Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2022

The Lost Billingsgate Lighthouse


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Billingsgate Island in Cape Cod Bay near Wellfleet, Massachusetts once had some thirty homes, a school and a lighthouse. All are now gone, including the island, as if they never existed.

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Early image of the Billingsgate Lighthouse ...

In recalling the island in a 1965 story for the Cape Cod Compass, Clarece B. Daniels wrote the following interesting account:

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“The wistful old man, a stranger in town, must have been around eighty, when he stopped a fisherman at Wellfleet Harbor one day around 1914. ‘Could you give me a ride to Billingsgate?’ he asked. So, the fisherman took the old man to the almost barren patch of sand, all that remained of a once-prosperous fishing village.

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Billingsgate Lighthouse Station toward the end of ...

“The old man prowled around the island. Finally, triumphantly, confidently, he announced, ‘This is where the house stood where I was born!’ He picked up a stone for a souvenir.

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Erosion caused the Billingsgate tower to break ...

“Now not even a patch of sand is left. Twice daily the tide completely submerges Billingsgate, a small island that was at the entrance to Wellfleet Harbor, Cape Cod Bay. Its destruction was a gradual process until, finally, in 1942, it was completely submerged.

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The ruins of the Billingsgate Lighthouse keeper’s ...

“Mrs. Jot Small of Provincetown, Massachusetts lived on the island year-round when she was a small girl. Imagine back then, on small Billingsgate Island – no radio, no television, no telephone, electricity, store, church – no street lights; because there were no streets. Not that she missed street lights; there was a light flashing, flashing, all night, every night, and she was the child of the lighthouse keeper.

“But Mrs. Small doesn’t remember it as a lonesome time. She has only happy memories of three little girls, a mother, and a father, secure on one little island; three little girls who sang and played, knitted and sewed, and had a wonderful time!”

Mrs. Small had been recalling her life at the Billingsgate Lighthouse that had been established in 1822 on the island. Apparently, the building of the lighthouse led to the construction of a number of other structures on the island and the establishment of a small, but prosperous fishing community.

Daniels went on to write: “Fish and shellfish abounded. One record says an average of 35 barrels of clams a day were taken during a two-year period by a crew of fourteen diggers. Some entries from the Lighthouse Log of the 1800s read, ‘300 blues taken in a pound; 10,000 mackerel taken in one day.’ Another 1800s entry read, ‘Eighteen whales shot today in the bay’ and in 1883 the keeper wrote, ‘hundreds of seals nearby.’”

Daniels recalled that when the island was in its prime, it even boasted a small school house in a building that was about 20’x20’. He continued by writing: “at that time, circa 1898, there were seven or eight other houses beside the lighthouse. The school house closed down when the island was down to about six families.

“Soon after the lighthouse was built in 1822, it was evident that the island was washing away, particularly the Old Point part where the lighthouse stood. In 1857-1858, the old 1822 tower was dismantled, none too soon, for it was in danger of falling in when it was taken down and rebuilt using the bricks from the first tower.” Billingsgate Light was lighted at its new location on September 1, 1858. A breakwater was built to protect it at its new location, but the water was relentless.

Herman S. Dill, keeper of the light, wrote in the station’s log book on December 21, 1874: “We have had quite a heavy blow and a very high tide; the highest in a number of years. Broke through (the sea) at the north end of the island, filling the middle of the island full, running up to the south corner of the foundation on which stands the lighthouse, carrying away the walk which leads to the wharf. I could stand in the south corner and jump into four feet of water.”

The winter of 1876, no open water could be seen from Billingsgate Island; all was ice. Sixteen schooners were frozen into the harbor. Keeper Dill was icebound on Billingsgate for nearly 70 days. On March 26, he wrote in the log book, “The very worst storm for the winter was last night.” It was the last thing he would ever write. Apparently, Herman Dill wanted to escape the lighthouse and he was found dead, afloat in the station’s dory. It was speculated that he suffered a heart attack while trying to row the boat in rough conditions.

On January 28, 1878 lighthouse keeper Thomas K. Payne wrote in the station’s log book, “. . . have had ten days of gale. West shore of island washed away very much.” The year of 1878 is also when the lighthouse changed from using lard oil to using kerosene.

In 1889, Billingsgate light keeper Ira W. Ingalls reported that the island lost eight feet of land after one storm; and he considered the lighthouse in danger of being lost forever. But the light stood, and five more men would follow him as the keeper of the light, until 1915, when the end came. With erosion eating away at the base of the tower, it started to break away from the keeper’s house. A work crew used heavy-duty ropes to secure the tower to the house, keeping it from falling over, while they climbed to the lantern to remove and save the lens. The tower finally met its demise when, on December 26, 1915, it toppled over.

According to Clarece Daniels in his story, although the Lighthouse Service had lost the lighthouse tower, they weren’t about to let locals take the tower’s bricks free of charge, so they offered them for sale. One of the locals, who bought some of them, noticed the name of a well-known English potter inscribed on the bricks, so he wrote to them asking for information. The English, being good record keepers, wrote him back saying that yes, in 1821, they had shipped a vessel of bricks to the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in Boston for use in the building of a lighthouse.

The Billingsgate Lighthouse was replaced by an acetylene light on a tripod, and Henry Daniels was hired at $1.00 a year to keep watch over it. At some point, the tripod was replaced by a skeleton tower with a beacon on top. Today, the area is marked by a lighted buoy.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2022 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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