This story is excerpted from the new book The Lighthouses
of Massachusetts, published by Commonwealth Editions.
The Pilgrims visited Long Point, at the sandy fingertip of Cape Cod’s bended arm, in 1620 after they entered Provincetown Harbor. They drew up the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown before they moved on to Plymouth, where there was a better supply of fresh water.
A fishing settlement began at Long Point in 1818, reaching its peak in the 1850s, when more than 200 people lived there. In his 1890 volume, Provincetown; or, Odds and Ends from the Tip End, Herman A. Jennings wrote that fishing was done from the shore of Long Point with sweep seines (large nets), and as many as 75 barrels of white shad were brought ashore in a single haul. Josef Berger’s book Cape Cod Pilot informs us that Long Point was an exciting place to live. “Children who might have been afraid of dogs elsewhere, here ran from the sharks,” he wrote.
Provincetown, with one of the most spacious and protected harbors on the east coast, developed a substantial fishing fleet. By the 1820s, it was apparent that a lighthouse at Long Point would greatly aid mariners entering the harbor. On May 18, 1826, Congress appropriated $2,500 for that purpose, and four acres of land on the narrow sand spit were acquired. The light went into service during the following year.
The first lighthouse was a wood-frame keeper’s house built on pilings in the sand, with a short octagonal tower on the center of its peaked roof. The light was 35 feet above mean high water. Besides serving as a guide into the harbor, the light also warned of a quarter-mile bar that extended from Long Point. The first keeper was Charles Derby, who had initially come to Provincetown in 1798 at the age of four as the ward of the captain aboard the whaling ship Polly.
There were three rooms on the
first floor of the dwelling, and a small second floor. Because several lighthouses of this general description were built on the Cape in the first half of the nineteenth century, they were dubbed Cape Cod-style lighthouses. None of them survives today.
Lt. Edward W. Carpender of the U.S. Navy visited Long Point for his survey of 1838. Carpender called the lighthouse useful, but “far larger than is necessary.” He recommended the removal of four of the 10 lamps then in use.
An 1843 report called Charles Derby “intelligent and attentive.” During the previous year the keeper’s boat had been damaged in a storm, and he had to spend $25 of his own money to repair it-not a small amount for someone who was paid only $350 yearly. The lantern and lighting apparatus were “clean and in good order,” and the dwelling needed no repairs. A sixth-order Fresnel lens would replace the lamps and reflectors in 1856.
Keeper Derby provided a statement for I. W. P. Lewis’s important lighthouse survey in 1842. Derby described the building, which stood on wooden piles that extended eight feet below the surface of the sand. A wooden enclosure had been constructed around the building to protect it, and 1,800 tons of stone were added to help break the force of the sea. There was no well, and the keeper was dependent on rainwater collected in a cistern for his water supply. He pointed out that he was allowed a boat, but had no landing place or boathouse.
Derby was still in charge in 1850, when an inspection report described the lantern roof as leaky and the lantern as rusty. Additional protection was needed against storms, according to the report. In 1853, the year Keeper Derby left, the Lighthouse Board reported that the beach south of the lighthouse had worn away considerably on its east side.
According to the history of Provincetown written by Jennings, a school was operated at the lighthouse beginning in 1830, with a mere three students. A more substantial schoolhouse was built at the Long Point settlement in 1846, and there were as many as 60 students in the village’s heyday. A sea salt industry developed at Long Point, and windmills pumped seawater into large vats. Henry David Thoreau, in his book Cape Cod, reported that lobsters-plentiful around the point at midcentury-were caught to be sold to the New York market at two cents a piece.
The settlement at Long Point began to shrink around 1850, and by the time of the Civil War there were very few residents left. Many of the houses at Long Point were floated across the harbor to Provincetown’s West End. These homes are marked today with blue and white plaques depicting a house floating on water.
During the Civil War, a Confederate warship was seen near Provincetown. In anticipation of a possible attack, two forts were built at Long Point, close to the lighthouse. Local residents called the batteries Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous. Luckily, no shots were ever fired in the vicinity of Long Point, other than Fourth of July salvos.
John Thomas Dunham, a Province- town native and former whaler, was lightkeeper from 1870 until his death in 1882. Dunham had a wooden leg as the result of a whaling accident. In 1984 Dunham’s great-great-grandson Jack Dunham had a plaque placed at the lighthouse honoring his ancestor as the first keeper of the second lighthouse at Long Point.
The 1826 building continued to deteriorate. The contours of the beach that surrounded the lighthouse had changed, leaving it more exposed and vulnerable. In 1873 the Lighthouse Board reported that “a new dwelling is
a necessity... the entire structure is in danger of being carried off by a heavy storm.” Congress appropriated $13,000 on June 23, 1874, for a new tower, keeper’s dwelling, and fog signal.
A square brick lighthouse, 38 feet high, and a one-and-a-half-story, wood-frame keeper’s house were built in 1875. The lantern held a fifth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. A 1,200-pound fog bell was also installed at this time on a tower erected north of the lighthouse, along with striking machinery.
The settlement at Long Point had shrunk considerably, but this unusual statement appeared in the 1880 annual report of the Lighthouse Board, while Dunham was keeper: “The keepers have been much annoyed by the stench and flies coming from the fish-oil works located near-by.”
Storms in late 1898 and early 1899 washed away much land near the lighthouse, threatening to turn Long Point into an island. The storm of November 26-27, 1898, would be remembered as the Portland Gale because of the sinking of the steamer Portland in Massachusetts Bay with the loss of nearly 200people. Keeper Samuel Soper Smith, who had been at the station since 1888, described the storm to the Boston Globe in an 1899 article:
It looked as if we would be swept away. The buildings shook and cracked ominously under the push of the hurricane, but the greatest danger facing us was that of the waves.
The air was full of water-salt water, blown like fog from the crests of the seas, and this spray, lifted on the north side of the point, blew clear over the land to mingle with the seas on the other side.
The whole scene was white with foam. When the waves struck the rocks around us they burst and fell in sheets away above the breakwater and fairly scooped down the banks of sand as they retreated.
The station’s fog bell ran by means of a striking mechanism that had to be hand-wound every few hours. Keeper Smith continued:
I was sick at the time, the wash of the sea was up around our dwelling and the wind was blowing so fiercely that I doubted my ability to reach the bellhouse. But it had to ring!
I started for the bell tower and reached the raised platform at its base. As I reached it a wave struck me in the breast and hurled me backward. Next minute, however, I climbed to the platform and into the machinery building and wound it up.
The tide kept rising until at last it was four feet deep all around the house. My wife and a lady friend expressed their fear that our house would be swept away.
I pointed to our outside water tank, an immense cask, nearly filled with fresh water, weighing a ton at least, which stood under the eaves and told them that they need not fear as long as it remained there.
Just as I spoke it lifted, and next minute went around the corner of the house, upright, and it was carried around the sand battery, out of sight to the westward.
The house survived, but parts of
the protective breakwater were toppled. The boathouse was stripped of shingles, the cistern was filled with salt water, wooden walkways were swept away, and a woodshed was destroyed. The Portland Gale devastated Province-town’s fishing fleet and destroyed wharves, saltworks, and windmills. The era of Provincetown as a major fishing port had passed, and its day as a resort and arts center was dawning.
The 1899 Globe article described the heroism of Keeper Smith’s wife during another storm. The keeper was ill on this occasion also, and his wife wouldn’t let him leave the house. At the height of the gale, the fog bell stopped working. Mrs. Smith knew that the mechanism’s bearings needed oiling. To apply the oil, she had to climb a ladder outside the bell tower to a point about 25 feet above the ground, as the wind howled around her. “With hair and clothing streaming,” wrote the Globe reporter, “with muscles swelling under the strain, she dragged herself by degrees aloft and applied the oil, with hand wellnigh frozen.” The bell was soon sounding its warning again.
In the early 1930s Keeper A. G. “Ted” Haskins lived at the lighthouse with his wife and three daughters. The Haskins family kept the light station looking attractive, with a garden of dahlias and poppies in the summer.
Their nine-year-old daughter, Mary, had to be taken each morning in a 36-foot powerboat to Provincetown’s West End, more than a mile away, where she attended school. The trip was treacherous in rough weather, but the Globe reported in February 1932 that Mary had not missed a day of school that year. “The little lighthouse girl must arise at 6 a.m. to have time for breakfast,” said the Globe, “and get in readiness for her long trip.”
In 1933, during one of the common thick fogs in the area, the mechanism that rang the station’s fog bell broke down. Keeper Thomas L. Chase rang the bell by hand for over nine hours straight, pulling the rope with his right hand every 30 seconds. After a few hours of sleep he had to sound the bell for several more hours, this time with his left hand.
The fog eventually thinned, but Keeper Chase later said he was prepared to tie the rope to his legs to keep it going if necessary. He said he felt like “a baseball pitcher who has twirled a couple of doubleheaders without rest.”
The light was automated in 1952, and the fourth-order Fresnel lens, which had replaced the earlier lens in 1927, was replaced by a modern optic. In 1981 solar panels were installed.
The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) has been licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and maintain the lighthouse. In late October 2006 the lighthouse was visited by a work party that included Jim Walker, chairman of the Cape Cod Chapter; Bob Trapani, ALF’s executive director; and several volunteers of the New England Lighthouse Lovers (NELL), another ALF chapter. Braving winds of 30-35 knots and gusts to 50 knots, the volunteers completely repainted the tower’s exterior.
The keeper’s house and fog-signal building were razed years ago, but the lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, with a fixed green light and an automated fog signal. For more information or to donate to the restoration of Long Point Light,
write to the American Lighthouse Foundation, P. O. Box 565, Rockland, ME 04841, or visit www.lighthousefoundation.org. A company called Flyer’s runs a seasonal shuttle boat from the Provincetown waterfront to Long Point. See www.flyersrentals.com or call (508) 487-0898.
This story appeared in the
October 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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