In schools across the land, most school children are taught early on about the Mayflower and the landing of the Pilgrims which has been memorialized at the Plymouth Rock Historic Site. But, most citizens, other than locals and maritime and lighthouse historians, have never heard of Plymouth Lighthouse that was established way back in 1769 at Gurnet Point on Plymouth Bay near Duxbury, Massachusetts.
Today the Plymouth Light is the oldest free-standing wooden lighthouse in the United States, but it is not the original tower built at the site. The original light station was established in 1769. In 1776 a lady named Hannah Thomas was appointed the keeper of the light, giving her the distinction of being the first female lighthouse keeper in American history. The current tower was constructed in 1843 at which time two towers were constructed. In 1924 the northeast tower was discontinued and demolished.
Interestingly, one keeper, Frank Allen Davis, who was born in Lubec, Maine, was a direct descendent of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and reportedly landed at Plymouth Rock. Davis served as the keeper at Plymouth Light from 1929 to 1946. When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, Davis joined the Coast Guard and was given the rank of Chief Boatswains Mate.
From the lighthouse keepers of old, to the modern era keepers there were many similarities to life on Gurnet Point, but there were also many differences. On March 15, 1962, Coast Guardsman Robert “Bob” Foley became the Officer-In-Charge (OIC) of Plymouth Lighthouse, which, because of its location, was also often called the Gurnet Light. Bob Foley was told he would be temporarily by staying in the living quarters at the old Gurnet Life Saving Station until a new one-story ranch house, which was under construction in 1962, and would be completed in 1963. The old keeper’s house, which was deemed beyond repair, had been demolished.
However, Plymouth Light Station was a four-man crew stag station, so Bob Foley had to find an apartment for his family, which he did in the town of Sandwich and later in the community of Plymouth.
Like most stag stations of the time, duty was three weeks on and one week off. However, Foley recalled that Mother Nature did not always cooperate; the men were often snowbound, and leave time did not happen, which sometimes also caused a food shortage.
One day, Dick Boonisar, who summered on Gurnet and in later years purchased the old Life Saving Station and restored it, asked Foley why the Plymouth Light Station did not have a flag pole. Foley said he didn’t know, so, Mr. Boonisar, using the proper Coast Guard form, typed up a request for a flag pole and flags. Foley recalled that Boonisar’s request was more than a request – he typed on the form that it was un-American for a military unit to be unable to fly the United States flag. Approximately ten days later a delivery arrived with a 25-foot pole, some bags of cement, and two flags. Mission accomplished.
Foley said that the only contact with the outside world from this remote location was, at that time, a crank phone at the end of the Powder Point Bridge and one at the life-saving station, which were all connected via wires atop approximately 50 telephone poles. Two six-cylinder diesel generators provided electricity for the lighthouse, the fog signal, and a few lights in the buildings.
The light station’s vehicle was a 1955 Jeep with a canvas top and no heaters. In the bitter cold weather of the winter months, the 20-mile trip to the Duxbury Post Office for mail or to the nearest grocery store for supplies could be brutal, especially in the winter of 1962. With no freezer to store food, one of the crew had to travel the 20-miles each way to get to and from the grocery store and the post office.
When the new ranch-style keeper’s house was completed, the crew had to do all the moving themselves, which included moving the pool table from the life-saving station to the basement of the new keeper’ house. It was a long day, but very rewarding. Now the men had an electric stove, a large refrigerator with freezer, and a television, even though it only had three channels. An oil fired furnace provided heat, and the basement had an electric washer and dryer.
Two 55-gallon drums of oil were also provided for the diesel engines and for electricity. The old 55 Jeep was another story. It used four quarts of oil every other trip to the grocery store and the post office. One day a lieutenant came from Boston and phoned from the Powder Point Bridge, the only access to Gurnet Point, and asked to be driven to the lighthouse. After telling the officer how much 30-weight oil remained, he asked, with a very low face, how much oil the crew was selling on the side. Bob Foley told him to check the dip-stick himself, which he did, and then the officer was able to realize for himself how much oil was being used.
Then, in April of 1963, the phone, now in the keeper’s house, rang with instructions to bring the 1955 Jeep to the Powder Point Bridge and explanations would be given when he got there. So Foley filled up the Jeep with four quarts of oil and made the drive over the sand to the bridge where he was greeted by a representative of the General Services Administration’s Motor Pool in Boston, who was delivering a shiny new six-cylinder station wagon style Jeep that had a heater, so there would be no more driving with heavy gloves, and windshield wipers that worked. The man said “Sign here and take possession,” and that was the end of the old jeep.”
The new Jeep did its job well, especially when people who got stuck in the sand needed to be pulled out. The crew from Plymouth Light always came to the rescue, sometimes under the most adverse conditions.
Foley recalled that New England’s famous historian, author, and Flying Santa made occasional visits with a few people to the Plymouth Light. They were always welcomed, and Snow usually brought along a large pot of clam chowder that was reheated at the lighthouse and enjoyed by all.
The crew was each given a food allotment of $77.10 per month, which they pooled together. Foley recalled that they all ate heartedly and all four of the men had some cooking skills. One of the light station’s crew, Jeff Terry, had two skills that the men came to appreciate. Jeff Terry was an excellent marksman with a 22 caliber rifle, and he had cooking skills that had been taught to him by his father on how to cook rabbit. The men enjoyed rabbit stew, baked rabbit, broiled rabbit, and pan fried rabbit. Every rabbit meal meant they were able to save money from their $77.10 monthly food allotment, which meant more money in each man’s pocket at the end of each month.
One weekend in December when Bob Foley’s wife Barbara and daughters Debbie and Suzanne were visiting him at the lighthouse, his daughter and wife brought him a package that they said was thrown out of a plane. The package was from Edward Rowe Snow, The Flying Santa. The package contained one of Snow’s lighthouse books, pens, pencils, writing paper, hard candy, and children’s books. Since Foley was the only married crew member, the others suggested Foley’s family keep the gifts.
Around the middle of December in 1963, a family who owned a cottage on Saquish delivered a Christmas tree and lighted candy cane decorations. The crew thought the lighted candy cane decorations would look nice down the driveway. Then one night the phone rang. The caller asked to speak to the OIC. Foley took the call and the caller said he was concerned that the lighthouse crew was using too much oil to run the generator that produced the electricity for the lighted candles. Foley told the crew, “Mr. Scrooge does not live in London, but in Plymouth, right down from our driveway.” Foley called the Point Allerton Coast Guard station and spoke to Ken Black, the Group Commander. After discussing the situation for a few minutes, Black told him to turn the lights off, saying something to the effect, “Mr. whatever-his-name is, is a taxpayer and pays your salary, so it is best we turn off the candles.”
Eventually Robert Foley’s assignment at Plymouth Light came to an end. Over the years his Coast Guard career saw him assigned to many various locations and types of assignments. He served on the Relief Lightship LV 613, at the Point Allerton Life Boat Station, the Boston Coast Guard Station, the Five Fathom Lightship, and as OIC of Eastern Point Lighthouse. (The November/December edition of Lighthouse Digest gave a detailed account of Robert Foley’s career at Eastern Point Lighthouse in a story titled, “Reuse and Rescue.”)
Robert Foley retired from the Coast Guard in 1974 and went on to serve as Deputy Sheriff in Cumberland County, Maine for 20 years, as well being a volunteer Scout Master for 25 years.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2015 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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