Chatham Lighthouse and Lifesaving Station

The history of the Chatham Lighthouses is a long, fascinating and complex one. Many changes have taken place in both the shoreline and lighthouse structures of Chatham since the first American settlements. Since shipping along the coast has long been menaced by shoals, these settlers realized the need for lighthouses very early in their colonization. Many were built along the northeastern coast of the North American continent, the twin lights of Chatham being among them. Little did they realize that three sets of lights would be erected because of the destructive forces of the waters upon the shoreline. The Atlantic Ocean eventually took its toll on these structures; only one set of lights remains in existence today. Sadly, no physical evidence remains of the first two twin sets of lights.

The first lights were constructed in 1808 on the bluff called James' Head. In order that sailors could differentiate the Chatham from the Highland Light [Truro], twin lights were erected at Chatham. The constructor who erected Chatham's first light had trouble before his work started. His plan was to build it out of nearby stones; he did not know about the scarcity of stones on Cape Cod. Realizing his predicament, he set out to get the stones elsewhere, but found himself unable to transport them to the construction site. He finally reported on June 26, 1806: "There are no stones to be had so the Lights will have to be made of wood.

In 1808 the 43-foot high octagonal shaped wooden towers were completed on James' Head. They were placed 70 feet apart. Between the towers a 17' x 26' Keepers dwelling was constructed. The lights were fixed in character, and an 81/2' reflector backed six oil lamps in each light. Interestingly, the lights were set upon heavy wooden skids five feet from the ground, allowing for mobility; however, it is reported that the structures only needed to be moved once.

The completion of the station and lights was a grand occasion in Chatham and on all of Cape Cod. After much celebration, a petition with more than 125 names was forwarded to President Thomas Jefferson, declaring Samuel Nye as overwhelming favorite for the position as light keeper. On October 7, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Samuel Nye as first Keeper of the Chatham Lights.

Joseph Loveland followed Samuel Nye, then came Samuel Stinson, the third keeper. Samuel Stinson had a reputation for neglect as Keeper, and in 1832 was finally warned about his neglect of duty by the local superintendent. Stinson turned in his resignation shortly afterward.

In 1841, a second set of 40-foot towers was built of brick to replace the old wooden structures. The towers were fitted with nine oil lamps each with 14' reflectors. Stephen Pleasanton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, decided the Lights would be painted white instead of whitewashed, as the wood structures had been. White paint has been used on the towers ever since.

Collins Howes was appointed the new lights' first Keeper. Howes was succeeded by Simeon Nickerson, who died in October of 1848. Nickerson's widow was then given the position of Keeper of the Lights, a position she held until the mid-1850s.

A 4th order Fresnel lens replaced the reflectors in each tower in 1857. The characteristic remained fixed. When Josiah Hardy II became Keeper in 1872, he kept a diary of events. Hardy served at the lights for a total of 28 years, and much detail about his life as Keeper can be found in his diary recordings. (Captain Hardy's diary is now the property of Robert and James Hardy of Chatham.)

Although Josiah Hardy's diary recounts an astonishing number of shipwrecks in the area, all apparently went well with the Lights until the fall of 1870. At that time, the mainland extended far beyond the lighthouses on James' Head. Below the banks were two wharves where vessels would load and unload their cargoes.

On November 13, 1870, a storm of incredible magnitude hit Chatham causing extreme high tides, growing higher by the hour due to heavy rains and gales. The town grew anxious, and as fishermen secured their boats, the people waited with mounting tension. Suddenly the cry came: "The beach has broken through!" Sure enough, water was rushing in around the pfles at Hardy's wharf.

The 1870 nor'easter marked the beginning of the end for the town's second set of twin lights. After this storm, James' Head bluff quickly began to wash away, and the towers were endangered.

Before the 1870 storm, the Lights stood 228 feet from the edge of the bank. Hardy's diary records the gradual but insistent wearing away of the lighthouse bank. Four years after the 1870 storm, he writes: 'November 23, 1874, a day of storms, ushered in by a northeast wind and high course of tides." He notes also that the lighthouse bank did not fare well as a result of this storm, with more of the shoreline plummeting into the sea.

Other entries recorded soon after reveal the slow but sure erosion of the lighthouse bank: December 1874 - 'The distance was measured today. From the edge of the bank to the foot of South Tower is 190 feet." He says that 38 feet in width have been cut off since 1870. November 15, 1875 - "The fourth anniversary of the breaking through of the beach; it has washed away on an average of 50 feet a year opposite the house of Capt. Josiah Hardy and abreast of the Lights just 3 1 feet a year." On April 25, 1877, it was decided to build a new set of lighthouses and keeper's dwelling, this time on the west side of the road. These towers, built of a brick lined cast iron shell, were 100 feet apart and 42 feet high. On September 6, 1877, the lenses from the old towers were moved to the new ones, and that night they were lighted. At that time the lamps burned lard oil. On June 18, 1878, the government supply boat, Myrtle, landed two barrels of kerosene and fixtures for its burning. The lanterns were equipped with these, and on the night of July 4, 1878, kerosene was burned for the first time.

In 1879, an amazing discovery was made by schoolboys walking along the shore. An easterly gale of great force had just swept the coast, and the boys noticed that the underpinning of the old lighthouse had entirely washed away to reveal clay pits, two to three feet deep, in which they found several ancient coins. No one knows for sure how the coins made their way under the foundation, but local inhabitants believe that pirates buried their booty there long before the tower was erected.The ocean continued to take its toll on the land, and on Monday, December 13, 1879, at 1 P.M., the old South Tower toppled over the bank-just eight years and one month since the harbor broke through. A little over a year later, the cast side of the keeper's dwelling fell. 1881 marked the end for the second set of lighthouses, for on March 26 at 2:30 P.M. the old North Tower was claimed by Chatham's waters, leaving only a cone-shaped piece standing on top.

In 1923, South Tower was equipped with a new Fresnel lens of 20,000 candle power, burning oil vapor and flashing four times every thirty seconds. On May 15 of the same year the North Tower was moved to Nauset [Eastham] to replace a trio of lighthouses affectionately called "The Three Sisters." This lighthouse is still in existence today known as Nauset Light.

When the Coast Guard assumed all of the Lighthouse Society's duties in 1939, an electric motor replaced the clockwork drive. The lamp intensity was increased to 1,000 watts which illuminated 800,000 candle power. Another major change was made in the Chatham Light in 1969, when high intensity, electric searchlights were installed along with completely new housing. In 1987 (reminiscent of 1870), the harbor broke through again, once more causing serious erosion and damage to Chatham's shoreline and surrounding structures. This break, directly across from the Light, has grown to a length of over a mile in only a few years' time. During this period, the town beach which the lighthouse towered over washed away, and homes along the shoreline have fallen victim to the pounding surf. Although the shore continues to slowly wash away and homes are still imperiled, the lighthouse at present is not in any real danger. This is largely due to the wise planning of those who, back in 1877, thought it best to build it and the dwelling house on the west side of the road.

Today, the South Tower, known as Chatham Light, still stands alone. Now modernly equipped, it flashes its special characteristic of two flashes every 10 seconds, rises 80' above the sea, and can be seen from 28 nautical miles. The overlook, commonly called James' Head Bluff in earlier days, is frequented each year by tourists who wish to see both Chatham Light and the now-famous Chatham Harbor breakthrough. The Chatham Coast Guard is housed in what was once the Keeper's dwelling and it is here where a watch over vessels is maintained.

Editor's note: Our thanks to the Chatham Coast Guard for the use of History of Chatham Coast Guard by Daniel R. Moreau, Seaman; Donna J. Charrette, Seaman; Kyle A. Santheson, Boatswain Mate First Class. 1989. We regret we were unable to print the manuscript as it was written. However Chatham Light's long and interesting past could not be detailed within the confines of this book; therefore, editing was necessary to accommodate the available space. We hope, in the selected bits of information, to introduce those who are unfamiliar with our area, an overview of the dramatic history of Chatham Light.

This is a reprint from "Chatham 1997" with kind permission from Thompson's Printing Inc.
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