Famous Lights

Nantucket (Great Point) Lighthouse

The information contained in this section is taken verbatim from HISTORICALLY FAMOUS LIGHTHOUSES - CG-232. Although the format has been changed slightly for better reading and display. BJ 'n Cindy

NANTUCKET (GREAT POINT) LIGHTHOUSE - MASSACHUSETTS
In 1770 the town fathers of Nantucket chose a committee to ask the General Court to erect "a lighthouse on the end of Sandy Point of Nantucket." Later the committee idea was abandoned, however, and the local Nantucket representative in the General Court was instructed to "use his influence in the General Court to get a Light House on our Point according to his own discretion." This method proved effective, for on February 5, 1784, the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a resolution providing for the erection of the Great Point Light at Nantucket as soon as possible. On November 11, 1784, Richard Devens, the commissary general, was granted 1,089 pounds, 15 shillings, and 5 pence in addition to 300 already paid out "for the erecting a lighthouse and small house at Nantucket" (Massachusetts Resolves, 1784, No. 81, Laws of Massachusetts). The lighthouse was erected that same year. On June 10, 1790, the "lighthouse, land, etc., on Sandy Point, county of Nantucket," was ceded to the United States in accordance with the act of August 7, 1789.

The keeper in 1812 was Jonathan Coffin. There was no keeper’s dwelling on the point and in order to reach the light each evening the keeper had to make a long journey. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, accordingly raised his salary to $166.67 per year and preparations were begun to build him a dwelling near the tower.

In November 1816, however, the lighthouse was entirely destroyed by fire. Some said the fire was purposely set, but no positive proof was ever forthcoming. On March 3, 1817, Congress appropriated $7,500 "for rebuilding the lighthouse at Nantucket, recently destroyed by fire" and $7,385.12 of this was expended in 1818 in erecting the handsome stone tower which still stands today.

A petition signed by many citizens and shipowners of Nantucket in 1829 called for the removal of Captain Bunker, who was then keeper, because of his intemperate habits, but Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, wisely refrained, after an investigation, from taking any action in the matter. The petition had suggested George Swain as a replacement for Bunker and such petitions, circulated by ambitious candidates for a keeper’s job, or by disgruntled and disappointed applicants, were far too numerous to be acted upon without careful consideration of the source and the motive.

In his report of November 1, 1838, Lt. Edward W. Carpender, USN, noted that the light was in a stone tower 60 feet high and 70 feet above sea level. It consisted of 14 lamps, 3 with 15-, and 11 with 16-inch reflectors, arranged in two circles parallel to each other and to the horizon. The lantern was 8’2 feet high and 9 feet in diameter. The tower and dwelling were connected by a short covered way "which, among these sand hills, where the snow must drift in winter, is a security that the light will be well attended."

In 1857 Fresnel lenses were installed at Great Point and in 1882 mineral oil was substituted for lard oil. In 1889 a red sector was inserted in the light to cover Cross Rip Shoal and the shoals south of it.

Between 1863 and 1890 there were 43 shipwrecks within the jurisdiction of Great Point Light. A number of vessels mistook Great Point Light for the Cross Rip Light Ship. The schooner William Jones was wrecked for this reason on the clear moonlit night of April 17, 1864, when together with two other vessels she went ashore on Great Point Rip. All three eventually got off, however, at high tide. Another schooner hit the bar in a heavy gale on October 12, 1865, but the captain was able to get his wife and three children, together with the crew into the vessel’s long boat and row to Great Point Beach, where the keeper had a carriage waiting for him. Arriving at the lighthouse the survivors watched their ship go to pieces shortly afterward. The schooner Leesburg struck Great Point Rip in September 1866, and the crew were rescued by the island steamer. The following month, on October 4, 1866, the brig Storm Castle mistook Great Point Light for Handkerchief Light Ship. The brig was towed into Nantucket Harbor 3 weeks later, after her cargo of lumber had been jettisoned. A sugar and molasses brig struck Great Point Rip the day after Christmas 1866 and was a total loss, though the crew reached shore safely. The same thing happened to another schooner in May 1867, and to one in December 1867. Still nothing was done about the confusion in the lights. Wrecks continued. There were two in 1869, one in 1877, and two in 1878. In 1880 the West Wind hit the east end of Nantucket Bar, 4 1/2 miles from the lighthouse with a cargo of ice. The vessel soon went to pieces, the crew being picked up later.

In February 1881, the keeper sighted the U. B. Fisk caught in an ice floe. The crew had abandoned ship but were unable to make shore. The keeper waded out into the water, up to his armpits, and threw them a small line. With this he sent them a heavier line which he used to pull their boat ashore, as their schooner was being crushed in the ice pack.

Other wrecks occurred in 1887, 1889, and in 1890. It was not until 1889 that the red sector in the Great Point Light was inserted to mark Cross Rip Shoal and the other shoals south of it. From then on the wrecks were less numerous although in 1915 the Marcus L. Oran was wrecked on the Wasque Shoal and keeper Norton at Great Point helped rescue "13 men, a woman, and a cat." He was given a life-saving medal for this performance.

Nantucket (Great Point) Lighthouse is described as a white tower 71 feet above ground and 70 feet above water, visible 14 miles, and located on the point at the north end of Nantucket Island. It is equipped with a 25,000-candlepower third-order electric light, fixed white, with a 5,000-candlepower red sector which covers Cross Rip and Tuckernuck Shoals. (5)