Minot's Rocks... lie off the southeastern chop of Boston Bay. These rocks or ledges... have been the terror of mariners for a long period of years; they have been, probably, the cause of a greater number of wrecks than any other ledges or reefs upon the coast.
-- Captain William H. Swift
It’s not the tallest or the oldest lighthouse in Massachusetts, and few would claim it’s the prettiest. But this rugged, waveswept tower has probably sparked more imaginations—and possibly more romances—then any beacon in the state.
Minot’s Ledge—about a mile offshore, near the line between the South Shore towns of Cohasset and Scituate—is part of the dangerous Cohasset Rocks, formerly known as the Conyhasset or Quonahassit after a local Indian tribe. It’s said that the Quonahassit people would visit the ledges to leave gifts of arrowheads, beads, and various trinkets, in an effort to appease the spirit they believed resided in the rocks. If the spirit became angry, they thought, it would bring destructive storms to the tribe.
The roll call of shipwrecks through the years near the Cohasset Rocks—especially Minot’s Ledge—was lengthy, with and many lives were lost. In August 1838, the Boston Marine Society appointed a committee of three to study the feasibility of a lighthouse on the ledge. The committee reported in November 1838:
The practibility of building a Light house on it that will withstand the force of the sea does not admit of a doubt—the importance of having a light house on a rock so dangerous to the navigation of Boston, on which so many lives, & so much property has been lost is too well known to need comment. . .
The Marine Society repeatedly petitioned Congress for a lighthouse between 1839 and 1841, with no positive results. The civil engineer I. W. P. Lewis made reference to the problem in his 1843 report to Congress:
For a long series of years, petitions have been presented to Congress, from the citizens of Boston, for erecting a light-house on these dreadful rocks, but no action has ever yet been taken upon the subject. One of the causes of frequent shipwrecks on these rocks has been the light-house at Scituate, four miles to the leeward of the reef, which has been repeatedly mistaken for Boston light, and thus caused the death of many a brave seaman and the loss of large amounts of property. Not a winter passes without one or more of these fearful accidents occurring. . . . One of the most interesting objects of this inspection was to ascertain the feasibility of erecting a light-house on the extremity of the Cohasset reef; and it was found that, though formidable difficulties would embarrass the undertaking, still they were not greater than such as were successfully triumphed over by a “Smeaton” or a “Stevenson.”
Lewis was referring to John Smeaton, builder of the 1759 lighthouse on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks off Cornwall, England, and to Robert Stevenson, who was largely responsible for the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse (1811) off the east coast of Scotland. The towers at Eddystone and Bell Rock—both constructed of interlocking granite blocks—were among the earliest and sturdiest wave-swept lighthouses in the world.
Lewis's report listed more than 40 vessels that had been lost on the ledge from 1832 to 1841. He asserted, "A light house on this reef is more required than on any part of the seaboard of New England."
In March 1847, Congress finally appropriated $20,000 for a lighthouse on the ledge; an additional $19,500 would eventually be needed for the completion of the project, including $4,500 for the lighting apparatus. The site selected was the rock known as the Outer Minot. Some believed a granite tower similar to England's famed Eddystone Light would be the proper solution, but Captain William H. Swift of the Topographical Department, chosen to plan the tower, believed it impossible to build such a tower on the mostly submerged ledge.
The ledge remained unmarked, and vessels continued to have trouble negotiating the area. On February 12, 1847, a brig from New Orleans struck the rocks in the vicinity of Minot’s Ledge. Luckily, the ship was able to make it to Boston with nine feet of water in its hold.
Less than a month later, Congress finally appropriated $20,000 for a lighthouse on the ledge; an additional $19,500 would eventually be needed for the completion of the project, including $4,500 for the lighting apparatus. The site selected was the rock known as the Outer Minot.
Many people believed a granite tower similar to the waveswept lighthouses of the British Isles to be the proper solution, as Parris had suggested, but Captain Capt. William H. Swift of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, designer of the tower, deemed it impractical to build such a tower on the small (about 25 feet wide), mostly submerged ledge.
The octagonal keepers' quarters (14 feet in diameter) and wrought-iron lantern were built atop nine 10-inch-diameter piles, cemented into 5-foot-deep holes drilled in the ledge and braced horizontally by three sets of iron rods.
April 5—This day and the last night will long be remembered by me as one of the most trying that I have ever experience during my life.
April 6—The wind E. blowing very hard with an ugly sea which makes the light real [sic] like a Drunken Man — I hope God will in mercy still the raging sea — or we must perish. . . . God only knows what the end will be.
At 4 P.M. the gale continues with great fury. It appears to me that if the wind continues from the East and it now is that we cannot survive the night—if it is to be so—O God receive my unworthy soul for Christ sake for in him I put my trust.
Fearing for his life, Dunham
requested that the tower be strengthened, but Captain Swift assured
everyone that it was perfectly safe. Unconvinced, Dunham resigned after
10 months as keeper. His two assistants also resigned.
The second keeper was John W. Bennett, a veteran of 25 years at sea and a former first lieutenant in the British Navy who was described by the local lighthouse superintendent as “a man of courage as well as character.” Bennett was confident at first, but he soon came to believe the lighthouse was unsafe. After a storm in the late fall, Bennett contacted the local superintendent, Philip Greely, who sent a committee to examine the structure. Visiting on a calm day, the committee concluded that the tower would withstand “any storm without danger.” The keepers were unconvinced.
Bennett installed a thick rope hawser extending from the tower to a rock about 200 feet away. A basket or sling was suspended from the rope, with the idea that the keepers could use it as an escape route in emergencies. Bennett apparently did leave the lighthouse via the hawser in times of heavy seas.
A 640-pound fog bell was installed in late October 1850, to
be sounded in times of “fog and snow storms, or other thick weather.”
Bennett and his assistants increasingly lived in fear of their lives as stormy weather became more frequent with the onset of winter. Assistant Keeper Samuel Gardiner described a December storm in a letter to Bennett, who was away:
The house was shaking very bad from 9 am until 4 pm. The watch bell was constantly ringing and it was almost impossible for us to stand on our feet. There was a barrel of water standing in the cellar which was half emptied by the shaking of the house. . . . The piles beneath us are now one solid mass of ice nearly as big as a three barrel cask. As for the ladder, that cannot be found. . . . I assure you sir that it was the most awful situation that ever I was placed in before in my life . . .
During a desperate night, Bennett wrote the following message:
These last forty-eight hours have been the most terrific that I have witnessed for many a year. . . . The raging violence of the sea no man can appreciate, unless he is an eye witness. . . .
The rods put into the lower section are bent up in fantastic shapes; some are torn asunder from their fastenings; the ice is so massive that there is no appearance of the ladder; the sea is now running at least twenty-five feet above the level, and each one roars like a heavy peal of thunder; the northern part of the foundation is split, and the light house shakes at least two feet each way. I feel as seasick as ever I did on board a ship.
Our lantern windows are all iced up outside, although we have a fire continually burning; and it is not without imminent peril that we can climb up outside to scrape it off, which I have done several times already. I have a dread of some ship striking against us, although we have kept the bell constantly ringing all night. Our water is a solid mass of ice in the casks, which we have been obliged to cut to pieces with an axe before we could obtain any drink.
Our situation is perilous. If anything happens before day dawns on us again, we have no hope of escape. But I shall, if it be God’s will, die in the performance of my duty.
P.S. I have put a copy of this in a bottle, with the hope it may be picked up in case of any accident to us.
Swift expressed some worry about the escape hawser installed by Bennett, calling it a “gross violation of common sense. . . . It needs no Solomon to perceive that the effect of the sea upon this guy is precisely that which a gang of men would exert if laboring at the rope to pull the light-house down.”
During a visit to Boston just after the March storm, assistant keeper Joseph Wilson, a 20-year-old native of England, told a friend that he would stay at the lighthouse as long as Bennett remained in charge. Wilson also said that in the event of a catastrophe, he would stay in the tower as long as it stood. He was confident of his ability to reach shore if the tower should fall.On April 16–17, 1851, a colossal storm brought high seas to the area, turning Boston into an island, washing a schoolhouse and a seawall off Deer Island in Boston Harbor, washing sweeping away several houses in Cohasset, and flooding much of the area. This gale would be immortalized as the Minot’s Light Storm.
Bennett had gone to Boston to see about procuring a new boat (to replace one that was lost in a storm on April 9) on Monday, April 14, and was unable to return to the lighthouse on Tuesday because of heavy seas. The two young assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, a 25-year-old native of Portugal, were on duty.
The light was seen to burn through the night on Tuesday, and the tower was last seen from shore, clearly standing, about 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Scituate residents reported that the light was last seen burning about 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday night. At some point, as the seas grew more turbulent, Antoine and Wilson dropped a note in a bottle into the waves below. The note, found the following day by a Gloucester fisherman, read:
The lighthouse won’t stand over to night. She shakes 2 feet each way now.
J.W. + J.A
Bennett went to the shore about 5:00 a.m. He saw fragments of the lighthouse lantern washing ashore, along with bedding and some of his own clothing. He also found an India rubber life jacket, which looked as if it had been worn by one of the assistant keepers, but was apparently torn from his body by the force of the seas. Two miles of beach were eventually littered with furniture and fragments of the wooden parts of the lighthouse.
The body of Joseph Antoine was soon found at Nantasket Beach in Hull. The remains of Joseph Wilson were found in the following October by Bennett on a small island called Gull Rock, about a mile southwest of Minot’s Ledge. His position on the island indicated that he may have reached there it alive but died of exposure before morning. Wilson’s skull was fractured, suggesting the possibility that he had fallen or had been struck by wreckage from the lighthouse.
An article in New England Magazine stated:
Others also expressed the belief that a platform the keeper had built provided an additional surface for the waves to lift against, and that the 300 feet of cable extending from the deck, covered with ice, contributed to the tower's demise.
From 1851 to 1860 a lightship replaced the tower at Minot's Ledge. Work on the new stone tower began in 1855. The new Minot's Light was designed by General Joseph G. Totten of the Lighthouse Board, and it has been called the greatest achievement in American lighthouse engineering.
Capt. Barton S. Alexander made some modifications in the design and was superintendent of the project. Because the construction could only take place at low tide on calm days, the cutting and assembling of the granite took place at Cohasset's Government Island, attached to the mainland. A team of oxen moved the blocks to a vessel that brought them to the ledge.
The great orator Edward Everett followed Alexander followed:
Levi Creed was at Minot's Ledge from 1865 to 1881, first as an assistant and then as principal keeper beginning in 1874. Parmalee McFadden, Creed's nephew, visited the lighthouse when he was 14. Years later, he wrote about the visit in St. Nicholas magazine:
If the sea is very calm, the more venturesome will approach the base and mount the ladder, which reaches some forty feet up to the first opening. If the sea is too rough for this, or when ladies desire to make a visit, the boat is made fast to the lighthouse's buoy, and the visitor is securely tied in a wooden armchair and hauled up by a block and tackle.
This precaution of fastening the visitor in the chair is especially imperative with timid persons or those who are at all liable to become dizzy; for although the chair is hung so as to give it a tilt backward, yet if a person fainted and fell forward, nothing but a strong rope would keep him from falling out of the chair. The rope is tied across from one arm of the chair to the other, very much in the manner in which a baby is made secure in its baby-carriage or go-cart. In winter, when one of the staff of keepers, who has been off duty on shore, comes out to the Light to relieve one of the other two keepers, it is usually so rough and the ladder so incrusted with ice that no other way of gaining admittance is possible except by being hauled up.
McFadden described the interior of the tower:
On reaching the first opening in the side, we came into the store-room, filled with fishing-tackle, ropes, harpoons, etc. In the center of this room was a covered well that contained drinking water, and extended down the very core of the otherwise solid granite structure nearly to the level of the sea. Above this room was the kitchen, and above that the sleeping-rooms, and the watch-room, where the keeper sat at night and constantly watched, on the plate-glass of the outer lantern, the reflection of the blaze of the lamp. There were always two keepers on -the Light at one time - each being on watch half the night.
At many coastal lighthouses with powerful beacons, it was common for birds to strike the lantern. Minot's Ledge Light was no exception. Keeper Levi Creed reported in May 1877:
Sea and land birds of all kinds come about the light in fall and spring, and all kinds of land birds in summer if the weather is foggy or smoky. As many as 10 have been picked up at one time on the walk, but I think hundreds are killed and fall in the water.
Winter life in the Minots tower
is very dreary. Its stone courses are so welded together that it has
become like one huge piece of stone, and it sways under the blows of
wind and wave as the trunk of a tree. But it as firm as the
oak it simulates in form. The life tells terribly on the keepers. More
than one has so far lost his mind as to attempt his own life, and
several were removed because they became insane.
Milton Herbert Reamy, a native of Rochester, Massachusetts, who previously served for a decade at Duxbury Pier Light and Plymouth Light, was the principal keeper from 1887 to 1915. A writer for the Boston Herald described Reamy in 1888 as “on the youthful side of 40, with a curling bronze-hued beard and a clear, sharp eye.”
“The trouble with life here,” Reamy once said, “is that we have too much time to think.” Reamy's son Octavius replaced him and stayed until 1924.
In 1894, Capt. F. A.
Mahan, an engineer with the Lighthouse Board, suggested a new system
for lighthouse characteristics. Under the new plan, every lighthouse in
the nation would be given a unique numerical flash. As a trial of the
new system, on May 1, 1894, Minot’s Ledge Light was given a
new 12-panel rotating second-order Fresnel lens and a distinctive
characteristic 1-4-3 flash—a single flash followed by an interval of
three seconds, then four flashes separated by one second, then another
interval of three seconds of darkness followed by three flashes again
separated by one second. Someone decided that 1-4-3 stood for “I love
you,” and Minot’s Ledge Light was soon popularly referred to as the “I
Love You Light,” an appellation that has inspired numerous songs and
Thompson's wife and children lived in one of the duplex houses on Government Island. At night, they could see the 1-4-3 flash of the lighthouse. Thompson's wife, Mary, told the children that their father was telling them how much he loved them each night with the "I Love You" flash.
In February 1936, Per Tornberg, principal keeper, and Manuel Figarado, a local man, were on their way to the tower in a small boat. The boat became trapped between two ice floes about 600 feet from the lighthouse. The seams on the boat split and it began to rapidly fill with water. Anthony Souza, the keeper on duty, witnessed the men's plight from the lighthouse and telephoned for help. Coast Guard crews from Hull and Scituate soon arrived and rescued the pair.
H. Fitzpatrick, seen here holding a birthday cake during a celebration
in 1936, served as principal keeper from 1936 to 1940.
One of the last Coast Guard keepers, Wesley B. Eaton, was left
alone for extended stretches more than once. After weathering the great
hurricane of 1944 in the tower alone, with waves clearing the top of
the tower, Eaton decided he was through with lighthouse keeping.
The lighthouse was automated and the keepers removed in 1947. The second-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a third-order lens. When the old lens was removed, it was put in one of the rooms below for temporary storage. Vandals broke into the lighthouse and smashed sections of the lens, which had been due to go to the Boston Museum of Science.
A power cable from shore -- installed in 1964 to replace a battery system -- was damaged in a storm in February 1971, and batteries were again used until the light was converted to solar power in 1983.
You can see Minot's Ledge Light from Government Island and other points on shore, but it is best viewed by boat. You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
(This 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Isaac Dunham (1849-1850); Isaac A. Dunham (asst., 1850); John Bennett (1850-1851); Joseph Wilson (asst., 1850-1851); Joseph Antoine (asst., 1850-1851); Joshua Wilder (1860-1861); T. W. Ryder (asst., 1860); W. H. Sylvester (asst., 1861-1863); A. W. Williams (asst., 1860-1861); William S. Taylor (asst., 1860-1861); James J. Tower (1861-1874); Thomas Bates II (asst., 1861-1864); James D. Baxter (asst., 1863); Israel Vinal (asst., 1864-1865); Alden Simmons (asst., 1865-1870); John A. Pratt (asst., 1866-1868); Levi L. Creed (asst. 1865-1874, principal keeper 1874-1881); Albert H. Burdick (asst., 1870-1877); Wallace Willcutt (asst., 1873-1874?); John G. Hayden (asst., 1874-1877); Thomas Joseph Sheridan (asst., 1876-1880); Amiel Studley (asst., 1877-?); Joseph B. Vinal (asst., 1877-1881); Charles Davis (asst., 1879-1880); Alonzo Smith (asst., 1880-1881); Joseph A Noble (asst., 1880-1881); Nathan Hendson (?) (asst., 1881); Daniel M. Ryan (asst., 1881-1882); Frank F. Martin (asst. 1881, principal keeper 1881-1887); Frank W. Thomas (asst., 1881-1883); Lester G. Willett (asst., 1881); Joseph Enos Frates (1st asst., 1882-189?); Joseph Jason, Jr. (asst., 1883); Milton Herbert Reamy (1887-1915); George L. Lyon (asst., 1887-1889); Octavius Reamy (second assistant 1909-1910, first assistant 1910-1915, principal keeper 1915-1924); Winfield L. Creed (asst., 1892?-1894); George Holmes (asst., 1892); James Kingsley (third asst., 1893-1894); John E. Morrill (asst., 1894); Charles Grey Everett (2nd asst., 1894-1895); George Jamieson (asst., 1894-1896); Levi B. Clark (second assistant, 1905-1907, first assistant, 1907-?); ? Currier (second assistant, 1910-?); Andrew Tullock (second assistant, 1910-?); Roscoe Lopaus (second assistant, 1896-1905); Douglas H. Shepherd (assistant, c. 1913-1915); Winfield Scott Thompson (c. 1915-1918); Pierre Albert Nadeau (assistant, c. 192?-1925); Per S. Tornberg (asst., 1922-1924, keeper 1924-1936); Otis E. Walsh (asst., c. 1930s); Anthony K. Sousa (asst., c. 1930s); George H. Fitzpatrick (asst., 1924-1927, principal keeper 1936-1940); Wesley B. Eaton (1943-1944); Julian Hatch (Coast Guard, 1946 - March 1947); BM1 Michael Pratt (Coast Guard circa 1946); George Miller (Coast Guard, circa 1946); ? Roach (Coast Guard, 1947)