Three Lighthouses

© kenneth brizzee

There is magic and mystery in lighthouses, beacons of safety for hundreds of years for sailors and ships at sea. There is only one manned lighthouse left in the United States today, the very first lighthouse ever built on U.S. soil: Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, established in 1716. We are fortunate to have 680 lighthouses remaining in the U.S. today, though, three of which are located on Nantucket: Brant Point Light, Great Point Light, and Sankaty Head Light.

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Boston Light on Little Brewster Island

The very first “lighthouses” were simply bonfires built on hills to guide ships away from dangerous coastlines, with the first known structure appearing in the old city of Alexandria in 285 B.C.E. Julius Caesar described the light, also known as the “Pharos,” as a key part of his strategic advantage in subduing Ptolemy’s armies. The Pharos was one of the tallest manmade structures on earth for centuries, and was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It became an abandoned ruin after being damaged by three earthquakes between 956 and 1323. In 1480, the last of its remnant stones were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay on the site.

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Mosaic of the Alexandria Lighthouse. Photo in public domain.

Nantucket’s lighthouses have a long and storied history as well. The most photographed and recognizable Nantucket light is Brant Point Light, seen by every visitor to the island as the ferry rounds Brant Point on its way to the island. The original Brant Point Light was a simple wooden building established in 1746. After it burned to the ground in 1757, it was replaced with a new wooden structure in 1758. That one fell to  “a violent Gust of Wind” and began a succession of lighthouses which either burned or were destroyed by storms.

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Brant Point Light: Photo by David Fingerhut

The existing Brant Point Light was erected in 1901 as a 26 foot wooden tower, the shortest lighthouse in New England. The Coast Guard took over the property in 1939, when the last lighthouse keeper left.

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Brant Point Light: Photo by David Fingerhut

A second lighthouse was added on Nantucket in 1785: Great Point Light. Sadly, the original wooden tower was destroyed by fire in 1816. Rebuilt in 1818, erosion claimed the second lighthouse in 1984, due to a brutal storm with gale force winds.

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Great Point Light: Photo by David Fingerhut

On September 6, 1986, a replica was lit, three hundreds yards west of the previous tower.  You must have a four wheel drive vehicle and a permit to visit the light, seven miles from Wauwinet. It is part of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge.

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Great Point Light: Photo by David Fingerhut

The last lighthouse built on Nantucket is Sankaty Head Light.  As the first U.S. lighthouse to receive a “Fresnel lens,” it was the most powerful light in New England when it was built in 1849. Local fishermen referred to it as “the blazing star,” and it was visible from 20 miles away. The Fresnel lens was replaced by aerobeacons in 1950, but the original lens is on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Erosion came close to claiming the Sankaty Head Light in 2006, when the tower stood only 79 feet from the edge of a cliff which was losing a foot a year to the sea. The tower was moved 400 feet to a new location, where it safely stands today.

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Sankaty Head Light: Photo by David Fingerhut

About the photographer: David Fingerhut specializes in nature photography. His photographs have been shown in 16 countries at exhibits sponsored by the Photographic Society of America. He has been designated a star exhibitor in both Nature and Color Slide Photography. His photographs are for sale as prints, or as high resolution images for publication. Contact him at Davidfingerhut.com. 

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Photo by David Fingerhut

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