Every summer thousands of summer visitors flock to beautiful Cranes Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but few have any inkling that a lighthouse station once graced the beach’s shifting dunes. For just over a century a succession of keepers and their families kept watch at the station near the mouth of the Ipswich River.
Previously, an Indian village called Agawam, Ipswich was incorporated as a town in 1634. Today Ipswich has more 17th century homes than any town in America. The shellfish industry has long been the lifeblood of the town; Ipswich clams have been exported far and wide.
There were many shipwrecks in the busy waters near Ipswich that reliable aids to navigation became a neccessity. The federal government paid John Baker and Tristram Brown $10 for four acres of land in 1837, for the purpose of establishing a lighthouse station on the stretch of sand now known as Cranes Beach.
After a Congressional appropriation of $7,000 in 1837, two range lighthouses were built to mark the entrance to Ipswich Harbor. At first both lights were fixed lights, but later one was changed to a flashing characteristic. The towers had to be moved nine times in the next four decades as the channel shifted.
The first keeper was Thomas S. Greenwood. On December 23, the coast was being battered by what would become known as the triple hurricanes of 1839. A Maine schooner, the Deposit, ran aground close to the Ipswich Range Lights. A neighbor informed Keeper Greenwood at dawn, and he ran to the scene to find the remaining people on the vessel, including the captain’s wife, clinging to the rigging. Two crew members had already died. The situation looked hopeless, but it was the terrified screams of the captain’s wife that prompted Greenwood to make a desperate rescue attempt.
The keeper instructed the neighbor, a Mr. Marshall, to hold one end of a 200-foot line. Tying the other end around himself, Greenwood swam through the powerful, icy waves and reached the schooner. Marshall tied the other end of the line to a lifeboat, which he then boarded and launched into the breakers. Greenwood pulled the lifeboat, with Marshall in it, to the schooner.
Greenwood first tried to save Captain Cotterell, who was barely alive. As the captain was being lowered into the lifeboat, a great wave hit and the man was lost, along with the lifeboat. The captain’s wife, witnessing her husband’s drowning, became hysterical. Greenwood and Marshall convinced the woman to jump from the rigging into their arms. Two of the other survivors managed to reach shore by clinging to wreckage, while Greenwood, Marshall and the captain’s wife were carried safely to shore by a great wave.
Captain Cotterell and the sailors who died were buried in Ipswich a few days later, with 16 sea captains serving as pallbearers.
Joseph Dennis became keeper in 1842. He pointed out many shortcomings at the station — the towers were leaky and the stairs would become encrusted with ice in the winter. Dennis also reported that the brick dwelling leaked in several places and that the wooden front steps were decayed.
After an inspection in 1843, I.W.P. Lewis was critical of the construction methods used for the Ipswich Range Lights. Most importantly, Lewis pointed out that since the channel had shifted, the range lights no longer provided proper guidance into the Ipswich River. A mariner using the range lights “would run ashore in the south spit of Plum Island.”
Benjamin Ellsworth, a native of nearby Rowley, was appointed keeper by President Lincoln in 1861. Ellsworth’s wife died soon after he took the position, and the keeper’s youngest daughter, Susan, kept house at the station. Three sons of Keeper Ellsworth fought in the Civil War, and all three returned safely.
In 1892 Keeper Ellsworth performed a daring rescue down the coast from his lighthouse station. He was in the Willows area of Salem, Massachusetts, when he saw that a boat had capsized in rough seas, and two men were clinging to the craft. Ellsworth rowed in a small boat against high wind and waves and managed to pull the two men from the water; one of them reportedly was about to slip under. For his heroism, the keeper received a bronze medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society. This was the second such medal Ellsworth had received. He got his first one for saving two men from a vessel that had a struck a sand bar near the lighthouse station in 1873.
Benjamin Ellsworth would remain at the Ipswich Range Lights until his death in 1902, when he was 89 years old. For a number of years he was regarded as the oldest lighthouse keeper in the United States. An 1898 newspaper article described the station while Keeper Ellsworth was in charge:
“About the house are several beautiful shell pictures, the result of Miss Susan’s skill and artistic taste, and the house also contains the government circulating library. This is replenished every year by the lighthouse tender Verbena, when she brings the supply of oil, chimneys, wicks and coal for the station. A plank walk, 400 feet long, leads from the keeper’s dwelling to the lighthouse, and from there to the ‘bug light’ near the beach, is another plank walk, 1000 feet in length.
“Like his own home, everything about the lighthouse shows the nicest of care, and is the very acme of neatness... Mr. Ellsworth is still hale, hearty and ruddy with the health-color that comes from the brisk sea-breezes that have whistled about him for nearly 40 years of life at the beach. He is one of the prize packages of Ipswich.”
A 1902 newspaper article praised Keeper Ellsworth but also emphasized the work of his daughter Susan:
“It is Miss Susan Ellsworth who has tended the light. As a vestal virgin of old Rome fed the sacred fire on the altar, that it should never die out, or as a nun watches over the altar lamp and keeps it ever shining brightly, so this New England daughter of a lighthouse keeper has tended, with almost reverential feeling, this great light...”
“‘It is my life,’ declared Miss Ellsworth recently, and as she said it, softly, and with shining eye, a flush crept across her face, such as is seen on the face of a maiden when her lover’s name is spoken.”
Susan Ellsworth would live to be over 100 years old, surviving her 12 brothers and sisters. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, a local newspaper reported:
“Miss Ellsworth helped her father keep the great lamp in the lighthouse glittering. She performed such chores as cleaning the glass reflectors, polishing the metal and trimming the wicks so that seafaring men could rest assured of safe voyage, at least near the Ipswich Light.”
The changes in the contours of the beach have been dramatic. According to the 1913 book Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes by Charles Wendell Townsend, the corner of the lighthouse property was originally about 82 feet from the high water mark. In 1911, the same spot was 1,090 feet from the water. Townsend wrote that when Keeper Ellsworth first took charge at the range lights, he could stand at the top of the main light, then close to the water’s edge, and converse with men in boats offshore.
In 1877, it was reported that the rear tower was badly cracked. In 1881 it was replaced by a white cast iron tower. At some point, the front range light was replaced by a shanty-like affair. This smaller range light, often called the “Bug Light,” had to be moved every few years as the channel shifted. In 1932, the front range light was discontinued and the rear tower was automated.
The last keeper was LeRoy Lane, who lived at the station with his wife, Angie (Harris) Lane and their three children.
When the Coast Guard announced that it planned to remove Ipswich Light (the former rear range tower) in 1938, many letters were sent in protest. Susan Ellsworth, the 90-year old daughter of Keeper Benjamin Ellsworth, was one of the loudest voices of opposition.
The local complaints could not stop the wheels of government, and the lighthouse was soon gone. In 1939 the iron lighthouse was floated by barge to Edgartown, in Martha’s Vineyard, to replace an earlier structure that had been badly damaged in the Hurricane of ‘38. Ipswich Light was replaced by a skeleton tower. After some years of use by town organization and residents, the keeper’s house was destroyed by fire. Other than the decidedly unpicturesque modern tower, no part of the Ipswich Light Station survives on its former site.
This story appeared in the
August 2000 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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