Wood End Light
Provincetown, Massachusetts
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Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

In his book Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau described the harbor at Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod:

The Harbor of Provincetown... is deservedly famous. It opens to the south, is free of rocks, and is never frozen over... It is the harbor of the Cape and of the fishermen of Massachusetts generally.

The first two lighthouses in the vicinity, at Race Point and Long Point, were established by 1826. By the 1860s, it was determined that another aid was needed at Wood End, the southernmost extremity of the curving spit of land that protected the harbor. A white pyramidal day beacon was first erected at Wood End in 1864, and Congress appropriated $15,000 for a lighthouse on June 10, 1872.

A 38-foot brick tower -- originally painted brown -- was erected, and the light went into service on November 20, 1872. A fifth-order Fresnel lens exhibited a red flash every 15 seconds, 45 feet above the sea. A keeper's dwelling was built about 50 feet northeast of the lighthouse. The first keeper, Thomas Lowe, remained at the station for 25 years.

Wood End Light c. 1880
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
lighthouse and keeper's house

U.S. Coast Guard photo
In spite of the three lighthouses around Provincetown, wrecks still occurred with some regularity. Lowe occasionally had to make hasty trips to town to awaken sleeping citizens to help with the rescue of shipwreck victims.

A lifesaving station had been established at Race Point in 1872, and one was finally added at Wood End in 1896, a short distance east of the light station.

In 1896, a new wood-frame keeper's house was built, along with a storage shed and a small brick oil house for the storage of kerosene. 
New machinery for the revolving lens was installed in 1900. Two years later, a 1,000-pound fog bell and bell tower were added near the lighthouse.

Eight days before Christmas in 1927, the Navy submarine S-4 and the Coast Guard cutter Paulding collided a half mile south of Wood End Light. 40 men on the S-4 died in the disaster. The S-4 was raised three months later and was used to help devise greater safety measures for future submarines.

During a stretch of severe cold in February 1935, Keeper Douglas Shepherd was marooned at the light station for weeks. The Boston Globe reported:

Keeper Shepherd has struggled vainly to break through the arctic expanse that extends for miles beyond his light. Several times he has attempted it, using axe and crowbar to attack the ice blocks in his path, but each time he has been forced to turn back.

light station with fog bell tower

Wood End Light Station c. 1900
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

Ordinarily, Shepherd made a daily trip into town. He had no worries despite his isolation, according to the newspaper report, as the Coast Guard kept him in touch with the mainland.

James Hinkley Dobbins served as a relief keeper for a period in 1937. His wife, Ruby Kelley Dobbins, recalled in her book The Additional Keeper that her husband gave her explicit instructions to “buy all the mousetraps in stock” at a local hardware store before she came for her first visit; the keeper’s house was overrun with mice. The Dobbins family had some time for sightseeing in Provincetown and especially enjoyed seeing the traditional town crier, ringing his brass bell and shouting the news of the day.

The lighthouse was automated in 1961 and all the other buildings except the oil house were destroyed. The lighthouse's original lens had been replaced by a fifth-order lens in 1916, and this was replaced by a modern optic when the light was automated. The light was converted to solar power in 1981.

The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation has been licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and maintain Wood End Light. Volunteers painted the tower and oil house in the fall of 2000. At this writing, there are plans for a volunteer work party to repaint the tower in spring 2007.

You can walk to Wood End Light across the breakwater built in 1911, but breaking waves sometime make the going tricky at high tide. It's a fairly strenuous walk of 30-45 minutes each way to the lighthouse. There are limited parking spaces available near the start of the walk; it's an additional walk of around 20-30 minutes from the center of town.

The lighthouse, still an active aid to navigation, is also viewable from some of the excursion boats out of Provincetown.

For more information or to donate to the restoration of Wood End Light, contact the American Lighthouse Foundation.


(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.)

Thomas Lowe (1872-1897); Philip R. Smith (1897-?); Douglas H. Shepherd (c. 1920s-1930s); George H. Fitzpatrick (c. 1940s), George Grimes (c. 1940s); George Smith (relief keeper 1923-1936)

Last updated 10/21/10
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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