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The Baddest Lighthouse In Our ‘Hood

Minot’s Ledge off Cohasset

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!). 

David Whitmon July 23, 2012 at 04:29 PM
That was wonderful Holly. It would be cool to live in a Light House.
Holly Nadler July 23, 2012 at 04:33 PM
This just received on my fb wall from Ned Casey, last keeper of the West Chop Light: "Hey I really enjoyed that story. I was the last Island light house keeper on MV. I lived in the whistle shack at West Chop. After a great beach party the night before. I was awakened to car doors slamming in the drive way. I jumped from sleep and gazed in horror at white hats and gold epaulets on the shoulders. I raced around the shack stuffing things in the stove refrigerator and unfer my bed. I was in a panic trying to find clean clothes. I then decided it would be best to look as though I was working on something. I ran into the shop that was attached. and rubbed a little grease and dirt on my hands and face. I stepped outside with a rag wiping my hands and saluted. I was then informed that I was to dig a trench 50 yds long from the foghorn to a telephone pole out front. I dug my own demise... My lighthouse at West chop was being automated from Nobska Light. No need for me anymore to wake up on the hr. every night to check for fog and sound the horn if needed. The aids to navigation team from Woods Hole were taking over the dutys of caring for all the lighthouses on the island. I dug that trench slowly......... It was a sad day for me."
Michael West July 23, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Great story about the Cape Poge light. Once again the hubris of the greatest engineering falls to Mother Nature! And I also loved Ned Casey's memoir. I, too, have a lighthouse story, about the Edgartown light after drinks at the Harborview, but I cannot tell it here.
Holly Nadler July 24, 2012 at 12:23 AM
Just not that one!
Holly Nadler July 24, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Here's an anecdote about the Edgartown Light: The ground all around it is poignantly devoted to plaques of names of children who have died. Well, one day this 15 year-old kid on my Edgartown ghost tour told me his family had a summer house down on N. Water. One day the kid was poking alone around the lighthouse and he came upon his own name on a plaque. He hurried home and confronted his parents, "What the -- ?" Turned out they didn't realize the plaques were memorials. He's probably still seeing a shrink about it!
William Waterway July 24, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Hi Ned - so good to hear news from the "last island lighthouse keeper on MV." Be nice to know the date that the USCG automated West Chop Light. Sorry to hear that you last job as Principal Lighthouse Keeper was to dig a ditch. Hope they gave you a gold watch, a gold lighthouse pin, a gold anything - might be worth something today. However, I bet your life at the West Chop Light harbors some gold memories. I lived in your "whistle shack" by the old fog horn in the mid-1980s when the USCG transferred the West Chop, Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown lighthouses to the institute I founded - Vineyard Environmental Research, Inst. (VERI). After a year, the USCG changed their minds about West Chop because they needed the two houses to provide accommodations for USCG crew at Menemsha Basin. It was awesome to wake up in the morning and take the stairs down to the ocean over the stone retaining wall. The paint shed was picturesque - liked the old lightning rod system that once graced its slate roof. Blessings and health to you.
William Waterway July 24, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Holly - thanks for your engaging lighthouse story. Well done! To quote Captain William H. Swift, "Minot's Rocks... lie off the southeastern chop of Boston Bay. These rocks or ledges... have been the terror of mariners for a long period of years; they have been, probably, the cause of a greater number of wrecks than any other ledges or reefs upon the coast." In his book "Cape Cod", Henry David Thoreau described passing Minot's Ledge Light in 1849: "Here was the new iron light-house, then unfinished, in the shape of an egg-shell painted red, and placed high on iron pillars, like the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves... "When I passed it the next summer it was finished and two men lived in it, and a light-house keeper said that ina recent gale it had rocked so as to shake the plates off the table. Think of making your bed thus in the crest of a breaker!" The lighthouse was finished in late 1849. It was illuminated for the first time on January 1, 1850. It was the first lighthouse in the United States to be exposed to the ocean's full fury.
Holly Nadler July 24, 2012 at 06:44 PM
William, you just gob-smacked me with the realization that I've never read Thoreau's Cape Cod -- now that's at the top of my to-do list! How wonderful that he captured the full scope and weirdness of that lighthouse.
William Waterway July 24, 2012 at 07:36 PM
I was gifted a hard cover edition by Doug Campbell - Carly & James' friend back in 1980 - a treasure!
steven July 29, 2012 at 10:22 PM
Ms Nadler, Are you still running ghost tours on Marthas Vineyard? Regards Ryan mrslappywhite@gmail.ocm
Alison Shaw August 01, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Hi Holly. I loved your lighthouse piece for Patch, and in particular the story from Ned Casey about the West Chop Light. I'm doing a slideshow presentation at the Edgartown Library tonight about my new lighthouse book, To the Harbor Light – I hope you don't mind if I quote him, with attribution to you both, naturally!
Holly Nadler August 02, 2012 at 02:09 AM
Of course, Alison, be my guest!

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