United States’ first and oldest lighthouse station

Boston Light, the shining point of the Boston Harbor Islands

Each summer through the end of September, the Boston Harbor Island Alliance takes visitors on a journey that unleashes the history and splendor that the Boston Harbor Island national park areas have to offer, with summer tours of Boston Light—the oldest lighthouse station in the United States.

The three hour excursions begin with a boat cruise, taking visitors on a voyage with a 45-minute park ranger-narrated tour of the Boston Harbor Islands.   Sights include the two other historic lighthouses of Boston Harbor – Long Island Head Light and The Graves Light.  Once docking at Little Brewster Island, home of Boston Light, visitors meet with the Lighthouse keeper and get a close up look at Boston Light’s Fresnel lens—a unique scientific accomplishment of a prior century that focuses light through a series of lens segments rather than a large lens.

Boston Light is a lighthouse located on Little Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor. The first lighthouse to be built on the site dates back to September 14, 1716 —  the first lighthouse to be built in what is now the United States.  A tonnage tax of 1 penny per ton on all vessels, except coasters, moving in or out of Boston Harbor, paid for maintaining the light.

During the American Revolution, the original lighthouse was held by British forces and was attacked and burnt on two occasions by American forces. As the British forces withdrew in 1776, they blew up the tower and completely destroyed it. The lighthouse was eventually reconstructed in 1783, to the same 75-foot  height as the original tower. In 1856 it was raised to its present height of 98 feet and a new lantern room was added along with a 12-sided second order Fresnel lens.

While Captain Tobias Cook of Cohasset wasthe lighhouse keeper in 1844, a “Spanish” cigar factory was set up on the island, with young girls brought from Boston to work in it, in an effort to deceive Boston smokers that the cigars manufactured there were imported. This business was soon broken up, however, as a fraud.

Despite the light to help show the way through the rocks and shoals, ships occasionally wrecked in Boston Harbor.

On November 2, 1861, the square rigger Maritana, 991 tons, which had sailed from Liverpool 38 days earlier, with Captain Williams, ran into heavy seas in Massachusetts Bay and approached Boston in a blinding snow, driven by a howling southeaster. At 1 o’clock in the morning of November 3, she sighted Boston Light and headed for it, but crashed on Shag Rocks soon after, with passengers and crew ordered into the weather chains after the crew had cut the masts away. The ship broke in two and Captain Williams was crushed to death, but seven persons floated to Shag Rocks atop the pilot house, while five others swam to the ledge, as fragments of the wreckage started coming ashore on both sides of Little Brewster Island. A dory from the pilot boat rescued the survivors from the rocks.

When the USS Alacrity was wrecked on the ice-covered ledges off the island on February 3, 1918, Keeper Jennings and his assistants made four attempts to shoot a rope to the doomed ship but each time the rope parted. Jennings brought the lighthouse dory to the shore, and, assisted by two naval reservists, pushed it over the ice and into the surf. Twenty-four men were clinging to the wreck in perilous positions when he reached it after a dangerous trip. Flinging a line aboard, they began the rescue of the half-frozen sailors, four times running the gauntlet of ice, rocks, and surf until all 24 men were saved. For this Jennings received a letter of commendation from Secretary Redfield.

Boston Light was automated in 1998, but is still staffed by a resident civilian keeper assisted by volunteer watchstanders from the Coast Guard Auxiliary. However, these personnel are mostly used to act as interpretive tour guides for visitors.

Its light, flashing white every 10 seconds, shines through the only second-order Fresnel lens still in use in Massachusetts (of only four total), and is visible from a distance of 27 nautical miles (50 km). Although it is still an important navigation mark, its importance has been decreased over the last century by the use of Boston Harbor’s North Channel for most large vessels entering the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

The light is the showpiece of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, a unique recreational park that includes 34 islands just minutes from Boston. The park provides families, individuals and groups unique island experiences of fun, adventure, or relaxation. Visitors enjoy boat rides to island destinations that offer hiking trails, beaches, camping, natural and historic sites, and activities and tours led by park rangers. Programs and exhibits help visitors learn about the natural, cultural, geologic, and historical background of the Islands.

Made up of a collection of islands, together with a former island now a part of the mainland, many of which are open for public recreation and some of which are very small and best suited for wildlife. Twenty-one of the 34 islands in the area are also included in the Boston Harbor Islands Archeological District.

Attractions include hiking trails, beaches, the Civil War-era Fort Warren on Georges Island and Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, the oldest lighthouse in the United States. Georges Island and Spectacle Island are served seasonally by ferries to and from Boston and Quincy, connecting on weekends and summer weekdays with a shuttle boat to several other islands, Hull, and Hingham.

Two islands (Castle Island and Spinnaker Island) in Boston Harbor are not part of the National Recreation Area, and other former islands (e.g. Apple Island, Governors Island and Noddle’s Island) were obliterated by the formation of East Boston and the expansion of Logan International Airport before the area was designated.

Thompson Island is only open to the public on Sundays during the summer. Private boats can dock (with various restrictions) at Spectacle, Grape, Bumpkin, Lovells, and Peddocks Islands. The public dock on Georges Island was recently condemned by engineers, although access is still available by making anchor off shore and using a dinghy to row ashore.

Deer Island, Nut Island, Worlds End, and Webb Memorial are accessible by road from the mainland. Moon Island and Long Island are not open to the public; though they are accessible by road from Quincy, access is controlled by a police guard station at the beginning of the causeway on the Squantum peninsula.

Visitors taking the tour have the option of packing a picnic to eat while taking in the spectacular views of the harbor. By the tour’s end visitors will be left in admiration for the awe inspiring views and unique experience.

For more information and the full schedule of ferry service and ticket prices, visit www.bostonharborislands.org

 

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