Digest>Archives> November 1999

From Sparkplug to Matchstick: Boston's Deer Island Light

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Deer Island Light from an antique post card from ...

The present Deer Island Light, no more than a light on a fiberglass pole, is built for utility, not beauty. For people who remember the old Deer Island Light, the new one is no substitute.

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Photograph from the Edward Rowe Snow Collection, ...

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The light is located south of the town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, about 500 yards from Deer Island. Deer Island itself has a sordid past as an internment camp for Indians during King Philip's War, the site of a state prison, and a quarantine station where many immigrants died. Today the island is home to a mammoth sewage treatment plant for the Boston area. Deer Island actually ceased being an island in the 1930s, when Shirley Gut, which separated it from Winthrop, was filled in.

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Photograph courtesy of Al Schroeder, Metropolitan ...

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Photograph from the Edward Rowe Snow Collection, ...

In 1832, the Boston Marine Society petitioned the U.S. Congress for $3,000 for the placement of a stone beacon at Deer Island Point. This day marker served as a navigational aid for almost 60 years. In 1885 the Lighthouse Board made the following recommendation:

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Photograph by Jeremy D'Entremont The "new" ...

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Photo by Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy ...

"The steamers plying between Boston and the northern ports make use of the Broad Sound channels, and a light and fog-signal at this point are particularly desirable, because of the narrow and devious passages."

Deer Island Lighthouse was a "sparkplug" type light, similar to Butler Flats in New Bedford, Plum Beach in Rhode Island and many others along the coast. It was built for about $50,000 in 1890.

According to the original construction contract, Deer Island Lighthouse consisted of a "circular foundation-pier, supporting a three-story dwelling, a veranda with boat-davits, a circular parapet, and an octagonal lantern." The foundation consisted of a cast-iron cylinder sunk four feet into the bottom of the harbor. The lower portion of the cylinder was filled with concrete and contained the water cisterns. The upper part of the foundation was lined with brick and served as a cellar. An iron spiral stairway led from the cellar to each floor of the structure.

Deer Island Light was painted a kind of chocolate brown. Its fixed white light changed to a two-second red flash every 30 seconds.

Frank Sibley, who later served as a Boston Globe correspondent during World War I, spent much time at the lighthouse during several summers in the 1890s. Sibley struck up a romance with Florence Lydon, daughter of the keeper of Long Island Head Light, directly across the harbor, and the two were married in 1893.

The most tragic incident in Deer Island Light's history took place in 1916. Keeper Joseph McCabe left the lighthouse to meet his fiancee on Deer Island, where they filled out wedding invitations together. When he was ready to return to the lighthouse, McCabe found that ice around the island had trapped his boat, so he decided to walk across the sandbar.

Nearing the island, McCabe jumped forward to step on a large rock. He lost his footing and disappeared into the ocean. Witnesses rushed to the scene in a dory, but they arrived to find McCabe had drowned in the icy waves.

Merrill King was keeper on December 27, 1930, when a ferocious winter gale struck. Keeper King filled every crack in the walls with cotton to keep the lighthouse from flooding. He later reported that the lighthouse shook during the storm as wave after wave smashed against it.

Judson Small, one of three lighthouse keeping brothers, was an assistant keeper at Deer Island Light in the 1920s. His brother, Tom, who was keeper at the Narrows ("Bug") Light when it burned down in 1929, became keeper at Deer Island in 1931. While he was keeper, Tom Small had a cat that gained fame as the "climbing cat of Deer Island Light." Edward Rowe Snow, the master storyteller of Boston Harbor, reported that Small's cat would leap into the water, emerge with a fish in its mouth, climb the ladder and eat the fish.

Fred Bohm became keeper after leaving the Spectacle Island Range Lights across the harbor. During the first year and a half of World War II, Keeper Bohm not only had to tend the light, but he also was required to patrol the area watching for German submarines.

Harold Jennings grew up on nearby Lovell's Island where his father kept the Lovell's Island Range Lights. In his book, A Lighthouse Family, Jennings tells a story about a time the lighthouse inspector showed up unexpectedly at Deer Island Light in the days of Prohibition. It seems the keepers were illegally brewing malt liquor at the lighthouse. When the inspector arrived, an assistant keeper was on the gallery holding a five gallon crock of the stuff.

Since they were on opposite sides of the lighthouse, the inspector didn't see the assistant, who was in a panic. The inspector circled the lighthouse with the keeper while the assistant barely managed to stay out of sight by walking at the same pace. Suddenly the assistant tripped over a cable attached to the lightning rod. The crock fell and smashed to pieces. Of course the assistant was fired on the spot.

By the late 1970s it became apparent that Deer Island Light had deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe. The Coast Guard estimated that repair and restoration would cost up to $400,000. The Massachusetts Historic Commission decided that Deer Island Light was not eligible for the National Register, so the way was cleared to destroy the old lighthouse.

In 1980, a mysterious power failure blacked out half of Winthrop and also darkened the lighthouse, which remained unlighted for almost five hours. A Coast Guard spokesman was asked if there were backup batteries at the lighthouse. "I guess not," he replied.

Beginning on June 14, 1982, much to the surprise of area residents, the old iron lighthouse was removed. The demolition took about three weeks in all. During this period a lighted buoy served as a temporary aid to navigation. The familiar old landmark was replaced by a white fiberglass tower, resembling a matchstick, set on the original foundation.

This tower was believed to be the first fiberglass light in the country. It was built in England and was designed to withstand winds of 110 mph. The new light cost $100,000, twice the price of the old one, but it wasn't twice as attractive.

There were complaints that the white tower blended in with the background of Deer Island. Meanwhile, in March of 1983, great Point Lighthouse on Nantucket was destroyed in a storm. The Coast Guard decided to replace it with a fiberglass tower, so they moved the Deer Island tower to Nantucket.

A 33-foot brown fiberglass tower replaced the white one at Deer Island Light. The fiberglass tower at Great Point was later replaced by a $1 million replica of the original lighthouse, but there has been no such luck for Deer Island Light. The automated light continues to be an active aid to navigation. All of the public harbor island cruises out of Boston pass Deer Island Light.

This story appeared in the November 1999 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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