BOSTON LIGHT: The country’s first lighthouse turns 300 years old.
On September 14, 1716, a light appeared in the night sky off Boston, telling mariners where to find the channel that would take them safely into the city’s inner harbor. Three hundred years later, a light stands on the same spot. It’s not the same one, for reasons explained below, but it is in the same place.
In winter 1991, I went to the site of Boston Light and spent a long, cold, dark night getting a feel for what it’s like out there. I didn’t seek out that assignment; my editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, the estimable Bill Elsen, made me do it. I’m glad he did.
As a public service, I am republishing it below ( — minus the two photos I took while I was out there, which the Post does not include in its digital version of this story).
Keeping the Faith at America’s Last Manned Lighthouse
[December 25, 1991/Page A1]
By Christopher B. Daly
This time of year, night comes early to Little Brewster Island, the oldest lighthouse site in America.
On Saturday, as the winter solstice neared, the sun disappeared behind the rest of America at 4:15 p.m. and did not emerge from the Atlantic again until 7:11 a.m. Except for a visitor, this longest night of the year was just another night for the two Coast Guardsmen who serve as lonely lightkeepers at Boston Light, the nation’s last manned lighthouse.
Every 10 seconds, silent and unceasing, Boston Light sent a radiant spoke through the icy darkness, keeping faith with ships at sea and with thousands of men, women and children who once kept the home fires burning in the nation’s lighthouses. The first lighthouse in English-speaking North America was built here in 1716, and thanks to an act of Congress two years ago, the Coast Guard will man Boston Light indefinitely. Three men will share the duty, two weeks on and one week off, in a clockwork rotation.
Which is just fine with Boatswain’s Mate Alexander “Sandy” Booth, 40, the head lightkeeper who has served here almost two years. “I like it out here,” he said. “It’s unique. Being out here, you’re basically a tour guide.” In a busy year, several thousand visitors may tour Little Brewster Island, although almost never in winter. “It’s nice talking to them. It breaks up the monotony too.”
Seaman Scott Gamble, who has been here 1 1/2 years and was born the year Booth entered the Coast Guard, said he also likes the solitary life. He knew when he graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, he said, that he did not want to go straight to college or flip burgers. “My mom can’t believe I’m out here,” he said. “My personality changed so much. You just get laid back. Then, on my week off, I sleep maybe four hours the whole week.”
Booth and Gamble are carrying on centuries of tradition. The original Boston Light was erected in 1716 when Massachusetts was an English colony and Boston was one of the busiest ports in the New World. Before then, ships were guided by bonfires on shore, but false lights lit by thieving “wreckers” occasionally lured boats onto the rocks, where they could be plundered.
The first lighthouse stood until 1776, when it was destroyed by British troops being pushed out of Boston by rebels at the start of the Revolution. It was rebuilt seven years later.
In 1789, when Congress met in its first session, lighthouses were among the first issues considered. The ninth official act ever passed by Congress transferred the 10 lighthouses then in existence into federal hands and ordered construction of a new one at Cape Henry, Virginia.
Until 1939, lighthouses were operated by the Lighthouse Service, a civilian federal agency that was merged that year with the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service into the present-day Coast Guard. Before then, most lighthouses were operated by families, who endured isolation, hard work and savage storms.
As many as 1,200 lighthouses were thought to have been built along the nation’s ocean, river and lake coasts, including some private ones. About 800 are standing, according to preservationists, and as many as 500 are in operation, almost all by the Coast Guard. Only Boston Light is not automated, spared anew in 1989 by an amendment sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who liked to sail.
On this one-acre island today, isolation is punctuated by television, radio, telephone and regular shore leave, and technology has replaced most of the chores once required to keep a giant lamp burning whale-oil or kerosene all night. In fact, all Booth and Gamble really need to do is flip a switch twice a day, to turn the light on and off.
Boston Light looks much as it has since 1783, a massive white cone with granite walls eight feet thick at the base tapering to three feet at the top. Inside, 76 spiral stairs lead to the lens room, where there are two 1,000-watt General Electric bulbs. A 12-sided glass lens concentrates light into beams of 1.8 million candlepower visible for 27 miles in clear weather. Because the lens stands 109 feet above sea level, the beams pass well above the island and are barely visible to bystanders.
The bulbs are fixed in place. The lens, with its 12 faces, rotates to produce the light’s characteristic 10-second intervals. Like all lighthouses, which use patterns of long and short flashes, Boston Light has a signature that can be found on mariners’ charts and is recognizable as its alone.
Boston Light stands at one end of Little Brewster, whose acre of rock and grass is about a mile from Hull, Mass. Little Brewster, a saddle-shaped island in Boston harbor, has a hill at either end and a trough in the middle, where the ocean roars through in storms.
White wooden buildings topped by red shingles dot the island. Beside the light is an outbuilding that houses a diesel generator to back up the regular electric supply, plus the foghorn. Nearby is a rain shed, where fresh water is collected on the roof and stored in a giant cistern. At the island’s other end is a boat shed, which doubles as a weight-lifting room, and the keepers’ two-story house, comfortable and well-heated with three bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room and office.
Postcard pretty on the outside, the interior has that unmistakably casual air of a place where men live without women. Boston Light is a “stag light” to which no women have ever been assigned. “That would be asking for trouble,” Gamble said. The Coast Guard could put an all-female crew here, Booth noted, but he said they might become a magnet for rowdies in motorboats.
[UPDATE: The island now has a diverse crew. — CBD]
The island’s other regular inhabitants include two dogs and a cat, who keep rats in check. A snowy owl dropped in Sunday morning, one of many birds visiting the treeless island.
The day starts early for one keeper because someone must take weather readings at 6 a.m. Collected every three hours through 6 p.m., they are relayed to the National Weather Service in Boston. Well after sunrise, one keeper shuts off the main light, and sometime before dark, one turns it back on.
Otherwise, the men carry out minor repairs and whatever housekeeping suits them. They eat when hungry, cooking food they bring from the mainland, and sleep when they feel like it.
In summer, they see many welcome visitors, organized tours and curious boaters. The keepers said they like the company and do not mind acting as tour guides. In nearly two years here, Booth said, he has had no serious trouble from the public. The Coast Guard does not officially issue them weapons, but both men made clear that they are ready for anything.
In good weather, they cut the grass, tend a flower and vegetable garden, go fishing and cook out. When there are no tours or Coast Guard brass around, the keepers generally dispense with uniforms, saluting and the formality of military life. Then the lighthouse seems like a firehouse where the bell never rings.
In winter, they read, play cribbage or cards and putter inside. They watch a lot of television — football, how-to shows on cooking and gardening and more football. With no cable television, selection is limited. Saturday’s popular fare was “Baywatch,” a lifeguard show set on a far warmer coast and featuring women in bikinis being rescued in shallow water.
As Christmas neared, the keepers said they were trying to put it out of their minds. “My Christmas will be Saturday morning, when I get home,” Gamble said. “My parents are kind of, like, postponing it.” Gamble, who is single, said he and Booth, a divorced father of two, will not do anything traditional on Christmas Day. “I’ll probably have a steak,” gamble added. Booth said they cooked a turkey dinner one Christmas. It was a lot of work, he said, and a lot of food for two guys.
“You don’t worry about holidays out here,” he said. “The only holidays are the ones you’re off.”