In December 1848, Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, requested that Congress erect a lighthouse on the Wings Neck Peninsula on the east side of Buzzards Bay. It was to be located in Pocasset, a small town just south of Sandwich which was the oldest town on Cape Cod. Captains of the merchant fleet sailing on the Bay had been asking for a lighthouse to be built on that rocky point.
The nation was poised on the brink of the Golden Age of shipping. China tea, California hides, Southern cotton, Whaling products and food supplies made up the bulk of the shipping trade. The rocky soil in New England prevented good crops to be grown;
so, twice as much food was imported as exported.
The prevailing winds of Buzzards Bay established it as one of the best sailing destinations on the Atlantic seaboard. New Bedford, located on the bay’s west bank, was by then the major port for whaling ships. In the 18th century, when whales were caught in near-shore waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the whaling business flourished. Pocasset acted as the port for Sandwich where a major glass manufacturer was established. Their major products were whale oil lamps that were popular in every New Englander’s home. Sperm oil from whales was the principle fuel for lighthouse lamps, too.
In 1837, Congress first appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse at the top of Wings Neck, but it was delayed after some debate as to whether it was needed. When the Fifth Auditor presented his proposal in 1848, he had trimmed the cost to about $3,500. The first lighthouse was a Cape Cod style house with a white, wooden tower and lantern room on top of a stone keeper’s quarters. The lantern room was fifty feet above the water’s edge. Mr. Pleasonton had a reputation for paying out little for the construction of those first light stations; many of them had to be rebuilt later because of the shoddy work done the first time. Such was the case at Wings Neck which was renovated eight years later.
In 1849, Zachary Taylor became the 12th President of the United States. His vice president was Millard Fillmore and they were the last members of the Whig Party to hold those offices. Edward Doty Lawrence was appointed to be the first keeper because his father, David Lawrence, was a large contributor to Zachary Taylor’s political campaign. (It is noteworthy that when Taylor took office, the keeper on Baker Island was dismissed because he was a Democrat).
Historical records do not reveal the occupation of David Lawrence of Sandwich, but we do know that he was married three times and fathered fifteen children. His second wife was Huldah Doty, with whom he had nine children. Edward was born in 1799 as the first son in the family. His mother was a descendent of William Doty who sailed to America as an indentured servant to a Pilgrim on the Mayflower. (William was famous for having been the first man in the Plymouth Colony to be involved in a duel and the man whom hundreds of New Englanders have laid claim to being one of his ancestors)
So, Edward Doty Lawrence, at the age of 50, moved into the new keeper’s house at the Wings Neck Light Station, along with his wife, the former Elizabeth Howard, and their three boys and two girls. The steady light was a welcome sight to the merchant fleets sailing on Buzzards Bay and greatly reduced the number of wrecks along the shores of the Upper Cape. Also, the lighthouse was strategically placed at the mouth of what would someday become the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal.
Zachary Taylor died in 1850 and Millard Fillmore became the 13th President.
In 1853, the citizens of the United States elected Franklin Pierce as the 14th President.
He was a Democrat and Edward D. Lawrence was dismissed from his duties.
An article appearing in The Register…dated February 17, 1854 read:
Samuel Barlow has been appointed keeper of Wings Neck Light in Sandwich, in place of Edward D. Lawrence, removed. Mr. Lawrence was a faithful, capable man and was appointed at the time the lighthouse was built, no one being terned out to make room for him. His crime consisted in having been appointed by the Whigs.”
In 1857 James Buchanan, a Democrat, was elected to the office as the 15th President. He was tall, stately, stiffly formal and the only commander-in-chief who never married. Presiding over a rapidly dividing nation, he never grasped the political realities of the time. The Democrats were split between North and South; the Whigs were destroyed giving rise to the Republican Party.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States. He built the Republican Party into a strong national organization and he further rallied the northern Democrats to the Union cause. Edward D. Lawrence’s son, Edward J. joined the Massachusetts 40th Infantry and fought in several battles. Their other children;
Granville H., Rueben W., Luthera M. and Caroline H. remained at home with their parents. Edward J. Lawrence died on 26 November 1863 on Folly’s Island, at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina. His regiment fought valiantly against the Confederate forces at Fort Sumter. Federal troops occupied the uninhabited island where their son died of chronic diarrhea, as many did who went off to the Civil War.
In 1865, in appreciation of his son’s military sacrifice, Edward Doty Lawrence was re-appointed, by the Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC, to be the head keeper at the Wings Neck Lighthouse. The only lighthouse keeper log book available in the National Archives begins with the entry of January 1, 1872 by Edward D. Lawrence:
“Once again on glittering gems and diadems,
And ice crystals bright and clear,
The sunlight gleams in silver streams,
To welcome the glad New Year.”
For the balance of the year, he wrote very short,
one-sentence entries for each date:
January 17th some snow fell.
February 26th Very high winds and cold.
March 3rd a blustering snow storm.
April 1st There was more geese flew than ever was known.
June 8th Very warm.
September 1st a beautiful day.
October 8th Rainy. Very pleasant.
November 3rd Rainy.
December 1st Wind Southwest. Snow squalls.
The only dramatic entry, of some interest, was in 1876:
September 2nd A boat with two men in her was capsized over to “dry ledge” and drifted ashore a short distance from here. We gave them what assistance we could. Had them come to the house and let them have dry clothing and something to eat. They had been in the water about 4 hours. Ware near the shore when discovered by us.”
This entry was written in the log book
on September 15, 1887:
“Edward D. Lawrence Keeper Wings Neck Light died September 15, 1887 been principle keeper at this station for the past 21 years.”
The 1880 census showed that those in residence at the Wings Neck Light were the keeper, Edward D. Lawrence, his son Granville, his daughter Caroline and her husband Alfred B. Gifford. Historical records show that Elizabeth Howard Lawrence died in 1878 and her son Granville, who never married, died in 1881.
The following letter is from the archives
of the Lighthouse Board:
Comdr. A.S. Barker, USN 21 September 1877
Inspector 2nd L.H. District
The board is in receipt of your letter of 17 September
1877 reporting the death of Mr. Edward D. Lawrence,
Keeper of Wings Neck Light…stating that you would be
glad if A. B. Gifford who has been practically in charge of
the light for the past eight years could be appointed
keeper…in reply I have to say that the Board has no objec
tion whatsoever to the appointment of Mr. Gifford if he is
a competent man.
R. D. Evans, Commander USN
Gifford reported a very routine station in the logbooks…plus weather. Every Inspector commented that the station was in excellent condition at each inspection.
Then there is the following entry in the logbook:
October 15, ‘08:
Albert B. Gifford Keeper died 10:10 a.m. 21 years Keeper.
Carrie H. Gifford appointed temporary keeper.
Wallace A. Eldridge new keeper arrived at 2 p.m.
Interesting to note that Edward Doty Lawrence was the keeper at Wings Neck Light from 1849 to 1854 and then again from 1865 to 1887 for a grand total of 27 years. Then his daughter and her husband served from 1887 to 1908 for a total of 21 years.
Edward’s other son, Rueben Wait Lawrence was a printer and worked on Cape Cod and then in Lynn. He married Ophelia D. Chadwick. His sister, Luthera Maria was married in Sandwich to David S. Small, both of them being residents of New Bedford.
Thus: it would seem that a member of the Lawrence family was at the Wings Neck Light for a total of 48 years service. However, skipping ahead on the calendar to 1932, we find these entries from the Lighthouse Service Records in Washington, DC:
“The keepers who have been at Wings Neck Light through the years have left fine records of daring and outstanding achievements, but the rescues of Keeper George Addison Howard and his brother, Assistant Keeper William Howard, attracted nationwide attention in 1932 because of their many rescues during the first eight months of the year. Singly or together, the two keepers saved eight lives between January 1 and August 30, while William Howard saved, during his career, at least thirty-seven lives.”
Well, if one takes a look at the marriage record of the first keeper, Edward Doty Lawrence, one discovers that he married Elizabeth Brown Howard of Easton, MA. That suggests she might have been the great aunt of George and William, the heroic duo.
The author owes a great debt of gratitude for the amount of research time so graciously given by Joyce Pendery of the Falmouth Historical Society and to Barbara Gill, Archivist for the Town of Sandwich Archives. Also, a special thanks to Jeremy D’Entremont for sharing his photographs of the lighthouse site.
This story appeared in the
April 2008 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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