Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Twin Lights of Thacher Celebrate 150 Years

By Paul St. Germain


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The twin lights of Thacher Island, Massachusetts.
Photo by: Mike McKinney

“Why would they build two lighthouses on the same island?” That is the most frequently asked question by visitors to Thacher Island off the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts.

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The same type of construction methods were used ...

The first twin lights were built in 1771 by the British who commanded Boston at the time. John Hancock, who had major shipping interests in the area, petitioned the local government to erect these lights to protect his interests in the coastal trade and shipping to London. These two initial lighthouses were built of wood and rubble stone and only stood 40 feet tall. At that time the only other lights along the Massachusetts coast was Portsmouth Light to the north and Boston light to the south. As lighthouses of the time had not yet been equipped with rotating or flashing lights (characteristics), in order to differentiate the lights to mariners coming from Europe, two lights were built 300 yards apart on Thacher. When mariners saw two lights close together and saw the single light to the south and the single light to the north they knew they were seeing Thacher Island. Thacher’s two lights were the first ever to mark a dangerous spot in the ocean. All prior lights were simply built to mark harbor entrances. The twin lights of Thacher also marked the outward boundaries of the “Londoner Reef” situated about half a mile off the island. By the mid 1800’s these lights were deemed unsuitable and new taller ones were planned by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment.

The building of the new granite lighthouse towers on Thacher Island in 1861 was no small event in the history of Rockport. When the Lighthouse Establishment decided to replace the rather puny 40 foot towers to build these twin 124-foot tall goliaths sitting on the ledge and casting their beam 160 feet above the water; it confirmed the vital importance this light station was to the shipping interests around Cape Ann.

These new towers could now look beyond the horizon and their light could reach at least 19 miles to sea.

The towers were built under the direction of two men, Thomas Roberts and Edwin Adams, under contract with the U.S. Lighthouse Board, which was now starting to be known as the United States Lighthouse Service. Roberts was an expert stone mason who built many buildings around the Boston area. Adams was a metal specialist who created the spiral staircases and lantern room, windows, doors and port holes. Adams & Roberts’ Company was one of 35 companies who bid for the job. Their winning bid was for $42,974 but the final cost was $81,417.

They had wanted to use Rockport granite for its hardness and local availability but the federal government decided that it would be better to ship it from New Hampshire and transport it to Salem then ship it up from there. Construction began in 1859 and was completed in 1861.

When the Notice to Mariners was published on July 29, 1861 announcing that the lights would be first exhibited on October 1 there was great excitement in the surrounding maritime communities.

Although photographs of the construction of the Twin Lights of Thacher have been elusive, photographs do exist of the building of Minot’s Ledge Light in Cohasset. Construction details were identical. In fact Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse had just been completed three years earlier in 1859 and was of a similar design.

The stone was cut with interlocking flanges and dry fitted and each block numbered. They were locked in place with 2 inch iron rods at each course level. The five ton blocks were carried by ox cart down to the granite barge and taken out into Cohasset harbor. It was an amazing engineering feat to begin building on a small rock outcropping that was only cleared by the tide for five hours a day. Raising the stone was also done the same way using a Holmes hoist as shown here.

The towers were completed at the outbreak of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected. Since then the towers have seen 29 presidents take office. Throughout the years, over 100 lighthouse keepers, assistant keepers and Coast Guardsmen have taken care of them since 1861.

In 1864, when lighthouse keeper Alexander Bray was unable to get back to the island because of a blinding snow storm, his wife, Maria, climbed the 156 steps to the top of each tower for three days and nights to maintain the lights. The raging storm lasted four days and left three feet of snow. In 1884 the keepers watched the laying of the transatlantic cable from the cable house on Pebble Beach that passed by the southern end and up the east shore to Nova Scotia and on to Ireland. By this time people in the area were referring to the lights as Anne’s Eyes. Anne’s Eyes continued to see many huge storms.

In the 140 years from 1871 to today, over 40 tropical storms have battered the towers. At least six of these storms were Category 3 hurricanes that started with the Portland Gale of 1898 when Thacher Island keeper Albert Whitten was the last person to see the SS Portland. The vessel sank seven miles off of Thacher Island with the loss of 198 souls. Other storms, to name a few included the great hurricanes of 1938, Hurricane Carol in 1954, Hurricane Donna in 1960, Hurricane Gloria in 1985, the Perfect Storm in 1991 and Hurricane Bob also in 1991.

Shipwrecks continued even after the twin lights were built. From 1874-1894 alone, the U.S. Navy recorded over 147 wrecks and 560 partial disasters within site of the twin towers. Many fetched up on the Londoner Reef about half a mile off the island. Some actually came onto the island itself.

Two famous Americans were almost lost when the USS George Washington was warned off by keeper Maurice Babcock in 1919. On-board was President Woodrow Wilson and soon to be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

The towers witnessed the boat house and ramp destroyed at least five times and saw the eastern wall of the whistle house crash into the ocean in 1991. In that same storm the island was cut in half as water surged over the central part of Thacher to separate the two towers for the first time.

Wars were no stranger to the lighthouses. German U-boats were reported just off Thacher Island in both World Wars. From the towers one could see the North Atlantic Fleet as well as the Great White Fleet anchor just off Thacher in Sandy Bay during maneuvers in the summers from 1898 up until the 1930’s.

As improvements were made the fuel for the light in the towers changed over time. The first order Fresnel lenses were lighted first with whale oil, which was changed to kerosene in 1861, then to oil vapor lamps in 1892, and finally electricity in 1932 when it was reported that the beam could be seen 44 miles away.

Eventually these lenses were supplanted by two huge rotating back to back aero-beacons with 1000 watt halide bulbs, in the 1990’s they changed to a red flashing light. Today this same light in the south tower is powered by solar panels.

The north tower is now lit by a solar powered LED lamp with a 120 light array that serves as a courtesy light mimicking the original amber candlelight of the past. It is also maintained by the Thacher Island Association as a memorial to mariners.

The twin towers have also become famous, in their own right. They have been featured in magazines going back to an 1879 issue of Harpers Weekly, again in later years in National Geographic, Life Magazine, Yankee Magazine and most recently in Lighthouse Digest.

Thacher has been in the movies; George Clooney mentions Thacher Island lighthouses in the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm when he says at the beginning of the film, “The fog lifts, we throw off the bow line and stern, pass up the south channel, past Rocky Neck, Ten Pound Island, blow the air horn and throw a wave to the keeper’s kid on Thacher Island.”

In 2003, director, Andrew Stanton, a Rockport, Massachusetts native, illustrated the towers in his academy award winning Pixar animated movie Finding Nemo. The towers have also been used as symbols by a variety of companies and organizations. The Town of Rockport recognized their importance in 1888 when the town decided to feature them on the official town seal. Twin Lights Beverages, the Coast Guard Cutter Maria Bray, and Cape Ann Brewing all use the lighthouses in their logo or emblem.

The Twin Lights of Thacher stood a little taller when they were named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 and as a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Much of that and what has happened since can be largely credited to the Thacher Island Association that started with eight people led by Ned Cameron in 1980 to a group of 50 very active volunteers who are part of an organization today with a membership of 750.

These two sentinels remain unique as they are the last two remaining twin lights in full operation in the nation. Amazingly today over 3,000 people make it the island each year to climb the spiraling steps, just as the keepers did for so many years. And, they continue to be the first lighthouses seen by travelers coming from Europe on their way to the United States.

These two gentle, but sturdy giants continue to stand proud, still doing their job faithfully for the past 150 years. We can only ponder what they will see during their next 150 years.

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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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