Author photo

By Lily La B
contributing writer 

Let there be light

History's Garden


September 2, 2023

Courtesy U.S. National Parks Service.

"Boston Light NPS."

Here's a bit of interesting history: On Sept. 14, 1716, the first lighthouse in the Americas was lit. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts between 1715-1716. We beat out the Canadians who built their first lighthouse in 1734. And we beat out South America by more than 175 years.

I'm not sure whether to be impressed with how long ago the first lighthouse was built, or sad that it took settlers almost 100 years to build it after first arriving on the continent. I think I'll go with impressed.

Boston Harbor was discovered by John Smith in 1614, and became the major trading port in the 1600s and 1700s because of its strategic location within the colonies. However, unlike the mostly wide-open San Francisco Bay in California, Boston Harbor is a mess of islands along with shallow channels, submerged bars and strong currents.

In the 17th century, due to the difficulty of navigating the harbor, many lives were lost, as well as a fortune in goods. In 1715, the people of Boston petitioned the Massachusetts government (aka, the British Commonwealth) to construct a lighthouse. The government raised funds for construction by charging a one penny per ton tax on large vessels entering and leaving the harbor and an annual tax of five shillings for smaller and local vessels. Construction took a bit over a year and the completed tower was approximately 60 feet tall. No description of the original lighthouse survives but it is believed to have been lit with tallow candles and oil.

The first keeper was George Worthylake and he's the one who lit the lamp on Sept. 14, 1716. Just over a year later, he and his family drowned in the harbor while returning to the island after a trip to the mainland. The second lighthouse keeper, Robert Saunders, also drowned only a few days into his appointment. John Hays the third lighthouse keeper, had much better luck, serving nearly 17 years. Hayes is known for bringing a fog cannon to Little Brewster in 1719. In Hays's day, he'd have to manually load and fire the thing every 30 minutes or so until the fog lifted. A job for the strong-hearted! Nowadays, lighthouses have automated air horn systems that measure the thickness of the fog then blare as needed.

Boston Harbor was the scene of several battles relating to the Revolutionary War. After the December 1773 Boston Tea Party, the British blockaded the harbor and Boston Light was put under the control of British troops. In July 1776, as part of the colonial effort to end the blockade, a group of colonists landed on Little Brewster Island, took the lantern and oil, and set fire to the lighthouse building. Someone on the mainland wrote, "flames of the lighthouse ascending up to Heaven, like grateful incense." While spectacular, the fire didn't actually do a lot of damage to the stone building, but 10 days later another group of colonists arrived to remedy that with a second fire. The loss of the lantern and the fire damage apparently ended the use of the lighthouse by the British. However, just to thumb their noses at the colonists, when the British departed Boston Harbor in June 1776, they set a series of explosives that destroyed what was left of the lighthouse building. It lay in ruins for seven years.

The new Boston Light built in 1783, was designed to be "nearly of the same dimensions of the former lighthouse" and supposedly included the base of the original tower. Restoration work in 2014-15 showed that the stonework near the bottom of the tower is quite different from the upper part, which seems to support this theory. The 1783 tower was 75 feet high. It was raised to 98 feet (its current height) in 1856.

In 1859, a second order (second largest size) Fresnel lens replaced the old glass lamps. Fresnel lenses were a monumental step forward in lighting technology. French civil engineer Augustin Fresnel designed the bee-hive shaped glass lens made of multi-faceted glass prisms. Hundreds of pieces of specially cut glass surround the light source intensifying the glow and focusing the light into a powerful beam. Before the Fresnel lens, a lighthouse light would travel 8-12 miles. Fresnel light travels more than 20 miles. Additionally, Fresnel lenses can be mounted to revolve producing a flash of light instead of just a solid beam. Today, each U.S. lighthouse has a specific flash pattern that mariners can use to determine where they are. Boston Light winks every 10 seconds.

When first built, Boston Light used tallow candles. Over time whale oil replaced the candles, then lard oil and then kerosene. It wasn't until 1948 that Boston Light was electrified. The current lamp has two 1,000-watt bulbs, and with the second order Fresnel lens to focus the light, produces 1.8 million candlepower light that travels for 27 miles.

In 1789, Congress brought 12 colonial-era lighthouses, including Boston Light, under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service and its 29,000 navigational aids. Between 1939 and 1990, the Coast Guard worked to modernize and automate all the nation's lighthouses, with Boston Light being the last one on their schedule. Many people, sensitive to the historical value of Boston Light were concerned about vandalism of the site if it was fully automated and unmanned. In 1989, Senator Edward Kennedy sponsored an amendment to keep Boston Light permanently staffed. Although the light itself was automated in 1998, the island and lighthouse are a living museum of lighthouse history.

Courtesy of Sally Snowman.

Inside of the Boston Light Fresnel lens.

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