Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Child of the Wave

By Timothy Harrison


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Col. Joseph Swift, builder of the first Minot’s ...

Shortly after the Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in Cohassett, Massachusetts toppled in a storm in April of 1851, taking the lives of the two assistant keepers, composer J. Philip Knight wrote the music and the words to the song Child of the Wave.

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The Antoine and Wilson Memorial in Cohassett, ...
Photo by: Herb Jason

The cover of the sheet music, shown here, shows an artist’s depiction of the lighthouse that was commonly used in the print media of the time. When the tower was lighted for the first time on January 1, 1850, it was first lighthouse in the United States to be totally exposed to the ocean. However, from the day it became operational, none of the lighthouse keepers believed the tower to be safe and they made numerous complaints to government officials and in the local newspapers. However, their complaints were not taken seriously by Col. Joseph Swift, the man who had built the lighthouse, or by government bureaucrats.

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The basket, shown in the image, was suspended on a line from the lighthouse to a rock that was a couple of hundred feet away and below. It was installed and designed by lighthouse keeper John W. Bennett for use to escape from the tower, which often swayed and rattled, in even the slightest of windy days.

When the storm came up on that fateful day, keeper Bennett, who was away on the mainland to locate a new boat for the lighthouse, was extremely worried for the two assistant keepers who were on duty at the lighthouse. He had good cause to worry.

By late afternoon, witnesses on shore said that, as they looked through the stormy weather, out to sea, they could see that the tower was listing. Sometime later that afternoon or perhaps later that night, the two assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, hastily wrote a note and signed it saying, “The lighthouse won’t stand over to night. She shakes 2 feet each way now.” They put the note into a bottle and tossed it into the water below.

As the night turned to morning, the people on shore could hear a fast and furious ringing of the lighthouse fog bell, which may have been caused by the swaying and shaking of the tower. However, many people, at the time, believed the two men were ringing the bell as a call for help, perhaps while praying that a rescue boat would be launched. But, such was not the case.

When keeper Bennett arrived at the shore in the early morning hours, he looked in horror toward the empty spot in the sea where the tower once stood, as debris from the lighthouse was washing ashore.

Officials reportedly later said there was evidence that the two assistant keepers might have exited the lighthouse in the escape basket before the lighthouse fell. Whatever the case, the waters of the violent, storm-tossed, ocean claimed their lives. Eventually their bodies were found. Amazingly, their last hastily written note in a bottle was also found.

However, it took nearly 150 years before a memorial was created to honor the memory of the two assistant keepers who lost their lives on the fateful night in 1851. Thanks to the efforts of three men: Kenneth Jason, Capt. Herb Jason and John Small, who raised the money, and designed and installed the granite memorial, it was dedicated at ceremonies in 2000 on Government Island in Cohassett, Massachusetts.


A Song by J. Philip Knight

Through the gloom of the storm, ‘mid the breakers’ loud roar,

When the gun of distress, flashes faint on the shore!

The life-boat from billow to billow bounds on,

Like a weed on the ocean, or bird on the foam.

Now cradled a-loft by the winds in their glee,

Now buried beneath a huge mountain of sea,

And lashed to the shrouds the drench’d mariners mark

How she shaketh her sides, the old tempest-toss’d bark,

How she shaketh her sides, the old tempest-toss’d bark.

May I perish at sea, blowing high, blowing low,

May my grave be the rock fifty fathoms below;

If in calm or in storm, I should love thee the less,

The Friend who stood staunch in the hour of distress!

Now high on the shingle, deserted and lone,

Where the waifs of the billow lie scattered and strewn,

The vessel lies stranded a wreck on the shore

To the ocean of storms she returneth no more!

The weeds be thy winding sheet, child of the wave,

And the night-winds shall murmur their dirge o’er thy grave;

For we’ll bury thee deep when the heaven broodeth dark,

In the sands of the ocean, old tempest-toss’d bark.

May I perish at sea, may I perish at sea!

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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