Island, the longest and largest (214 acres) of the 34 islands in Boston
Harbor, has seen a myriad of uses. It’s been home to a resort hotel,
military fortifications, cottages occupied by Portuguese fishermen, a
hospital, and even a missile base. Edward Rowe Snow’s book The Islands of Boston Harbor informs
us that the island officially became part of Boston in 1634, and that
it was divided into lots for planters in 1640. The planters were later
charged a yearly rent to help pay for a school in Boston.
island has a healthy dose of legend and lore. Some claim it’s haunted
by the “Woman in Scarlet,” the ghost of the wife of a British soldier.
The woman was reportedly killed by cannon fire in 1776 and buried in a
its inauguration in 1716 into the early nineteenth century, Boston
Light served as the only lighthouse for vessels approaching Boston. In
1818, a committee of the Boston Marine Society noted the large number
of vessels that passed close by Long Island as they entered the harbor
from Broad Sound. The committee sent their recommendation for a
lighthouse on Long Island Head to Congressman Jonathan Mason.
wasted little time, appropriating $11,500 for the lighthouse in March
3, 1819. A committee of the Boston Marine Society was formed to
designate the site for the new lighthouse. One of the five men
appointed was Winslow Lewis, who gained prominence as the builder of
many early lighthouses and as the primary supplier of lighting
apparatus for many years. A site was selected by early April. According
to M. F. Sweetser’s 1883 King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor, the federal government had to resort to a lawsuit to acquire the needed land “without emptying the treasury.”
The island's first
lighthouse was a stone tower 20 feet tall, topped by a 7-foot-tall
lantern with a soapstone roof. It was built high on a hill at
the northern end of the island, with its light 109 feet above
the sea. The keeper's dwelling, also built of stone, was attached
to the tower. A fixed white light was produced by a system of
10 lamps and reflectors. The light went into service on October
first keeper was Jonathan Lawrence, a veteran of the War of 1812.
Lawrence was a local man who had served in the army during the War of
1812. At the Battle of Fort Erie in August 1814, Lawrence was struck by
a bullet that grazed his head, entered his shoulder, and exited through
his back. He was one of many wounded veterans of various wars who
received light-keeping appointments as favors.
Sunday in April 1821, Lawrence spotted a sailboat in distress near the
island. He quickly descended the hill and launched a small boat.
With the help of a man from nearby Rainsford Island, Lawrence rescued
three survivors who were clinging to the overturned sailboat. Two other
passengers had already drowned. A newspaper report on the
incident added this editorial comment: “We have not heard that
either necessity or mercy called those persons out on the Sabbath. Many lives have heretofore been lost in this way. Let these facts speak loudly as a CAUTION.”
Lawrence died at the age of 45 in September 1825, apparently
of complications from his war wounds. The next keeper was Charles
Beck. Beck was still in charge in 1845 when the writer James
Lloyd Homer visited and observed that the keeper had the added
duty of running a signal tower for harbor pilots, hoisting a
black ball when pilots were needed for an incoming vessel. This
system was apparently in use from the earliest days of the lighthouse.
Engineer I.W.P. Lewis visited during his examination of the
coast's lights in 1842. Lewis reported that the tower was leaky
and the walls were cracked with frost. He added the following
The lantern is of the rudest description, and a considerable
portion of the light lost by obstruction from the frame work.
One lamp of a proper form is sufficient for this locality.
separate inspection in 1843 by Levi Lincoln, collector of the Port of
Boston and local lighthouse superintendent, mentioned that the wooden
parts of the tower were decayed, and that the glass in the lantern
glass had been cracked and broken by a severe winter. In fact, the
entire tower, which had a shallow foundation, seemed to have moved as
the ground froze and thawed.
new cast-iron lighthouse -- the first of its type in the United States
-- was built in 1844. It was similar in appearance to two other New
England lighthouses built a short time later, at Juniper Island,
Vermont (1846), and Monomoy Point, Massachusetts (1849).
A Boston newspaper reported:
A cast iron lighthouse, to be placed on the old site on
Long Island Head, has just been completed by the South Boston
Iron Company. It is cast in sections of about seven feet each
in height, and twelve feet in diameter at the base, and six feet
at the top. It is furnished with an iron deck, projecting on
the outside so as to furnish a walk round the lantern twenty
inches in width finished with a railing. The lantern is made
of upright wrought iron bars to receive the glass, having sixteen
sides of four feet by sixteen inches, and is surmounted by a
cast iron dome or roof, making the whole height thirty-four feet.
In the centre is a cast iron pipe, extending from the bottom
to the summit, which serves as a smoke flue for the stove, and
around which winds a circular stair case of cast iron.
- The second Long Island Head Lighthouse
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Beck was still in charge when an 1850 inspection produced the this
comment:, “Everything in and about these premises is just about as it
should be. Keeper is a good one.”
In 1857, a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the old lamps
and reflectors. A number of repairs were carried out in 1863,
including the replacement of the tower's watchroom floor.
A tremendous storm on September 8, 1869, knocked the chimney
off the keeper's house and damaged the roof. A skylight window
was blown in and the station's fence was damaged. Not long before
that, lightning had struck and damaged the boathouse. Necessary
repairs were quickly carried out.
A new cast-iron lighthouse was built in 1881, along with a
new wood-frame keeper's house.
The tower was typical of the ones built at many New England
locations around that time, with several iron cylinders bolted
- The third Long Island Head Light
The 1881 tower remained in use for less than 20 years. The
island's Fort Strong was enlarged around 1900, and it was decided
that the light station should be relocated to a position where
it would not be "exposed to injury by the firing of guns
in the new sea coast battery."
A 52-foot cylindrical brick lighthouse was built in the new
location in 1901. The keeper's house and outbuildings were moved
rather than rebuilt.
The following year's annual report announced that a boathouse
had been added to the station, and that the tower's color was
changed from unpainted red brick to white.
On January 8, 1918, Edwin Tarr, who had become keeper in
1906, died while sitting in his chair facing the harbor.
A few days later, Tarr's funeral was held in the keeper's
house. A sleet storm arrived during the service. When the pallbearers
emerged with the casket, they found the steep hill coated with
a sheet of ice.
- The 1901 lighthouse (U.S. Coast Guard
As the four men attempted to carry the casket down the path,
one of them slipped and lost his grip. The coffin fell to the
ice and began to slide on its own. The men, seeing no other option,
jumped on the coffin in an attempt to slow it down, and they
rode it down the hill like a toboggan.
The coffin came to rest just at the head of the wharf and
further catastrophe was averted. One of the pallbearers, a soldier
at Fort Strong, related the incident to Edward Rowe Snow, who
immortalized the macabre story in The Islands of Boston Harbor.
After Tarr's death, various custodians attended Long Island
Head Light until 1929, when it was converted to automatic acetylene
gas operation. The keeper's house and other outbuildings were
removed at some point after automation.
Fort Strong was eventually abandoned; some of the fort's structures
still stand in disrepair.
In 1982, the Coast Guard discontinued the lighthouse. In 1985,
The decision was reconsidered in 1985 and the tower was renovated,
a solar-powered optic was installed, and the light became active
The lighthouse received a major renovation in the summer of
1998, carried out by the Campbell Construction Group of Beverly,
Massachusetts. The tower and lantern were repainted, and some
of the original brick, mortar, and ironwork were replaced.
A resort hotel on the island was bought by the City of Boston
in 1882, and it evolved into a poorhouse and then a hospital.
The facility is now a homeless shelter and alcohol and drug abuse
treatment center. A bridge to Long Island was built from the
city of Quincy in 1951, but the road to this facility -- which
extends close to the lighthouse -- is off-limits to the general
An early 20th century scene at Fort
Strong. The lighthouse is at the upper left.
The iron stairs in the tower and the ladder to
the lantern room
Marty Nally supervised the 1998 restoration for Campbell Construction
A tall ship passes Long Island Head
in October 1992
A view from the top of the tower.
That's Deer Island and its water treatment plant across the harbor
Ownership of the lighthouse passed to the National
Park Service in June 2011. An inspection in late 2011 showed problems
from excessive dampness inside the tower.
Long Island Head Light can be viewed from any of the boats
leaving Boston's Long Wharf for George's Island, and from many
of the other scenic cruises in the harbor. The lighthouse can also be seen across the
harbor from the public walking trail around the perimeter of
Deer Island, which is accessible from the town of Winthrop.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses
of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- Looking back toward Long Island from
the top of the tower
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Jonathan Lawrence (1819-1825, died
in service); Charles Beck (1825-c. 1850); George Henchman (c.
1850-1857); Richard Nichols (1857); John H. Litchfield (1857-1861);
John Spear (1861-1864); Pliny B. Small (1864-1881); Thomas H.
Lyndon (1881-1894); John B. Carter (1894-1906); Edwin
Tarr (1906-1918, died in service).