Yeah, yeah, we have great lighthouses right here on the Island, and they’ve got stories up their own Fresnelled wazoo: The Cape Poque light, built in 1802, that used to drive keepers nutso from isolation, the Gay Head, 1799, whose super, Ebenezer Skiff bilked the Treasury Department for the relentless chore of wiping red clay from the glass (and he deserved every penny), plus the gorgeous green lights of both Chops, East and West, and the Edgartown light where gooey-eyed romantics get engaged (abandon all hope, ye who enter here!).
But Minot’s Ledge? Whoo-ey baby! It’s just northwest of us, some 70 miles if you sail over to Wood’s Hole, then zip through the Channel, and hang a left at Cape Cod Bay. It's better to picture Celtics shooter Paul Pierce standing at that little flippy end of Chappaquiddick, and tossing a ball at Minot’s Ledge where it juts out from the South Shore. He just might score a three-pointer, with the help of some digital FX.
The thing is, don’t go there! Stay away from Minot’s Ledge or, if you do visit, do so only in your imagination.
At high tide, hundreds of tons of water engulf the base of the lighthouse. In a rambunctious sea, a visitor needs to hoist himself up with a complicated system of ropes and pulleys.
Since earliest times (which means “In white man’s experience of this part of the world”), scant years elapsed without a demolition derby on the Cohasset reefs. In 1843, an official named W.P. Lewis listed 40 wrecks between 1832 and 1841. He wrote in his report, “There is more need for a beacon in this spot than anyplace else in New England.”
Finally the government sent a rising star engineer, Capt. William Swift, a blustering, headstrong man who said no to the conventional concept of a stone tower. He had visions of Eiffel (way before Eiffel had visions of Eiffel), and ordered a fancy iron pile structure with an open, spidery design, to let the waves flow through unimpeded.
It sounded like a plan.
In 1847, construction crews arrived. Conditions on the sea-swept reef were at all times dangeroso. Men could work only for a couple of hours, on super-calm days, when the sea was at ebb. There was a schooner anchored nearby, with supplies and bed and board for the workers.
These amazing fellows drilled nine holes, five feet deep. After that, they cemented 10-inch iron pilings into the holes. Sometimes sudden squalls rushed in, sweeping men and machinery from the rock. No one was drowned . . . yet.
Next came piles placed horizontally. Capt. Swift stood by to examine the work, and then he had to ask himself: How ‘bout some iron braces to strengthen the lower part? “Naw,” he decided: More braces would lessen the free-flow ingenuity of the tower.
You sure, man?
A cast-iron spider went up next, then the keeper’s quarters, then the lantern. 75 feet from top to bottom. Done.
On January 1, 1850, the light twinkled on, a 16-sided chamber with a Fresnel lens of 15 reflectors, a fixed beacon with an arc of 210-degrees.
The first keeper, Mr. Isaac Dunham, was shocked at how unsafe it felt up there in his metal lodge! Imagine this guy poking out of the sea, with high tides smashing his windows, shaking the tower like a banshee with a stick in its hands. And when storms came up – watch out! – raging seas washed clear over the top of the lighthouse.
Keeper Dunham sent panicked messages to Capt. Swift and his corps of engineers, begging them to put some pedal to the metal of the structure. When no action was taken, in October of that same year, Dunham resigned.
Capt. Swift scoffed at the first keeper’s “delicacy.” He hand-picked a man of steel, one Capt. John Bennett, who himself chose two strapping, fearless assistants, Wilson and Antoine. Bennett was here to save the day, even taking some time to sneer to the press about his lily-livered predecessor.
And then came his first nor’easter. Some of the iron supports sent out piercing sounds of wearing away. Bennett and his two stalwart aids hugged the rails of their quarters. Wind and waves rampaged the tippy-top of the tower. The three men grew scared. Very scared.
Bennett wrote an S.O.S. to HQ. An inspection team was dispatched to the site but, wouldn’t you know it?, the day was calm, the sea placid as a goldfish bowl. A grade of A+ was awarded to the new lighthouse: anyone would be happy to care take the place.
In April of 1851, Bennett rowed to shore for provisions. His two guys held the fort on Minot's Ledge. And, bazinga!, another nor’easter bore down on southeastern Massachusetts, the worst blow, it turned out, since 1786. Boston became an island, very nearly a sunken island.
Now picture these two poor buggers, Wilson and Antoine, ringing the bells and keeping the lights burning. After midnight on the 16th, wave after wave (picture The Poseidan Adventure times 7) collided with the upper framework of the pretty little tour d'Eiffel. The central support snapped off like a twig, leaving the clunk-heavy lantern cap clinging to an outer piling.
Minutes before 1 a.m., the fabulous Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse slid over into the sea.
Up until the end, the keepers furiously rang the bell, its mournful toll heard by dwellers on the shore. Antoine’s body floated away to Nantucket. Wilson struggled for his life, and reached a misbegotten outcropping in the Bay called Gull Rock. He died of exhaustion and exposure.
A new, five-years-in-the-making stone structure was completed in August of 1860. This tower, knock on wood (or granite!) has survived every gale. Often, in high seas, water completely engulfs the 97-foot structure.
Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse switched to auto-pilot in 1947, and not a second too soon! It sports a 45,0000 candela light, 85 feet above water, and visible for up to 15 miles.
And just to be cutesy, the lantern flashes the maritime one-four-three code which means “I love you.” Minot’s Ledge is thus known as the Lover’s Light.
Do not row out there to get engaged!
Or anywhere! (But that’s just your gossip girl being grumpy!).