Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2023

The Iron Beacon

By Timothy Harrison


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Lighthouse Digest subscriber Charles Bickerstaff recently sent us an old newspaper photo of the Beacon at Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and asked if we knew more about it.

Even though it was called the “Beacon,” it never had a light in its sphere. It was, however, built in 1848 as an aid to navigation that is called a day-marker. But why was it referred to by the locals as the “Beacon,” if it didn’t have a light?

Our investigation led us to the publication Old-Time Fairhaven written by Charles Harris in 1947. Referring to the Fort Phoenix area, Harris wrote that it was “one of the most picturesque spots along the coast,” and, “here stood, like an eternal sentinel, the ‘Beacon,’ a welcome sight to mariners, and a landmark to several generations.

“On the water side, near the top, just beneath the large black sphere, so familiar to frequenters of the Fort, were these words in raised letters, ‘Erected on the recommendation of George S. Blake, U.S. Navy and Coast Survey [and others . . .]’ and the letters 1848 written in Arabic.”

But that still didn’t explain why the locals called it the “Beacon.”

The answer was finally found, according to Harris, on page 46 of Fairhaven, Massachusetts in the American Guide Series, that the steeple of the “Brick Church,” as the Congregational Church was called, had for many years served as a beacon for seamen. However, in the Gale of 1869, witnesses described the tall steeple as swaying to and fro, just before it came crashing down.

Since the church steeple was never rebuilt, the iron, old sphere-topped day-mark was now used, more than ever, by mariners and simply acquired the “Beacon” name; however, it eventually suffered the same fate as the old church steeple. In telling about its demise, Harris wrote, “It took the terrifying and tragic hurricane of September 21, 1938 to send the beacon prostrate to the ground, the great plates of which it was composed being broken into fragments, and the great black ball that surmounted it, hurtled onto the rocks below, was broken into bits.” And thus ended, the Beacon of Fort Phoenix.

Editor’s Note: Coincidentally at that time, the term “beacon” was also used officially by the Light House Board in all their early documents as “unlighted day beacons,” which were structures constructed mostly of iron, wood or stone; in the form of piles, towers, spindles, masts, spars, monuments, and wooden cribs and various other types. These structures could be 40 or 50 feet in height with triangles or balls on the top with various paint schemes. As an example of how common they were, in 1873, there were 363 of these unlit “beacons” in the United States.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2023 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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