Cuttyhunk Island -- about two miles long by a mile wide -- is at the southwestern end of the Elizabeth Islands, a chain that extends westward for about 16 miles from the village of Woods Hole in Falmouth on Cape Cod. The 16 islands, which mark the boundary between Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay, constitute the town of Gosnold -- the least populated municipality in Massachusetts. The island's name comes from the Algonquin Indian word "Poocutohhunkunnoh," which is generally translated as "point of departure" or "land's end." A number of variations appear in early sources, including "Cutterhunk" and "Cuttahunk."
The island, which is about two miles long and a mile wide, was the scene of one of the earliest English colonies in America. Explorer Bartholomew Gosnold chose Cuttyhunk as a perfect place for a settlement in 1602, largely because of its freshwater pond. The Englishmen used the island as a base to explore the area, including Martha's Vineyard. Gosnold recorded a banquet with the local Indians, who enjoyed the food the visitors provided except for the mustard, which caused them to make a "sowre face." The first English settlement on the island lasted only three weeks as the Indians became hostile, possibly because the English party had stolen one of their canoes.
Coastal shipping traffic in the area was heavy by the early 1800s. In 1830, a total of 12,603 vessels were observed passing Cuttyhunk. The island's southwestern tip was an obvious location for a lighthouse to help guide traffic into Buzzards Bay and eastward into Vineyard Sound. The island's first lighthouse was built in 1823 for $3,000. The 25-foot stone tower exhibited its light from 48 feet above sea level.
When Lt. Edward Carpender inspected the station in 1838, there were 10 lamps with 13-inch reflectors in use. Carpender mentioned that the stone tower had twice been encased in brick. I. W. P. Lewis's examination, reported to Congress in 1843, forcefully confirmed that the lighthouse was not well built. Lewis described the tower as leaky from roof to base, and he said the "whole establishment [is] conducted in the worst manner."
A Fresnel lens replaced Cuttyhunk Light's old lamps and reflectors in 1857. In 1860, the dilapidated old tower was torn down. A second story was added to the keeper's dwelling, and a lantern was erected on the roof.
Alfred G. Eisener, a Maine native, became keeper in 1890. According to a newspaper account, the old dwelling when Eisener moved in was "very damp, and somewhat dilapidated." Funds were soon appropriated for the rebuilding of the dwelling, and for a new 45-foot stone lighthouse.
The design chosen for the new one-and-one-half-story, wood-frame keeper's house was the same as the design of a keeper's house built about the same time at Prospect Harbor, Maine. The first story contained a living room, dining room, kitchen, and pantry, and three bedrooms were located upstairs. A fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the new tower, presumably relocated from the old structure. The new light went into service in 1891.
Eisener moved on to Plymouth Light in 1894. A succession of keepers came and went over the next few decades; Eugene Terpeny stayed for the longest stretch (1894-1909). Terpeny's daughter, Alice Terpeny Petty, recalled her early life at the lighthouse many years later. She said that her father -- between visits of the government supply boat -- went to the village on the island to buy supplies and would bring them back in a wheelbarrow. As many as 10 or 12 people would come to the house for Sunday dinners, and the Terpenys' island neighbors would often visit to play whist, to sew, or to dance. The visitors would bring lanterns to light the way on their return trip.
Seamond Ponsart Roberts fondly recalls the family's years at the Cuttyhunk Light Station. After hearing stories of the area's early English explorers, she loved to "play Gosnold."
The crewmen from two local lightships -- the Vineyard Sound, and the Hen and Chickens -- often stopped at the Cuttyhunk Light Station on their way to or from their stations, and sometimes they spent the night on bunks provided by the Ponsarts. Seamond thought of the young men as uncles.
A hurricane on September 14, 1944, hit Cuttyhunk directly, changing the shape of the island. Ponsart weathered the storm and managed to keep the light going through the night, with the help of little Seamond, who ran up and down the stairs fetching supplies and coffee. As the wind reached its highest point, at about 2:00 a.m., there was a crash in the keeper's house -- a chimney had crashed through the roof. It landed on Seamond's bed, where she would have been sleeping if she hadn't been with her father.
The vessel went down with all hands, and all 12 crewmen on board were lost. Divers discovered the wreck of the lightship in 1963, and the ship's bronze fog bell was recovered. It was later incorporated into the U.S. Lightship Memorial on New Bedford's waterfront. Seamond Ponsart Roberts traveled from Louisiana to attend the memorial dedication.
The Ponsarts were still at Cuttyhunk Light in December of 1945 when the "Flying Santa," writer Edward Rowe Snow, dropped packages for the family from a plane. One package contained a doll for little Seamond. Unfortunately the doll was broken on the rocks, despite heavy packing. The girl was heartbroken.
The following Christmas the Ponsarts were stationed at West Chop Light on Martha's Vineyard. Edward Rowe Snow chartered a helicopter, flew to the island and handed a new doll to Seamond Ponsart. Seamond later served in the Coast Guard herself and has very fond memories of her Flying Santa.
A ferry from New Bedford will take you to Cuttyhunk. The island, which has a year-round population of under 100 people, is no longer worth visiting as a lighthouse destination, but is a fascinating place in its own right. There are good views of Martha's Vineyard's Gay Head cliffs from Cuttyhunk.
A round stone lookout tower stands as a monument to Gosnold's settlement. Octave Ponsart is buried on Cuttyhunk and a lighthouse is carved on his gravestone.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.