"Nowhere on the Cape's shorelines has the sea kept busier
at her handiwork than among these storm-bitten sands. Directly to the
south of the bluff, Monomoy lies beckoning like the bony finger of
death which it has been to countless ships." -
Josef Berger, Cape Cod Pilot, 1937
nestled at Cape Cod's southeast corner, was named for an English
seaport and incorporated in 1712. Maritime traffic passing the Cape was
heavy by the nineteenth century. The waters off Chatham were a menace,
with strong currents and dangerous shoals. Mariners talked of a ghostly
rider on a white horse who appeared on stormy nights, swinging a
lantern that lured mariners to their doom.
- The 1841 towers
In April 1806, nine years after the establishment of the
Cape's first lighthouse at North Truro, Congress appropriated $5,000
for a second station at Chatham. A second appropriation of $2,000 was
made in 1808. In order to distinguish Chatham from Highland Light, it
was decided that the new station would have two fixed white lights. Two
octagonal wooden towers, each 40 feet tall and about 70 feet apart from
each other, were erected on moveable wooden skids about 70 feet apart.
A small dwelling house was also built, with only one bedroom. Samuel
Nye was approved as the first keeper by President Thomas Jefferson.
Lt. Edward D. Carpender of the U.S. Navy visited the station
in 1838. Carpender's report described the 1808 towers as "very much
shaken and decayed, so as to make it dangerous to ascend them in windy
weather." The lighting apparatus at the time consisted of six lamps
with and 8 1/2-inch reflectors, with green glass lenses in front of
An appropriation for the rebuilding of the station was
requested for the next two years. In late 1841, the Treasury Department
announced, "The two light-houses at Chatham . . . being entirely unfit
for use, were taken down and rebuilt at an expense of $6,750, out of
the general annual appropriation for the present year. They were fitted
upon the improved plan, with fourteen-inch reflectors."
The two new brick towers, completed in the summer of 1841,
were each 30 feet tall. A new brick dwelling was connected to both of
the towers by covered walkways. The contractor responsible for the
rebuilding of the station was Winslow Lewis. Collins Howe, a Cape Cod
fisherman who had lost a leg in an accident, became keeper of the
Chatham Lights shortly before the new towers were built, at a yearly
salary of $400.
Howe complained in 1842:
I expected to have a light-house, and every thing in
first-rate order, when these new buildings were put up; but I was
The house had such a poor foundation that rats had burrowed in
and infested the cellar. A storm in October 1841 broke 17 panes of
glass in the lanterns, which Keeper Howe blamed on poor construction.
Howe lost his job as keeper in 1845 for political reasons. The
next keeper was Simeon Nickerson. Nickerson died while keeper and his
wife, Angeline, took over his duties. Maybe the rats had subsided,
because Collins Howes decided he wanted his position back and tried to
have Angeline Nickerson removed from the station.
The 1841 towers with the
lanterns installed in 1857. Courtesy of Anna Woodland.
Joshua Nickerson of Chatham wrote a letter to President
Taylor about the condition of the station:
I can testify that it has never been in a better
condition than since it has been under her charge, nor is there any
Light upon the Coast superior to it.
President Taylor ruled in favor of Angeline Nickerson,
who remained keeper for about a decade.
In 1857, the Chatham Lights received fourth-order
Fresnel lenses, each showing a fixed white light. The lamps were fueled
by lard oil.
Captain Josiah Hardy served as keeper at Chatham from 1872 to
1900. In his 1946 book A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, Edward
Rowe Snow wrote about a visit with the Harding family of Chatham:
Mrs. Harding went on with her thoughts. "There's an
interesting bit about Chatham Light I have," she reminisced. "One day
in the 1880s my husband, Heman, and Captain Josiah Hardy's son, Samuel,
were playing near the light, when the veteran white-whiskered light
keeper strode over to them. He had just finished calculations for the
day, and there was a pleased expression in his face. 'I want you two
boys to remember this day as long as you live,' said the captain. 'I
have seen as many ships today as there are days in the year.' "
...It must have been a wonderful sight, those 365 barks,
brigs, schooners, and ships as they sailed to all ports of the world by
Chatham Light. Today, when a sail is raised from Chatham Bluff, it is
considered an event, and there are almost a score of days every month
when no white sail lends its enchantment to the horizon.
In 1875, Keeper Hardy counted 16,000 vessels passing the
lighthouse. He reported often on the serious erosion problems, but
little was done to shore up the crumbling cliff.
A tremendous storm hit Cape Cod in November 1870. Before
the storm, the Chatham lights were 228 feet from the edge of the
50-foot bluff. The storm had broken through the outer beaches, and the
erosion accelerated. By 1877 the light towers stood only 48 feet from
The authorities took note of the rampant erosion and
moved quickly to rebuild the station, across the road and much farther
from the edge of the bluff. Two 48-foot, conical cast-iron towers were
erected in 1877, along with double one-and-one-half-story wood-frame
dwellings for the principal keeper, the assistant keeper, and their
On September 30, 1879, the old south tower teetered 27
inches from oblivion. Another two months passed, and a third of the
foundation hung over the edge. Around this time some local boys found
ancient coins, rumored to be pirate treasure, under the lighthouse.
Captain Josiah Hardy.
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
Fishermen placed bets on the exact time that tower would
fall. Finally, at 1:00 PM on December 15 the south tower fell to the
beach below. Fifteen months later, the old keeper's house and the old
north tower succumbed.
Hardy retired in 1897 and died in late 1900, survived by
his widow and four children.
The next keeper was Charles H. Hammond. James T. Allison
took over as principal keeper in 1907 and stayed for about 20 years.
By the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began phasing
out twin light stations as an unnecessary expense. The north light was
moved up the coast to Eastham to replace the survivor of the "Three
Sisters" in 1923, ending 115 years of twin lights at Chatham.
A new rotating lens was placed in the remaining tower,
along with an incandescent
oil-vapor lamp. In 1939, the Coast Guard electrified the light -- which
had been fueled by kerosene
since 1882 -- and increased its intensity from 30,000 to 800,000
candlepower (much like replacing appliance parts to
George F. Woodman, a veteran of 24 years of service at a
number of Massachusetts lighthouses and lifesaving stations, became
keeper in 1928. He was a perennial recipient of the superintendent's
efficiency star for excellent service.
Woodman was still there when a 1937 article reported
that the station had more than 1,500 visitors between mid-July and
mid-September of 1936. Woodman had the added duty of displaying storm
signal flags on a nearby 75-foot tower as needed, as well as storm
warning lights at night.
Foundation of the old north
U.S. Coast Guard photo
George T. Gustavus retired as keeper in October 1945.
Gustavus had previously served at Tarpaulin Cove Light, where he and
his wife, Mabel, had their second child. They went from there to
Eastern Point Light in Gloucester, then Thacher Island, Cuttyhunk, Bird
Island, Dumpling Rock Light, and Prudence Island in Rhode Island.
By the time they left Cuttyhunk there were 10 children
in the Gustavus family. Gustavus lost his wife and youngest son in the
hurricane of 1938 while at Prudence Island. He went to Nobska Point
Light as keeper, and finally Chatham.
Historian Edward Rowe Snow interviewed Keeper Gustavus
just after retirement for his 1946 book A Pilgrim Returns to Cape
I retired from service October 20, 1945. I guess
the world does not owe me much; have to make the best from now on. I
was married again in 1943. My wife Edith is my good companion to look
after things. The children are all in other parts, I'm grand-daddy
quite a number of times.
In 1969, the Fresnel lens and the entire lantern were
removed. Modern aerobeacons producing a rotating 2.8-
million-candlepower light were installed, and a new, larger lantern was
constructed to accommodate the larger apparatus.
- Keeper George T. Gustavus. Courtesy
of his granddaughter, Joan Kenworthy.
Five years later, the old lantern and lens were put on
display on the grounds of the Chatham Historical
Society's Atwood House Museum on Stage Harbor Road, just a few
minutes from the lighthouse.
The light was automated in 1982. It remains an active
aid to navigation, and the 1877 keeper's dwelling is used for Coast
Guard housing. In August 1993, the top of the lantern was temporarily
removed and new DCB-224 aerobeacons were installed.
Inside the tower
The erosion near Chatham Light had slowed in this
century, but in recent years a new threat has developed. A new break in
beach east of the lighthouse occurred during a winter storm in January
1987, and storms in 1991 exacerbated the situation.
The Town of Chatham has been implementing erosion
control measures, but the time will come, sooner or later, when Chatham
Light will have to be moved or follow in the wake of its predecessors.
Chatham is a charming town with many lovely old
houses, but it often gets very congested in the summer. Chatham Light
is easy to reach by car. A right on Shore Road at the eastern end of
Main Street will take you right to it. Bear in mind that the parking
lot is frequently full in season.
The monument standing near the foundation of the old
north light was erected in memory of seven members of the crew of the
Monomoy Life Saving Station, who died attempting to save the crew of a
coal barge in 1902.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the
Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
The view from the top
A view of the beach near
Over the world
wherever I fare
Sea-roving up and down
Forever in my heart I bear
The Lights Of Chatham Town.
- Carol Wight
list of keepers is a work in progress. Anyone who copies it to another
site does so at their own risk; I can't guarantee that the information
is correct or complete. If you have information to contribute, please
Samuel Nye (1808-?); Joseph Loveland (?); Samuel Stinson
(Stimson?) (c. 1832): Collins Howe (1841-1845); Simeon Nickerson
(1845-1848, died in service); Angeline Nickerson (1848-1862); Charles
Smith (c. 1862-?); Josiah Hardy (assistant 1871, keeper 1872-1897):
Charles H. Hammond (1897-?); Thomas F. McDonald (c. early 1900s); James
Allison (1907-1927); George Woodman (1928-?); George Gustavas