Lighthouses date back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The first signals for seafarers were actual fires set to warn sailors that they were coming close to shore. Shortly thereafter, lighthouses were constructed to warn seafarers of the nearby coastline.
During Colonial times, lighthouses became synonymous with safety along the rocky and treacherous eastern coast of the United States, namely in the states of Massachusetts and Maine. The first guiding light in America was constructed in 1716 in Boston Harbor. Boston Light as it is known was destroyed during the Revolutionary War and later, rebuilt in 1783 to aid the activities of the busy seaport. Constructed of granite, brick, and rubblestone, Boston Light is a beacon soaring 89 feet high. Today, it not only holds the special distinction of being the oldest lighthouse in the country, located on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, but it also will be forever maintained due to an 1989 Act of Congress. The congressional mandate states that Boston Light will serve as a monument to the service of lightkeeping and will always be manned and cared for by human hands. While automated, Boston’s famous lighthouse will remain a symbol for the innovators who kept the seaside superhighway safe since the infancy of our country.
Cape Cod and the Islands
As Boston set an example for lighthouses along the rocky Atlantic coast, Cape Cod presented some of the most dangerous areas for the all-important fishing and sea-shipping industries. Cape Cod’s eastern coast and “elbow” as the natives call it near Chatham saw horrible storms, beach erosion, and shipwrecks in great numbers during the late 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Around the famous Cape, lighthouses were built with multiple lights to illuminate the path for ships. For instance, a ship traveling from points south to north along the coast, the government commissioned on light at Monomoy, two lights at Chatham (at mid-Cape), and three lights (known as the three sisters) at Nauset. This group of lighthouses aided in safe passage along the waters off the Cape Cod shoreline. Famously, the two towers that once stood at Chatham to give light to the seafarers succumbed to beach erosion from storms and, in 1879 and 1881 respectively, fell into the sea. A single lighthouse was reconstructed and serves sea traffic today.
Along the coast of Maine, some of the most famous and often photographed lighthouses exist including Marshall Point Light at Penobscot Bay (made famous by Tom Hanks’ cross country jog in the film Forrest Gump), Portland Headlight which was commissioned by President George Washington in 1791, and the red and white candy-cane striped West Quoddy Headlight near Lubec, Maine. West Quoddy Headlight marks the easternmost point in the continental United States.
When visiting lighthouses, remember they are a nod to bygone times when they showed a sailor the way to safety in the maritime industry. Before radar or GPS, these beacons saved many lives. As you remember the reason for these beautiful structures, don’t forget to take in the sights. Many lighthouses are brightly painted, high stepping landmarks while others serve as commercial bed and breakfasts where you can rent a night’s lodging beneath the lantern. Don’t forget your camera.
Caption: Lanterns house lighthouse lenses which give warnings to marine craft.