New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Stage Harbor Light
Chatham, Massachusetts
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History
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

The area now known as Stage Harbor in Chatham was visited by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1606, but skirmishes with the Monomoyick Indians convinced him not to remain there. English settlers arrived about a half -century later, and Stage Harbor (named for racks used for drying fish) developed into a busy fishing port.

In 1878, the Lighthouse Board recommended a lighthouse on Harding's Beach on the northeast side of the channel known as Chatham Roads, as the light "would serve as a guide into old Stage Harbor , and would be of great value to vessels seeking refuge there and during bad weather." The area was busy with fishing traffic and thick fog was common. Congress appropriated $10,000 for the light station.

A 48-foot cast-iron tower and wood-frame keeper's house were built at a cost of $9,862.74, and the light went into service on July 15, 1880. The lighthouse was fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that exhibited a fixed white light visible for 12 nautical miles.

old photo
keeper and dog
Keeper Alfred Howard and friend

Enoch Eldredge, the first keeper, was paid $560 per year. Eldredge died in 1884 and was succeeded by George W. Folger, who remained until 1900. Alfred Howard, who became keeper in 1906 and stayed for a decade, was commended several times for going to the aid of boaters in trouble.


In 1912, Howard received praise for towing four people to safety after their boat had run out of fuel. Later that same year, he guided the yacht Arcturus to safe anchorage, as the captain was unfamiliar with the vicinity.

Just a few months later, on March 30, 1913, Howard saved the life of surfman Walter C. Harding of the Monomoy Life-Saving Station.

Harding’s boat had capsized in a strong wind. “Had it not been for the prompt assistance of A. A. Howard, Keeper of Hardings Beach Light,” wrote Harding, “it would have ended seriously. . . . I was taken from the bottom of my dory and carried to the lighthouse where I was furnished with dry clothing and made as comfortable as possible.”

In December 1914, Capt. Ephraim Smith of Chatham wrote to the lighthouse authorities in Boston, describing Howard’s latest act of heroism:

I deem it my duty to report to you the valuable assistance rendered me by Alfred A. Howard, Keeper. Stage Harbor Light Station, in saving my horse from drowning; also supplying my man with rubber boots and dry stockings, etc. On the 18th inst. p.m. I sent my man after seaweed on Harding’s Beach, who is quite elderly and his sight not very good. In driving the horse across the marshland, the horse got mired and went down in mud and water. My man couldn’t do anything to save the horse, so he ran for Mr. Howard, the light keeper, at the station; who responded to the call readily and through some very hard work got the wagon and harness clear and then got the horse out of the quicksand and mud and water to hard land all right. And as he would not take money for his very kind service, I take these means to write you for your kind consideration towards commending him for his prompt and efficient aid towards saving my pet and valuable property.


picture of lighthouse and keeper howard

Postcard showing Keeper Alfred A. Howard

Howard’s pay was raised in the following year from $560 yearly to $600. He was again commended in October 1915 for rendering assistance to the passengers of a disabled pleasure boat.

Mills Gunderson came to Stage Harbor Light from Boston Light in 1916. In 1918 Keeper Gunderson committed suicide, hanging himself in a shed for reasons unknown. His son, Stanley, took over as keeper and stayed at the light until it was decommissioned in 1933.

Stanley Gunderson was credited with several rescues near the station, including the passengers of a yacht in 1929. Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam praised Gunderson for his "timely assistance."

According to Admont G. Clark's Lighthouses of Cape Cod, the floor under the covered walkway between the house and tower became a hiding place for liquor for a time during prohibition. An inspector on a surprise visit noticed the loose floorboards, but much to the keeper's relief he merely told him to nail them down more securely.

lighthouse with lantern removed

In 1933 an automated light on a skeleton tower replaced Stage Harbor Light. Keeper Gunderson complained to the Boston Post:

To save money they put in something that is far more expensive and less reliable and all that economy and put another employee on the unemployment list. Rather a poor way to reduce unemployment and surely no help toward better times.

Gunderson stayed briefly in the Lighthouse Service, moving to Great Point on Nantucket as an assistant keeper for a year, after which he resigned.

The government removed the lantern and capped the tower, and the property passed into private hands. Henry Sears Hoyt told Yankee Magazine about his first visit to the lighthouse:

One day in January with the thermometer about five degrees above zero and a fifty-mile northwester blowing (that day Nantucket Lightship broke loose from her moorings), my brother and I drove to Chatham in an ancient Buick open car. Locating a guide to our prospective property, we drove to a point from which, through spray and wind haze, we could see, far out, a desolate looking group of buildings dominated by a faded white tower...

A more desolate spot would be hard to imagine. Doors had broken down, rocks were all over the floor where they had been thrown through the lower windows. Since then we have never found a stone worth throwing, and have calculated the vandals must have carried their ammunition out from the mainland. A howling gale, whistling around angry sea, but nevertheless a grand place.

Hoyt later found out that the lighthouse property was a portion of the original grant of 4,000 acres made by the Indians to his ancestor, William Nickerson, founder of Chatham. Hoyt commented, "...old great-great, etc., grandfather got all of Chatham for less than his descendants paid for a small portion, showing a weakening of New England trading ability."

The same family that first bought the property, the Hoyts, still owns it. There has never been electricity at the station, and no plumbing except a single pump.

The skeleton tower continues as an active aid to navigation, exhibiting a white flash. The lighthouse can be viewed across the water from the town landing at the end of Sears Road, or can be reached after a one-mile hike on Harding's Beach. Keep in mind that the house and tower are private property.

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

Keepers: (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 nelights@gmail.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.)

Enoch Eldredge (1880-1884); George Folger (1884-1900); Charles Ireland (1900-1904); Joseph Wood (1904-1906); Alfred A. Howard (1906-1916); Mills Gunderson (1916-1919); Stanley Gunderson (1919-1933).
Last updated 11/14/11
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
The photos on this page are from the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

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