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Palmer's Island Light
New Bedford, Massachusetts
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History
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.

Six-acre Palmer's Island, in the Acushnet River on the west side of the entrance to New Bedford Harbor, has been the scene of great heroism and tragedy, and its lighthouse was once considered one of New England's most picturesque. For years the lighthouse and the island itself were sad victims of neglect and vandalism, but thanks to concerned citizens and officials of the city of New Bedford, the lighthouse is shining once again.

The island got its name from one of the first settlers of Dartmouth, William Palmer. Like Boston Harbor's Deer Island, Palmer's Island was used as an internment camp for Indians during King Philip's War in 1675-76. Most of these Indians were later sold into slavery in the West Indies.

old photo
Palmer Island Light with its first "birdcage" style lantern room (U.S. Coast Guard)

The island was once much larger and heavily wooded. “The craggy rocks and old cedar trees formed a fine opportunity for the exercise of youthful romance,” wrote Daniel Ricketson in his 1858 volume, The History of New Bedford. Today, there’s not a tree to be found.

New Bedford was the whaling capital of the nation in the mid-nineteenth century. The whaling industry reached its peak in the 1850s, when New Bedford had a fleet of 239 ships. In his 1843 survey of the lighthouses along the coast, inspector I.W.P. Lewis pointed out the need for a lighthouse on Palmer's Island:

This island lies directly within the entrance to New Bedford Harbor. A single lamp beacon place upon it would add materially to the facilities requires on entering this important harbor.

  

A lighthouse was built on the northern point of the island for $1,951 by Charles M. Pierce, a mason. It was first lighted on August 30, 1849, by William Sherman (sometimes spelled Shearman), the  keeper. The 24-foot tower was built of rubblestone, with wooden windows and floors. A walkway connected the lighthouse to the higher part of the island. Like many of the nation’s lighthouses at that time, the lamps were fueled by New Bedford whale oil.

An 1850 inspection reported:

Tower of the light-house built of stone, and tight; dwelling is of wood and somewhat leaky; lantern is a good one, and the whole taken together is a fair piece of work... Found the apparatus clean; but the dome of the lantern, whih was painted white, was just as black as could be -- casued by burning Mr. Rodman's lamp with whale oil. Swelling is too small and needs a porch.

Keeper Sherman left to become the toll collector on the Fairhaven Bridge in 1853. Charles D. Tuell, who remained keeper until 1861, replaced him. Joseph B. C. Tuell was born at the lighthouse to the keeper and his wife in 1858. When Joseph Tuell died in 1935, his ashes were spread over the island from an airplane.

From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

Palmer's Island saw much activity during the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, a hotel and dance hall were built on the southern side of the island, and visitors came by steamer from New Bedford. The hotel became a favorite stop for returning whalers, and illegal activity grew rampant. The hotel closed around 1890 and an amusement park was built on the island. This park failed after a few years, and the old hotel building burned down in 1905.

George Cowie served as keeper from 1872 to 1891. He complained that the well water was brackish and that the smoke from New Bedford factories blew across the island, contaminating the cistern with soot. It's unclear if anything was done to remedy the situation.

From 1888 to 1891 a red light on the nearby Fairhaven Bridge served as a range light with Palmer's Island Light. This arrangement helped mariners past Butlers Flats before the lighthouse was established there. Later for a time a light on the Wamsutta Mill served as a range light with Palmer's Island Light.

The early 1900s saw a number of changes at Palmer's Island. A new fog bell and striking machinery were installed in 1900 in a pyramidal wooden tower. Later, the fog bell was removed from this tower and placed in a structure that was attached to the lighthouse.

New stairs were also installed in the lighthouse in 1900. The following year 75 tons of rip-rap stones were placed on the beach to afford some protection in storms. An oil house was added in 1905.

The range light on the Fairhaven Bridge
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknel

The U.S.S. Constitution passes Palmer's Island, August 6, 1931
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
 

Arthur Small, a native of Brockton, Massachusetts, came to Palmer's Island as keeper in 1922, moving with his wife Mabel and two sons from Boston Harbor's Narrows ("Bug") Light. Small, one of three lighthouse keeper brothers, was a gifted artist who often painted scenes on Palmer's Island. He had been a seaman and lighthouse keeper since the age of 14. For 16 years Small served on the island, operating the light and fog bell.

The historian Edward Rowe Snow quoted Arthur Small’s comments on the importance of his work to the commerce of New Bedford Harbor:

It is a popular idea that there is very little to do except for striking a match once a day to light the lamp. Few of these landlubbers realize that if a fog comes in during the middle of the night the keeper must be ready to turn on the fog signal at once, for if the fog bell is silent for a moment, even then a great vessel may be feeling her way up into the harbor, depending on the ringing of the fog signal bell for her safety.

 

Arthur and Mabel Small

The channel in New Bedford Harbor is so narrow, that if a large vessel went down, all shipping in or out of the harbor would be at a standstill. The coal for the electric light company would not reach the pier, and the cotton steamers likewise would find it impossible to dock. In a short time all the city would be seriously crippled. That is what makes me angry when I hear of the easy job of a lighthouse keeper, as described by some fair weather sailor or inland resident.

In another interview, Keeper Small downplayed the so-called heroism of keepers: 

Whenever they say anything about a lighthouse keeper, they always act as if he were some kind of hero. We’re not heroes. Here I am on this island, perfectly safe, working and painting pictures, while you wander around in New Bedford, crossing streets with automobiles and trolley cars whizzing by, just missing you by a few feet. Why, you people take more chances in a week than I do in ten years.

In 1988, a woman named Stella Hay Rex recalled attending a sewing circle with her friend Mabel Small on September 20, 1938. Mrs. Rex noticed that Mrs. Small was looking nervously out the window at the ocean. She asked Mrs. Small why she looked worried, and Mabel replied, "The sea is so rough I'm afraid Arthur won't be able to row over to get me if I wait for my ride."

Soon Mrs. Rex drove Mrs. Small to the landing where her husband was waiting to take her back to their lighthouse home. "See you girls next week!" shouted Mrs. Small as they left the dock.

On the afternoon of the following day, September 21, 1938, two days before Mabel Small's 48th birthday, the worst hurricane in New England history battered the south-facing coast. During the afternoon of the storm Arthur Small decided to light the lighthouse. Leaving his wife in the oil house on the island's highest ground, Small attempted to walk the 350 feet from the house to the tower.

Part of the way to the tower, Small was struck by a large wave that smashed him against a metal fence. As he managed to get to his feet, he looked back and saw his wife attempting to launch a rowboat to come to his aid. He called to her to stop, but his voice was lost in the wind and waves. As Mabel Small tried to launch the boat a wave destroyed the boathouse. Arthur Small lost sight of his wife.

Keeper Small later said: 

I was hurt and she knew it. Seeing the wave hit the boathouse was about the last thing I remember. I must have been hit by a big piece of timber and knocked unconscious. I came to some hours later, but all I remember was that I was in the middle of some wreckage standing on it. There was a window under me. Then I must have lost my senses for good, for I remember nothing more.

Somehow, injured and in shock, Arthur Small made it to the tower. The house itself had been swept back several hundred feet from its original site. Small lighted the Palmer's Island Lighthouse and waited through the night, unable to leave the tower until the storm abated. In the morning neighbors found Arthur Small and took him to a hospital. He eventually recuperated at the Chelsea Naval Hospital near Boston. 

Mabel Small had not survived. Her body was later found and identified in Fairhaven. Many of Keeper Small’s paintings were lost in the hurricane, along with his large library of several hundred books. His wife had their savings of about $7,500 in her possession when she drowned, and this was also lost.

 Arthur Small
Arthur Small (courtesy of Jeremy Burnham)

The Boston Traveler reported:

Mrs. Small, wife and mother, perished in a moment of high bravery attempting to go the aid of her man. Arthur Small went through a living death during those black hours of Wednesday night while held captive in the lighthouse tower. High bravery was his in not challenging hopeless odds that the storm had set up.

Three days after the storm, Commissioner Harold D. King of the Bureau of Lighthouses called Arthur Small's performance during the storm "one of the most outstanding cases of loyalty and devotion that has come to the attention of this office."

Many of Arthur Small's paintings were lost in the hurricane, along with his large library of several hundred books. His wife had their savings of about $7,500 in her possession when she drowned; this was also lost.

Arthur Small eventually served for a time as keeper of Hospital Point Light in Beverly, Massachusetts.

When Arthur Small died in 1958, the Coast Guard honored him with a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. A plaque honoring Arthur and Mabel Small can be seen today on the Fairhaven side of the harbor at Fort Phoenix.

After the hurricane Franklin Ponte, formerly an assistant at Boston Light, went to Palmer's Island Light as a temporary keeper. Ponte's nephew, Joseph Ponte, served as an assistant. All that was left was the lighthouse tower and the oil house, and Joseph Ponte said that he and his uncle lived for a almost a month in the lighthouse before the Coast Guard sent a garage that was converted into living quarters. The light was automated in 1941; Martin Maloney was the last keeper .

With the construction of a massive hurricane wall in New Bedford Harbor in 1963 the lighthouse was deemed useless. Palmer's Island, adjacent to the new wall, became more easily accessible to lighthouse seekers and vandals alike. The island passed through various owners, including radio station WBSM. The tower was burned by arsonists in 1966, gutting the interior and practically destroying the lantern room.

In 1978 ownership of Palmer's Island went from Norlantic Diesel to the City of New Bedford, and local resident Dr. John O'Toole mounted a preservation effort. New Bedford youngsters picked up 20 tons of trash and debris from the island, which they converted into $300 for the lighthouse fund. A new fiberglass lantern was constructed to replace the badly burned one, and a 500-pound steel door was installed. The New Bedford Fire Department contributed a new iron spiral staircase.

After another restoration in 1989, the lighthouse soon fell victim to more vandalism. It remained dark through most of the 1990s.

In April 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton named New Bedford an official Millennium Community of the White House Millenium Council. The national theme of the Millennium Council is to "Honor the Past and Imagine the Future." It was decided that restoring and relighting Palmer's Island Lighthouse would be one of the city's Millennium projects. Arthur P. Motta, Jr., the city's Director of Tourism and Marketing, was also an important force in the restoration effort.

1989 restoration

The badly damaged lantern room was removed on July 20, 1999, and taken to the city's wastewater division. Welder Jose Pereira rebuilt the lantern, while preserving the original metal frame. The four-foot-high, seven-foot-diameter lantern was reinstalled on August 25. The tower was repainted by a crew provided by the Bristol County Sheriff Department's Pre-Release Program, under the direction of volunteer Peter Duff. A new solar-powered beacon was installed, with a 250mm clear acrylic lens. The light now has a signature of two seconds on, six seconds off, and is visible for eight nautical miles. The new lighting apparatus was paid for with donated funds.


One of the whaleboats in the relighting ceremony

A large crowd gathered on the state pier on the pleasant evening of August 30, 1999, to witness the relighting of Palmer's Island Light, 150 years almost to the minute after its first lighting in 1849. Anne Blum Brengle, Director of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and New Bedford Whaling Museum, recounted the drama and tragedy of Palmer's Island's history.

In a dramatic tribute to the city's past as the whaling capital of the nation, three crews from the Whaling City Rowing Club took part in the relighting ceremony. Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz, Jr., handed out lighted oil lanterns to the crews on board the whaleboats Herman Melville, Flying Fish, and Skylark.

The three boats made their way to the island. As the crowd watched quietly, Mayor Kalisz waved another lantern in the air and the lighthouse soon began to flash.

"This shall be remembered by the citizens of New Bedford as the day they reaffirmed their ties to the sea, and indeed, to the world," said Mayor Kalisz in a proclamation that is on display at the lighthouse and in City Hall.

Palmer's Island is accessible at low tide from New Bedford's hurricane wall. The lighthouse can be seen from the New Bedford Whaling Museum and other spots on shore, and the ferry to Cuttyhunk Island passes the island, as does a harbor tour offered daily in season.

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.

Mayor Kalisz
Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz at the relighting ceremony
Palmer Island Light is on New Bedford's city seal. The motto, "Lucem Diffundo," means "I Spread the Light."
 

Keepers: William Sherman (1849-1853); Charles D. Tuell (1853-1861); George Cowie (1872-1891); Arthur Small (1922-1938); Franklin Ponte (c. 1939-1940); Martin Maloney (c.1941).
Last updated 9/27/11

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Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.