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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Boston Light
Boston, Massachusetts
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History - page one
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.
old painting of lighthouse

Boston Light, aptly dubbed the “ideal American lighthouse” by the historian Edward Rowe Snow, holds a place of honor among our nation’s beacons. This was the first light station established on the North American continent, and the last in the United States to be automated. It’s also our only light station that still retains an official keeper.

Seasonal public tours provide the public with the opportunity to experience this cultural treasure up close, and few attractions in New England can approach the thrilling panorama of the harbor and city seen from the lighthouse’s lantern.

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:

Whereas the want of a lighthouse erected at the entrance to the harbor of Boston hath been a great discouragement to navigation by the loss of the lives and estates of several of his majesty's subjects; for prevention thereof -- Be it enacted...that there be a lighthouse erected at the charge of the Province, on the southernmost part of the Great Brewster, called Beacon Island, to be kept lighted from sun setting to sun rising.

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.

old engraving

1729 engraving
Worthylake, who was brought up on George’s Island (previously known as Pemberton Island) in Boston Harbor, moved to the light station with his wife, Ann, and their daughters, Ruth and Ann. An African slave named Shadwell also lived at the lighthouse.

Worthylake also maintained a farm on Lovell’s Island, closer to Boston.Worthylake was paid 50 a year, which was raised to 75 in 1717. He made additional money as a harbor pilot for incoming vessels, and he also kept a flock of sheep on Great Brewster Island.
Fifty-nine of his sheep were caught on the long sand spit off Great Brewster during a 1717 storm; they drowned when the tide came in.

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.”

gravestone The sloop anchored near Little Brewster Island a little few minutes past noon, and Shadwell paddled out in a canoe to transfer the party to the island. Young Ann Worthylake and a friend, Mary Thompson, watched from shore. Suddenly, the two girls on shore saw “Worthylake, his wife & others swimming or floating on the water, with their boat Oversett.”

The canoe—possibly overloaded—had capsized, and all five people drowned. George, Ann, and Ruth Worthylake were buried beneath a triple headstone in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End.

Left: The triple gravestone of George, Ann, and Ruth Worthylake in Boston.

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.

Hayes asked for a gallery to be installed around the tower’s lantern room so that he could clean the glass of ice and snow. He also noted the need for some kind of fog signal, asking that “a great Gun may be placed on the Said Island to answer Ships in a Fogg.”

A cannon (right), America’s first fog signal, was placed on the island in 1719. Passing ships would fire their cannons when passing nearby in times of fog, and the keeper would reply with a blast from the light station. The cannon, cast in 1700 and possibly relocated from Long Island in the inner harbor, served on Little Brewster Island for 132 years.


fog cannon In the early 1960s, the cannon was moved to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. In 1993, it was returned by helicopter to Little Brewster, and today the venerable fog cannon sits today on a new carriage inside the base of the lighthouse tower (left).

A fire broke out in the lighthouse lantern on January 13, 1720, caused by the oil lamps falling on wooden benches. Hayes’s wife roused the keeper in the evening and informed him of the fire, and Hayes quickly ran up the stairs of the tower with two pails of water.

He later reported that the “fire was too violent to be subdued,” but he “saved many things belonging to the Light House.”
John Hayes retired because of advancing age in 1733. Robert Ball, an Englishman whose stay of about 40 years would be the longest stint of any keeper in the station’s history, succeeded him. Ball was assisted by a slave known as Samson, who died in 1762 and was buried on Rainsford Island in the harbor. The keeper still doubled as a harbor pilot during Ball’s stay. Ball seems to have made out well financially; he eventually owned three of the harbor islands—Outer Brewster, Calf Island, and Green Island.

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.

In an article published in 1789, Knox described the lighting apparatus as four lamps, each holding a gallon of oil. There were complaints that the light was too dim when seen from the sea, and the lamps produced a great deal of smoke. 

In 1807, Winslow Lewis, a member of the Boston Marine Society, began experiments with lighthouse illumination. He patented his system of Argand lamps (more efficient and less smoky than the old lamps) paired with parabolic reflectors in 1810. He first demonstrated his system in the cupola of the State House in Boston.

old painting of lighthouse
Circa 1783. (National Archives)

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.

In June 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.

Lieutenant 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.

Winslow Lewis installed a new lantern in 1839, along with new 21-inch reflectors from England. The engineer I. W. P. Lewis, Winslow's nephew, visited Boston Light for his 1843 report to Congress. He was critical, calling the tower "loose and leaky," and noting that the wooden stairway was so rotten "as to be unsafe of ascent." The two-story house, with four rooms on each floor, was in good repair, as was a new boathouse.

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.

old photo of lighthouse and house

Boston Light and the 1859 duplex keeper's house
Barrett witnessed one of Boston Harbor’s worst tragedies on November 8, 1861, when the 991-ton ship Maritana ran into Shag Rocks in the outer harbor during a heavy snow squall in the pre-dawn hours. The ship, with 39 people aboard, had been heading for Boston from Liverpool. Around 8:30 a.m., the ship broke in two, and the captain was killed.

Barrett signaled the town of Hull, and a pilot boat soon sent a dory to Shag Rocks. A dozen people survived, but 27 died in the wreck. During the following spring, the captain’s wife journeyed to Little Brewster Island to receive her husband’s watch and other belongings that Barrett had been holding for her.
Last updated 1/6/11
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.
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