb the stairs to the light to turn on and off the switches for the light and the rotating gear. Then Boston Light was altered from a family-operated station to a male-only station in 1959. The following year, indoor plumbing was installed in the keeper’s house. Prior to that time, both the keeper’s house and the duplex were equipped with outhouses that discharged directly onto the island’s rocks (waste was washed away by the high tide).
Boston Light became a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The USCG was preparing to automate Boston Light and remove its personnel from Little Brewster Island in 1989. However, in November of that year, Congress passed a law sponsored by U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy that required Boston Light to be permanently manned. Now, Boston Light is the only manned lighthouse in the United States.
Moreover, the law also required that the USCG facilitate public access to Little Brewster Island. This was implemented during the 1990s, and culminated with the official opening of the island to the public in 1999. Boston Light’s light was automated in 1998 (the last lighthouse light in the country to be automated), and now remains on 24 hours a day. Today, the Boston Light’s light projects 27 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Boston Light lights the way
The lighthouse still functions as a major navigational aid for ships entering and leaving the Port of Boston. The only working lighthouse in the United States that is older than the Boston Light is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey. However, the Boston Light is the oldest continually used and last staffed lighthouse in the nation.