Over the years more than 120 lightships have guarded our country’s coastline. By 1983 there was only one remaining on station – the Nantucket, and today there are none. During the heyday of maritime travel, twelve lightships stood guard over the waters around Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod – more than any other location in the world. One such light vessel was the “Hen & Chickens.”
The Hen & Chickens Shoal Light Vessel marked the north side of the western entrance to Buzzards Bay (at the southern end of the Cape Cod Canal). This location is about 1 mile south of the Hen and Chickens reef, so named for the rock formation consisting of one large rock surrounded by many smaller ones. Fred Thompson in his book The Lightships of Cape Cod noted that “Having been to sea for several weeks, a sailor could easily conjure up these vivid images.”
Lightships were utilized to mark underwater dangers such as shoals or wrecks, or the approaches to ports or bays placed in locations where it was impractical or too expensive to build a lighthouse. In addition to cost, another great advantage of using such vessels was the fact that they could be moved as the underwater shoals or other conditions changed.
On the other hand, a light-vessel was more expensive to maintain than most shore light stations, and it could be driven from its station for days by heavy gales. Indeed, vessels marking Hen & Chickens station were blown adrift of dragged off stations 4 times in severe weather.
Eight separate vessels guarded this station over its 8 year history from 1866 until 1954, when a new station named Buzzards Bay was established at a new location. The light-vessel shown, No. 42, guarded Hen & Chickens station from 1913 until 1932.
She was built in 1877 in Brooklyn, New York, at a cost of $40,796. She was built of wood- white oak & locust; copper & galv. iron fastened; 2 masts with daymarks on both, and a small stack ahead of mainmast. She had 2 auxiliary steam boilers and a steam pump. She measured 121.7 feet in length and was illuminated with 2 lanterns, each with 8 oil lamps. Fog signal was by a siren operated by hot-air engine, and by a hand-operated bell.
Directly behind each of the lantern-masts was a mast for sails (Spencer mast) forty-two feet high. Forty-four feet up the lantern-masts were day-marks, black hoop-iron gratings, which enable other vessels to sight the lightship more readily. The lanterns were octagons of glass in copper frames five feet in diameter, four feet nine inches high, with the masts as centers. Each pane of glass was two feet long and two feet three inches high. There were eight lamps, burning a fixed white light, with parabolic reflectors in each lantern, which weighed, all told, about a ton. Some nine hundred gallons of oil were taken aboard for service during the year. The lanterns were lowered into houses built around the masts for protection during the day. The house around the main lantern-mast stood directly on the deck, while the foremast lantern-house stood on a heavily timbered frame three feet high.
Gustav Kobbe’, in his article Life On The South Shoal Lightship (Century Magazine, Vol. XLII. August 1891), described the crew’s routine attempting to maintaining such lanterns: The lightship “…. pitches and lunges, rears and rolls, year in year out…. Upon this tossing island, out of sight of land, exposed to the fury of every tempest, and without a message from home during all the stormy months of winter, and sometimes even longer, ten men, braving the perils of wind and wave, and the worse terrors of isolation, trim the lamps whose light warns thousands of vessels from certain destruction, and hold themselves ready to save life when the warning is vain…. The routine of work on a lightship is quite simple. At sunrise the watch lowers the lights. At six a.m. the captain or the mate stands in the doorway leading from the cabin into the berth-deck and shouts, ‘All hands!’ The men tumble out of their bunks and dress, breakfast being served at twenty minutes past six. At half-past seven the lamps are removed from the lanterns and taken below to be cleaned and filled. In smooth weather this duty can be performed in about two hours, but if the vessel is rolling and pitching the task may be prolonged an hour or two. When the lamps have been returned to the lanterns there remains nothing for the crew to do except to clean ship and to go on watch until sundown, when the lamps are lighted and the lanterns hoisted….”
Note in this photo, taken in 1926, that the aft lantern house now has a deck over the roof. By this time acetylene or electricity removed the need to clean the inside of the lanterns, and the aft deckhouse became unnecessary. A few months after this photo was taken, the two masts were removed and replaced with a steel lattice light structure amidships; equipped with acetylene lens lantern, and the light was changed from fixed to flashing.
Visible too is the crew from the lighthouse tender resupplying the lightship with food and stores. In addition, a hose is being run across to refill the vessel’s fresh water tanks. On deck can be seen men from the lightship’s crew, probably including Mate John Kinney, in charge of the vessel from 1921-1927.
In 1931 Lightship No. 42 was retired from duty after 54 years of service. She was soon sold. In 1940 she was burned in Boston Harbor as part of a July 4th celebration – a most unspeakable end for such a gallant vessel.
For more information and great reading on life aboard this and other New England light-vessels, you will want to read: Claflin, James W. Historic Nantucket Lightships – New South Shoal 1854-1896. (Worcester: Kenrick A. Claflin & Son, 2005); Thompson, Frederic L. The Lightships of Cape Cod. (Northborough: Kenrick A. Claflin & Son, 1996).
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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 type since the early 1990s. 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
Jan/Feb 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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