Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2013

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Nauset “Three Sisters”

By Jim Claflin


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Nauset “Three Sisters” Lights c.1892-95, showing ...

Once again, while checking out local auctions and estate sales – I picked up a wonderful two lots of fifteen early photos of Keeper Stephen Snow Lewis with his wife Susan and family at Nauset Beach “Three Sisters” Lighthouses on Cape Cod, from two Cape Cod estates. These lots had been together in albums and provides an unprecedented look at the work of this Keeper and his family.

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Keeper Lewis with his big black Newfoundland ...

The name Nauset, once applied to a large section of outer Cape Cod about 15 miles in length, today refers to an area of outer beach within the town of Eastham between Orleans and Wellfleet. Over the years, countless sailors had fallen prey to the dreaded Nauset Bars and their currents and by 1836 twenty-one Eastham area residents sent a letter to the Boston Marine Society requesting relief. A committee was formed and reported that a light was indeed needed to warn ships from the Nauset Bars on the Atlantic shore of Cape Cod, halfway between Cape Cod (Highland) Light in North Truro and the twin lights at Chatham.

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Nauset Light Station as it looked at about 1912, ...

A Navy review, directed by Congress, agreed that lights were needed at this location and in 1837, 4.8 acres of land were purchased from Benjamin H. A. Collins of Eastham. (Early keepers would include Michael Collins and Assistant Harry Collins, no doubt relatives of Benjamin).

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Keeper Lewis and his wife Susan enjoy a summer ...

The design chosen was for three masonry lighthouse towers, fifteen feet in height, with a brick keeper’s house and a kitchen addition, and an out-house located behind. The lights were 150 feet apart from each other, arranged in a straight line. It was felt that three lights here would prevent confusion with the existing single Highland Light and the two lights at Chatham.

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Keeper Stephen Snow Lewis c.1880’s

Inventor and designer Winslow Lewis received the contract to build the station, and the entire complex was built in just thirty-eight days! However, it would soon be revealed that the construction was sub-standard and not to the government’s specifications. Nevertheless, the government would accept the work and soon the three lights were lit. Each tower contained ten Winslow Lewis lamps with 13½” silvered reflectors – 30 in all, and exhibited a fixed white light. It was estimated that each tower would consume about 300 gallons of oil annually.

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Keeper Stephen Snow Lewis' wife Susan c.1880’s

The trio of towers acquired a famous nickname, the "Three Sisters of Nauset." The name is frequently said to have originated because the towers looked like three demure ladies in white dresses with black hats.

In May of 1842, Isaiah W.P. Lewis (the nephew of Winslow Lewis), was appointed to survey the light stations in New England. Isaiah produced a report that was highly critical of both the Light-House Establishment and of designer Winslow Lewis. Of the Nauset Lights, Isaiah wrote that the three lighthouses “…were constructed on sand without foundations. The contractor used inferior lime in the mortar. Bricks were laid at random with no regard to forming a bond. There were 24 courses of stretchers for every course of headers. The lower windows in each of the towers had been boarded up because blowing gravel kept breaking the glass….” Lewis recommended that there be only one lighthouse at Nauset with a revolving light flashing every 1½ minutes. Despite these glaring deficiencies, the three brick towers were retained and would serve for 54 years.

By 1858, with advances in technology that increased lighting efficiency, the three towers were stripped of their Lewis lamps and replaced with sixth-order fixed Fresnel lenses lit with new valve lamps. There was apparently some difficulty in installing the new lens apparatus into the old lanterns when they arrived and that same year the lanterns were replaced as well. In 1859 exterior ladders were added to the towers. In 1869 the valve lamps were replaced with Franklin lamps in the three tower lanterns.

Nathan Gill's tenure as keeper (1869-1883) saw several major changes at the station. In 1873, more powerful fourth-order Fresnel lenses were installed to replace the smaller sixth-order lenses, and with the increased workload maintaining the three lights, an assistant keeper was authorized. The assistant lived with Keeper Gill until 1875, when a new wood-frame Keeper’s house was constructed at a cost of $5,000. At this time Keeper Gill moved into the new house and the Assistant Keeper remained in the 1838 brick keeper’s house.

In 1883, Stephen Snow Lewis followed Nathan Gill as Principal Keeper. Lewis would remain until 1914.

Keeper Lewis was born on October 31, 1835 in Truro on Cape Cod. His father was Thomas Lewis and mother Elizabeth C. Mears Lewis. On December 28, 1865, he married the former Susan A. Rogers (born October 1843) from Biddeford, Maine.

In 1875 he was appointed as First Assistant Keeper at Cape Cod (Highland) Light Station in Truro, where he served until 1883. While serving at Cape Cod Light, the Lewis family had five children: Stephen Clarence Lewis (born 2 Aug 1868 in Truro), Elizabeth C. Lewis (born Dec 1869), Winslow Lewis (born 1872 in Truro), Achsah E. Lewis (born 23 Feb 1875 in Truro), Franklin Hill Lewis (born Sep 1877 in Truro).

It appears that two other daughters born to the Lewis family died during Keeper Lewis’ stay at Cape Cod Light. Cape Codder Dan Sanders notes on his “Truro Log” for May 2011 that “Lighthouse Keeper, Stephen Lewis, who had two daughters that died at the Light… are said to still be there….”

In 1883 Keeper Lewis was transferred to Nauset Lights where he would serve as Principal Keeper until 1914. The 1900 Eastham US Census lists Lewis as “Light House Keeper, rents house,” and lists two children, Elizabeth C Lewis (single) and Franklin H Lewis (single, farm laborer) still living at home, as well a widowed aunt, Abigail R Hopkins.

During this period between 1883 and 1914 while Stephen Lewis was Keeper, many changes came to the Light-House Establishment and the Nauset Light station received sweeping changes to its configuration.

In the 1880’s a more efficient Haines lamp with a one and five-eighth inch burner with concentric wicks was installed in each tower to increase the lights intensity and efficiency. Light lists of the period indicate that this increased the visibility of the lights from eleven to over fifteen miles.

In 1892, the Lighthouse Board commissioned the construction of three moveable wooden towers to replace the deteriorating and threatened brick towers. The new wooden towers were erected 20 feet to the west of the existing towers. They were twenty-two feet tall with an additional 7 feet to the top of the lantern, and were built on wooden post foundations driven four feet into the sand bluff. The old nine-sided lanterns and fourth-order Fresnel lenses were removed from the old towers and re-installed onto the new shingled towers on April 25, 1892. The north and center towers had lenses manufactured by Barbier & Fenster, while the south tower had a lens by Henry Lapaute.

Storm porches were added in 1895 (helping us to date some of the photos).

In time the unused fifty-four year old brick towers, one by one, toppled off the cliffs onto the beach far below. Even today, one of the brick foundations from the old towers can still be seen in the sand during winter low tides.

Continual maintenance kept the station in excellent condition. In the1890’s E. G. Perry traveled throughout Cape Cod for his lengthy book of photo views entitled “A Trip Around Cape Cod” (published in Boston 1898). He stopped at Nauset Lights for a day and visited with Keeper Lewis’s daughter (probably Elizabeth).

Perry wrote of his visit: “…we reach the three lights of Nauset, among the sand-dunes, with the keeper’s house in a shallow hollow in the rear. The government has now the wisdom of its experiences, for it formerly put its lighthouses close to the sea-bluffs, and of brick, which they could not move; but a few gales, and the sea in perpetual motion wasting the sand, soon drove houses and Washington wisdom back in defeat, and now they build father inland, and of wood, so that if the sea eats through the sand bluffs too near, they can move them back on rollers (iron ones, not sea ones)….”

“…we came back tired and hungry, to the light-keeper’s house…. We found at home only the keeper’s daughter – a tall brunette with a sweet face and a ready tongue – and her big black Newfoundland dog (Fig. 3) in charge. ‘Don’t any of you gentlemen try to shake hands with me,’ she said. ‘Father, when he went hoeing over by the woods, told Nero (the dog) to take care of me. Won’t you Nero?’ And the dog wagged his tail and looked at the strangers. ‘He feels himself in charge to-day. Last time father told him so he frightened the baker, Jim Stetson, when he tried to shake hands with me, a’most out of his wits, catching him by the arm and holding on.’ (Jim was her beau, and the two were frightened, though she didn’t tell us that)….

‘Anything in the house and will you pay for it? Plenty; but we don’t keep a boarding house.’ So by the help of our own big basket and her tea-kettle we had a good hot dinner in the kitchen, where a fine telephone was ready for the shore men and life boat’s crew to send word in a stormy if there was any shipwreck in these parts, and from here by way of Highland Light, if necessary, to the owners in Boston or New York…. But meanwhile the Maid of the Lighthouse showed us the parlor full of sound English literature and family photographs and such a profusion of lace curtains for her bay windows as might make even a city dame envious. We were more interested in the little holes in the panes of the aforesaid windows, made, as she assured us, by the sand-grains dashed against them by the storm of November 27, 1898 [the ‘Portland Gale’ in which the steamship Portland was lost with nearly 200 persons aboard] ….”

By May 1911, these three towers were again threatening to topple over the edges of the constantly eroding cliffs as had their predecessors. When Lighthouse Inspector H.C. Poundstone visited the site, he reported that the cliffs had eroded to within eight yards of the northern tower and 18 yards from the south tower.

However, by this time, with the advancements in lens technology and the ability to differentiate lights by their flash rather than by the number of lights (Highland one light, Nauset three lights, Chatham two lights), three distinct lights at this location were no longer needed. In addition, efficiency and economy continued to be a factor for the Lighthouse Service. With only one flashing light rather than three fixed lights, the Assistant Keeper position could be eliminated and two thirds of the lamp oil could be saved. By this time too, technology had advanced to the point that the single flashing lens could produce 20 times the brilliance as compared to that of the three lights combined.

So, in 1911, the north and south towers were extinguished and in 1912 the center tower was moved back onto a solid foundation and attached to the 1875 Principal Keeper’s house by a short entryway. (Fig. 4) A Barbier & Fenster fourth-order lens from the central tower was mounted on a new ball-bearing revolving apparatus, providing a triple flash every ten seconds, reminiscent of the “Three Sisters.” It was lit by a Funk-Heap oil-wick lamp. Soon, however, an incandescent oil vapor lamp was installed, increasing the efficiency still further.

Within days, however, the District Inspector reported that the old tower was so poorly constructed that, despite its relatively low height, even moderate winds caused it to vibrate. The shaking interfered with the flashing apparatus and soon galvanized guy wires were attached to stabilize the tower. These wires can be seen in the photo, attached to an iron ring just below the lantern.

With only one light and no Assistant Keeper required, the 1838 brick Keeper’s house was no longer needed and was demolished. The old north and south towers were stripped of their lenses and lantern rooms, and moved to a corner of the reservation to await their fate. After seven years the two old light towers were sold in 1918 for $3.50 and moved down the road to be combined into a summer cottage, where they housed summer visitors and a dance studio for the next forty-five years.

This central tower remained in service until 1923, when the north cast iron tower from Chatham Twin Lights was moved to Nauset beach and placed on a concrete foundation. The 1875 Keeper’s dwelling was moved as well, to a location adjacent to the new tower location. The remaining wooden tower was sold into private hands and moved elsewhere in town, where it too became part of a summer cottage.

In 1983 following the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the three distinctive wooden towers were purchased back by the National Seashore and moved to a site a short distance behind their former locations. Today, they are beautifully restored and they stand as they once did, complete with lanterns as they again look out to sea. They are three of only a few remaining wood light structures from this early era.

For more information and great reading on this early light station, you will want to read: Clemensen, A. Berie and William H. Howell. Historic Structure Report – Three Sisters Lighthouses Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts. (National Park Service. 1984); West, J. Brian. Life on the Edge – The Lighthouses of Nauset. (self published 1989).

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects? Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 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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