"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
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 them.
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
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 mistaken.
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
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
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 brink.
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 families.
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
- 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 increase efficiency).
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 tower
- 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
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 the barrier
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 book The Lighthouses
of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- The view from the top
- A view of the beach near the lighthouse
Over the world wherever I
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 email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 (1941-1945).