There were simple lighted beacons in the harbor before the first lighthouse. The primary function of the early beacons was not navigational, but rather to warn of approaching enemy vessels. It’s recorded that there was a beacon on Point Allerton in Hull as early as 1673 (certainly before the days of a criminal justice degree online or a RN to BSN online). The beacon was a simple structure supporting an open iron basket or grate in which “fier-bales of pitch and ocre” were burned.
There may have been an unlighted day beacon on the island we now know as Little Brewster before the lighthouse was established there, since early records refer to it as “Beacon Island.” The rocky island—about a mile north of Hull and about eight miles east of Boston—is only about 600 feet long with a maximum widthand at most of 250 feet wide, with a total area of about one acre above the mean high water mark. The highest elevation of about 18 feet is at the eastern end of the island, where the lighthouse is located.
Boston’s deep and spacious harbor led it to become the commercial center of America in colonial days. At that time, all large vessels had to enter the harbor between the Brewster Islands in the outer harbor and Point Allerton in the town of Hull. Clough’s New England Almanac of 1701 hinted at the need for a lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor. Early in 1713, a prominent Boston merchant and selectman named John George, representing the business community of the city, proposed to the General Court the “Erecting of a Light Hous & Lanthorn on some Head Land at the Entrance to the Harbour of Boston for the Direction of Ships & Vessels in the Night Time bound into the said Harbour.”
A committee headed by Lieutenant Governor William Tailer planned for the lighthouse. After visiting several of the harbor islands and conferring with the area’s most experienced shipmasters, Tailer reported that the best site for the lighthouse was “the Southernmost Part of the Great Brewster called Beacon Island.” Several islands in Boston’s outer harbor are collectively known as the Brewsters, after the Elder Brewster of the Plymouth Colony. Beacon Island, now known as Little Brewster, is attached to Great Brewster by a sand bar.
On July 23, 1715, the General Court of Massachusetts passed the Boston Light Bill. It read, in part:
The first lighthouse was financed by a tax of a penny a ton on all vessels coming into the harbor, and the same amount for vessels leaving the harbor. Smaller coasting vessels paid only two shillings as they left the harbor. Fishing vessels and small vessels transporting lumber and other building materials locally were taxed five shillings yearly.
A stone tower was built at a cost of £2,385. The exact dimensions aren’t known, but it’s believed the tower was at least 50 feet tall. The first keeper, 43-year-old George Worthylake, lighted the lighthouse on Friday, September 14, 1716. No description of the original lighting apparatus survives, but Arnold Burges Johnson wrote in his book The Modern Light-House Service that it was “first lighted by tallow candles.” The keeper was supplied with “Oyl Week and Candles” in November 1716; it’s possible that the lantern originally held both candles and oil lamps.
On November 3, 1718, Worthylake went to Boston to collect his pay. On his way back he stopped at Lovell’s Island, where he and his wife and their daughter Ruth boarded a sloop heading for Boston Light. A friend, John Edge, accompanied them. Witnesses later said that the party were seen to eat and drink “very friendly” while aboard the sloop, “tho not to excess.”
Benjamin Franklin, 12 years old at the time, was urged by his brother to write a poem based on the disaster. The young Franklin wrote a poem called The Lighthouse Tragedy and hawked copies on the streets of Boston. Franklin later wrote in his autobiography that the poem was “wretched stuff,” although it “sold prodigiously.”
Robert Saunders, a former sloop captain, became Boston Light’s second keeper on a temporary basis, until a new permanent keeper could be chosen. Saunders apparently drowned only a few days after taking the job; no details of the incident survive. John Hayes, an experienced seaman described as an “able-bodied and discreet person,” became the next keeper.
A bad fire gutted the lighthouse in 1751, and for a time the light was shown from a 40-foot spar. The early lighthouse was struck by lightning on several occasions, including an instance in June 1754 when lightning "tore off shingles from several places on the outside." The installation of a lightning rod was delayed because of the objections of some "godly men" who thought it "vanity and irreligion for the arm of flesh to presume to avert the stroke of heaven," according to a 1789 article. Practicality eventually won out and a lightning conductor was installed.More repairs to the lighthouse were in the works when the American Revolution intervened. In July 1775, Boston Harbor and the lighthouse were under the control of the British. On July 20, American troops under Major Maj. Joseph Vose landed at the lighthouse and took lamps, oil, and some gunpowder, and burned the wooden parts of the tower. After leaving the island they had to outrun an armed British schooner, and two Americans were wounded. An eyewitness described “the flames of the lighthouse ascending up to Heaven, like grateful incense, and the ships wasting their powder.”
As the British worked to repair the tower, 300 American soldiers under Maj.or Benjamin Tupper landed at the island on July 31. They easily defeated the British guard and again burned the lighthouse. As they tried to leave, they found their boats stranded as, for the tide had gone out. This gave British vessels time to reach the scene.
The Americans finally managed to launch their boats as the British fired on them. American troops at Nantasket in Hull helped by firing a cannon at the British boats, landing a direct hit on one. This turned the tide of battle and the Americans escaped with only one soldier having been killed. General Gen. George Washington praised the men: “The General thanks Major Tupper and the Officers and Soldiers under his Command, for their gallant and soldierlike behaviour in possessing themselves of the enemy’s post at the Light House, and for the Number of Prisoners they took there, and doubts not, but the Continental Army, will be as famous for their mercy as for their valour.”
At the end of their occupation of Boston Harbor during the war, the British lingered in the harbor for some months. As they left the area on June 13, 1776, one of their final acts was to set off a timed charge on the lighthouse island, completely destroying the tower. The remains of the metal lantern were used to make ladles for American cannons.
According to some sources, Keeper Robert Ball (whose nephew, William Minns, had served as keeper from some time in 1774 until July 1775) sailed away with the British fleet to Halifax in 1776, never to be seen in Boston Harbor again. But according to an October 1895 article in New England Magazine, after the destruction of the lighthouse in June 1776, Ball was certified by the Boston Committee of Correspondence as a person “friendly to the Rights and Liberties of Americans.”
In June 1783, a committee of the Boston Marine Society addressed the lack of a lighthouse. The commissary general of Massachusetts, Richard Devens, was authorized to build a new lighthouse on the original site. The new 60-foot (75 feet to the top of the octagonal lantern), conical rubblestone tower was designed to be “nearly of the same dimensions of the former lighthouse.” It has sometimes been claimed that part of the original tower was incorporated into the new one, but there is no evidence to support this assertion.
Thomas Knox was the first post-Revolution keeper. He stayed in the position for 27 years, also serving as a harbor pilot. Two of his brothers were also harbor pilots. Knox’s father owned Nix’s Mate Island in the harbor, and Thomas inherited ownership when his father died in 1790.
The light station was ceded to the federal government in 1790. With the change, Knox lost his title as Boston’s official “branch pilot.” Governor John Hancock assigned that designation to another man, but Knox continued to work as a pilot. In 1794, Knox’s yearly salary as keeper was set by the federal government at $266.67, which was raised to $333.33 in 1796.
Lewis’s system was subsequently installed at Boston Light in May 1810. Six whale oil–fueled Argand lamps were installed in two parallel rows, about 15 inches apart. A parabolic reflector was placed behind each lamp. An observer on a vessel about nine miles from both Boston Light and the light station at Baker’s Island reported:
The difference in the brightness of these and the Light at Baker’s island was as great as would appear between a well trimmed Argand lamp and a common Candle. . . . At 11 o’clock these were extinguished and the common lamps relighted—the effect produced by the change from light to comparative darkness was more striking than the first. We now stood towards the Lighthouse. At 12 o’clock the Argand Lamps were again lighted . . . When within two and an half leagues their power was so great as to throw a strong Shadow on the deck of the Vessel.
The Boston Marine Society urged the adoption of Lewis’s apparatus in
all American lighthouses, and he was subsequently awarded a contract
for that purpose. The Lewis system remained in use into the 1850s, long
after much of the rest of the world had adopted the use of the more
efficient Fresnel lens invented in France in 1822.
1809, the local lighthouse superintendent, Henry Dearborn, found three
perpendicular cracks in the tower, extending for almost its entire
height. Six iron hoops were added around the tower for extra support.
One band was removed in the early twentieth century; five aluminum
bands are in place today.
Jonathan Bruce followed Knox as keeper in 1811, but surviving correspondence indicates that Knox remained living in a dwelling on the island for some time. Bruce and his wife, Lydia, watched from the island on June 1, 1813, as the British ship Shannon battled the American frigate Chesapeake during the War of 1812. The Chesapeake was swiftly defeated, but not before the mortally wounded Captain James Lawrence uttered the immortal words, “Don’t give up the ship!” Bruce's wife, Lydia, died in the keeper's house in 1828. Bruce left Boston Light in 1833 and moved to Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor.
Edward W. Carpender inspected the station in 1838, while David Tower
was the keeper. Tower complained that the lantern leaked, which
sometimes caused the rotating mechanism to stop and forced him to turn
the apparatus by hand. Like his predecessors, Tower doubled as a harbor
pilot. Carpender noted that this practice took Tower away from the
lighthouse frequently at night, and he recommended that keepers be
forbidden by law to take on any pursuits that removed them from their
station during the hours that they should be concerned, above all, with
the lighting of the lamps.
A 1,375-pound fog bell, operated by clockwork machinery, replaced the old cannon in 1851. Moses Barrett, a Gloucester native, saw much change during his time as keeper (185662). The Lighthouse Board had suggested in 1857 that the tower be rebuilt at a cost of $71,000, but improvements were made instead.
David Tower died in 1844 after a brief illness. That same year, a new cast-iron spiral stairway with a wrought-iron railing was installed; the stairway is still in use today. Iron doors and window frames were also installed.
Joshua Snow followed Tower as keeper. Around this time, an unusual enterprise was in operation on Little Brewster Island—a “Spanish cigar factory,” staffed by young girls from Boston. The cigars the girls made were labeled as “Cuban” and were sold to unsuspecting locals. The authorities soon broke up the illegal business. Some sources place the cigar factory during the tenure of the next keeper, but it seems more likely that it operated during Snow’s stay. Snow left in December 1844, apparently dismissed after only a few months on the island.
Tobias Cook of Cohasset, Massachusetts, was the next keeper, staying until 1849. Following Cook as keeper was William Long of Charlestown, Massachusetts. An 1851 inspection was somewhat critical of Long, noting that he didn’t light up at sunset or put out the light precisely at sunrise. The tower was in need of whitewashing, and the copper lightning conductors were broken and neglected by the keeper.
A Gloucester native, Moses Barrett, saw much change during his time as keeper (1856–62). The Lighthouse Board had suggested in 1857 that the tower be rebuilt at a cost of $71,000, but improvements were made instead. In 1859, the tower was raised to its present height of 89 feet and a new lantern was installed along with a 12-sided, second-order Fresnel lens. The giant lens—about 11 feet tall and 15 feet in circumference—rotated by means of a clockwork mechanism that required frequent winding. A single lamp inside the new lens replaced the system of multiple lamps, and round “"bull’s-eye”" panels on the lens produced a flash each time they passed in front of the light source. The lens went into operation on December 20, 1859.
In the same year, the tower was lined with
brick, a spacious brick entryway was added to the tower, and a new
duplex keeper’s house was built. Beginning in 1861, Boston Light was
assigned a keeper and two assistants.