Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2013

Alexander Parris

Enduring Towers of Stone

By Dave Gamage


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Alexander Parris. (Courtesy of The Bostonian ...

A troubling problem during the earlier years of lighthouses in the United States was the short working life of the structures, with deteriorating living and working conditions that were detrimental to good operation of the lights. Many light towers and dwellings were poorly and cheaply constructed, requiring frequent repair and replacement. Poor preparation and application of mortar was a significant cause of failure of stone and brick structures. It became very apparent that the services of skilled designers and contractors were required, such as experienced architects and engineers like Alexander Parris who were called upon for the needed replacement structures and for the construction of new lighthouses.

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Architectural drawing for the construction of ...

Alexander Parris was born on November 24, 1780 at Hebron, Maine, but his family relocated to Pembroke, Massachusetts when he was age three. Upon completing “common” school, he was employed at age sixteen as an apprentice carpenter. He began continual self-education in building design and construction by obtaining books on these subjects. By the end of his life, he possessed the largest collection of such books in Boston.

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Early image of Monhegan Island Light Station in ...

His professional career developed during a housing boom in Portland, Maine where he designed and supervised the construction of many Federal-style buildings, some of wood and some of stone. His introduction to granite came from his association with noted architect Charles Bullfinch. In 1810 he went to Richmond, Virginia where he constructed several buildings, including the governor’s mansion.  During the War of 1812, he served as Superintendent of the Corp of Artificers, comprised of men of various trades who constructed and maintained military structures and equipment.

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Architectural drawing of the proposed original ...

Practical knowledge regarding granite was most important to Parris, so he formed a lasting working relationship with Gridley Bryant and his son, Gridley James Fox Bryant. The elder Bryant was a master mason and construction engineer in Boston. He was most knowledgeable of the stone itself, which varied in quality, texture, and color depending on the location from which it was quarried. He owned a working granite quarry, and had invented machinery to cut, shape, finish, handle, and transport this heavy stone. He was the contractor for the construction of numerous granite buildings in the Boston region. The handling and transport was a challenge for this stone that weighed, on average, 170 pounds per cubic foot. To accommodate this transport, Bryant created the first commercial railroad in the United States – the Granite Railway – with switches and turntables to carry stone, on cars he designed, three miles from his Quincy quarry to the Neponset River, thence by barge to Boston. This rail was first used to transport 6700 tons of granite for construction of the 221-foot high Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, which Parris worked on with architect Soloman Willard for the design, and construction was completed in 1842.

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1890s image of Matinicus Rock Light Station in ...

Included in the many buildings that Parris designed and/or superintended on the construction of are as follows: Massachusetts General Hospital, where Parris implemented a Bulfinch design; Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market); the Treasury Department building in Washington, D.C.; the Chelsea Naval Hospital; and the Watertown Arsenal. To accommodate simultaneous projects, Parris, at various times, employed apprentice architects and draftsmen for any given project that might require a significant number of construction drawings.

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The drawing by Alexander Parris of the proposed ...

Parris was contracted by the Navy beginning in 1824 to supervise construction of a very large dry-dock and support facilities at the Boston Navy Yard. He continued this relationship for the remainder of his life at yards in Boston, Brooklyn, Gosport, and Pensacola, and in the last years of his career he served as the chief engineer of the Portsmouth Navy Yard.  

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Early view of Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse in ...

It was in the 1830s when he began an association with the Treasury Department regarding lighthouse and beacon construction projects. One of the first was to assess conditions of the Whaleback Lighthouse and to recommend a design for a replacement for the deteriorating tower. Such replacement did not occur until years later.

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Before a keeper’s house was built at Maine’s ...

In 1837 the team of Parris and Bryant entered the realm of granite lighthouse construction. Revenue Service Captain Joseph Smith recommended that additional lighthouses be established on the coast, including at Saddleback Ledge in Maine’s outer East Penobscot Bay, which is a ledge about one-quarter acre and rising sixteen feet above sea level. After being approved by Congress, Parris submitted his bid with plans for such that was accepted. Parris and Gridley J.F. Bryant constructed this new lighthouse of granite completed in 1839.

The lighthouse at Saddleback Ledge was designed to withstand the tremendous force from wave over-wash of storms. Regarding the immense power of waves, wave force tests in the United Kingdom determined such force to easily exceed 4000 pounds per square foot, and range as high as 7000.  The Saddleback tower consisted of fourteen courses of interlocked and mortared granite blocks stacked about 40 feet high from the ledge to the lantern deck. It was a stout tower, with diameters of about 30 feet at the base and 20 feet at the top. Within the tower, from bottom to top, were four floors for storage, living quarters, and watch room.

This structure was prefabricated at a preparation site on a neighboring island near where the stone was quarried. The precisely finished stones were arranged to form the first course on which additional courses would then be positioned. The stones were handled with care and sometimes wrapped with burlap to prevent damage. The lifting and moving of the individual stones was accomplished by means of a temporary ring bolt inserted in a hole in the top of each stone. The top course was removed to the ground and then additional courses were arranged to it. The completed lower courses, with each stone marked to identify its position, and beginning with the first course, were then transported by boat to the construction site on the ledge.

At the site, the first course stones were positioned into a circular hole of the same diameter of the course, which was quarried into the ledge, and the stones were then secured firmly to the base-rock with each stone interlocked to the adjacent stones. Each stone of subsequent courses was interlocked and/or doweled with the course below.  When setting the stones, the vertical and horizontal joints were mortared using hydraulic cement, a very durable and strong form of mortar. The lantern deck was securely fastened and mortared to the top course. The lantern was secured firmly to the deck and contained 10 lamps with 14 inch reflectors with a focal plane of 54 feet above sea level.

In 1838 Alexander Parris and Col. Sylvanus Thayer of the Corp of Engineers inspected the Whaleback Lighthouse on the Maine-New Hampshire border and made recommendations that it should be replaced. Whaleback Lighthouse had been constructed in 1829-31, but it soon become clear that this stone tower was very poorly constructed and would not survive many more severe storms. Parris submitted a plan for a new granite tower, and he and Thayer were able to demonstrate to Stephen Pleasonton that, as Parris stated, “Light-houses are a kind of building that should last for ages and be constructed of the best materials and workmanship that can be procured, which is not likely to be had under contracts made at the lowest rate prices.”  Although no money was appropriated for Whaleback Lighthouse as requested by Pleasanton, there was no Congressional response to replace the tower until 1870. Pleasonton, during the last years of his administration of the Light-House Establishment, did support and promote improved materials and workmanship for new construction and replacement towers by Parris and others.

In 1843 engineer I.W.P. Lewis issued his report of Inspection of Lights and Other Navigation Aids on the Atlantic Coast. He was very critical of the poor and deteriorated condition of most of the light towers and dwellings, the result of poor design and construction, and he attributed it to the Light-House Establishment’s lack of management and supervision. The wood structures leaked, with resulting wood rot.  The stone structures leaked from disintegration of mortar, the result of improper preparation of the mortar paste and poor application. The condition of many of the structures was so deteriorated that replacement would be the only option for remediation.  However, Lewis reported that Saddleback Lighthouse was a noted exception for several reasons, including most notably that this lighthouse, unlike the others, was designed and constructed by a professional architect and engineer.

The next Parris project in 1840 was to construct an unlighted beacon on York Ledge, a tidal ledge on the southern Maine coast about four miles offshore from York Village in Maine.  Captain Joseph Smith of the Revenue Marine Service recommended this beacon rather than a planned lighthouse at Cape Neddick. Parris submitted his proposal for a granite beacon structure. However, Captain William H. Swift, of the Corp of Topographical Engineers convinced Pleasonton that a structure of wrought iron would be less costly and more durable than that of stone recommended by Parris. Swift was very impressed with iron structures for lighthouses and beacons that he had previously viewed in the United Kingdom, including the iron Carr Rock Beacon on the coast of Scotland designed and constructed by Alan Stevenson. Earlier stone towers and beacons at various locations had failed for reasons of poor design and poor construction, but these were quite inferior to that which Parris proposed. For construction using rough cut rubblestone, the strength of the structure depended on the strength and durability of the mortar, and thus was quite unlike more costly structures comprised of carefully prepared and close fitted interlocking granite blocks.

The decision was to construct this beacon on six cast iron legs, and for Parris to design such. Parris and the Bryants completed this construction in June 1841. The project spanned 13 months but only had 99 days when sea conditions permitted work at the tidal ledge. The beacon was 33 feet high with a three foot diameter ribbed ball at the top. Capt. Swift had stated that this iron structure would be long lasting, but apparently it was not. By 1902 York Ledge was marked not by this beacon but with an iron spindle surmounted by a wire cage. It is not known what happened to the metal beacon.

The next Parris and Bryant project in 1846 was the Matinicus Rock Light Station in Maine with twin granite towers and a granite dwelling between. This was a substantial structure designed to withstand contact by waves from severe storms. The dwelling’s cellar walls were two and one-half feet thick, and the walls above were two feet thick. The towers were 30 feet high to the lantern deck, with the diameter tapering from 13 to 10 feet, and the stone thickness tapering from two and one-half feet to one foot at the top. The dwelling had two rooms above and three below. Each tower had an entry door to each level of the dwelling. Although they were not wave over-washed as frequently as Saddleback Lighthouse, the Matinicus structure’s foundation was about 50 feet above sea level. However, storm wave over-wash did occur, and twice this structure provided safety and shelter for Abbie Burgess and her family when, in the absence of her father she was keeping the light. The two towers were later replaced in 1857 with new towers spaced further apart, but only for the purpose of improving the lights seen from each tower when viewed by mariners at some distance from the lights.

Subsequent granite lighthouse projects in Maine were replacement towers for Mt. Desert Rock (1847), Libby Island (1848), Monhegan Island (1850), and Whitehead Island (1852). The island towers constructed at Libby, Monhegan, and Whitehead lighthouses were essentially of the same design and of less substantial construction because of being located where storm wave over-wash was not of concern. In 1849 there was also the design and construction of Execution Rock Lighthouse in Long Island Sound by Parris and Bryant, a similar stout design as that of Mt. Desert and Saddleback Ledge lighthouses in Maine.

Lewis included in his inspection report a strong recommendation for a lighthouse needed on the Minot’s Ledges at Cohasset Massachusetts. Parris submitted a proposal and plan for constructing a granite tower on outer Minot’s Ledge. Captain Swift convinced Pleasonton of the benefits of a tower on nine metal legs at this location, similar to a tower of a tall screw pile design that he had seen in the United Kingdom, but with the nine legs of the structure inserted deeply into the granite ledge.  This metal tower would be considerably less costly to build, and with legs, there would be much less surface area exposed to the impact of ocean waves than there would be if made of granite, and the most of the waves would pass through the legs. However, lighthouse builder Alan Stevenson had published his reservations regarding such structures. He observed that a metal tower’s strength would derive from its structure, but if it were made of granite, the strength would be from the weight of the stone; repeated vibrations and tremors from wind and waves might weaken and cause failure of the metal components. Such structural fatigue would not occur with a carefully designed and constructed tower of stone.

At the same time that Swift was building Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, a similar iron leg tall structure secured to a ledge was under construction at Bishop Rock in the United Kingdom. Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was illuminated on January 1, 1850, but on April 5 during a storm, the nearly completed tower at Bishop Rock collapsed into the sea with only stumps of the metal legs remaining, appearing like broken match sticks. One year later Minot” Lighthouse collapsed, with the loss of life of two keepers. All that remained on the Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse were stumps that looked like nine broken match sticks. And as for Captain Swift, he very soon after resigned from government service. The lighthouse authorities revisited the Parris plan that influenced the design of the replacement tower to be constructed layer of granite and completed in 1860.

Alexander Parris died June 16, 1852 at age 72. After his death, his life’s work continued as a significant influence on the later design and construction of lighthouses and other structures of granite.  During their various projects, Parris trained Gridley J. F. Bryant to become a competent architect. Bryant continued involvement in granite tower design and construction for lighthouses at Boon Island, and Petit Manan in Maine, Thacher Island in Massachusetts, as well as others, and also in the design and construction of over one hundred structures in Boston.

Standing tall today on ledges and islands these several light towers continue to aid mariners and be admired and appreciated by others while serving as long lasting, unique, and permanent reminders in stone of the lifetime work and accomplishments of the Gridley Bryants, both father and son, and of Alexander Parris, professional architect and engineer.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 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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