Celebrating Boston Light’s 300th Anniversary

Boston Light in 2002. Photo by Candace Clifford

As most of you in the lighthouse community know–September 14, 2016, is the 300th anniversary of the establishment of Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. I’m delighted the anniversary is receiving so much media attention. Sally Snowman, Boston Light’s official civilian keeper, has become a celebrity. For those of you who missed it, here is a link to the recent CBS News feature that highlights Sally. For those of you who follow the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Facebook page, there was an abundance of information to share. (Full disclosure – I now maintain that page.)

Sally Snowman (second from right) and her husband Jim Thomson (far right) served in the USCG Auxiliary when I toured the light station in 2002

In looking at my own archives for Boston Light, I found an interesting February 1939 article in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin (Vol. 5, No. 38). The article reprints portions of the July 20, 1715, Act “for building and maintaining a lighthouse upon Great Brewster (called Beacon Island) at the entrance of the Harbour of Boston.”

Whereas the want of a lighthouse at the entrance of the harbour of Boston hath been a great discouragement to navigation by the loss of lives and estates of several of his majesty’s subjects; for preservation thereof–

Be it enacted by His Excellency the Governor, Council and Representatives in General Court  Assembled, and by the authority of the same.

[Sec. 1] That there be a lighthouse erected at the charge of the province, on the southernmost part of the Great Brewster, called Beacon Island, to be kept lighted from sun setting to sun rising.

[Sec. 2] That from and after the building of said lighthouse, and kindling a light in it, usefull for shipping coming into or going out of the harbour of Boston, or any other harbour within Massachusetts Bay there shall be paid to the receiver of impost, by the master of all ships and vessells, except coasters, the duty of one penny per tun, outwards, and no more, for every tun of the burthen of the said vessell, before they load or unload the goods therein. . . .

Image of first tower at Boston Light reproduced in the 1884 Annual Report of the Light-House Board

The Act goes on to direct that a keeper be hired “to diligently attend his Duty at all Times in kindling the Lights from Sun-setting to Sun-rising and placing them so as they may be  most seen by Vessels coming in or out.”

According to the Bulletin article, “The act of Colonial Legislature was the culmination of a discussion which had been going on for some little time, for as early as 1713 the merchants of Boston had laid before the same General Court proposing the building of a lighthouse at the harbor entrance.”

The Boston Light was originally lit with candles. Fire was reported to have damaged the tower in 1720 and 1751. The wooden lantern was subsequently replaced with a metal one. The tower was burned and later blown up during the Revolutionary War, leaving the area dark for the next seven years. The tower was replaced in 1783, and Snowman reports, in her new book on Boston Light, that there is evidence of the earlier tower in the current tower’s foundation. Although modified, the 1783 tower still serves as an active aid to navigation.

There were USCG personnel still living on the island when I visited in 2002. I believe, the man in the full blue uniform, the park ranger, and the duck were all from off island. Photo by Candace Clifford

Boston Light is now part of the Boston Islands National Recreation Area. Tours are offered every weekend from late June through early October.

The U.S. Lighthouse Society has partnered with Lands End, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard to rehabilitate the boathouse.  A video about this project can found on the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s website.

The current issue of The Keeper’s Log features Boston Light. I contributed some letters from the National Archives to illustrate the station’s early history. As you many of you know, I am now the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s historian. I haven’t figured out how to “blog” on their website but I would love to bring these posts to a wider audience and perhaps have some you, my colleagues in the lighthouse community, contribute pieces on various aspects of lighthouse history and preservation once in a while. I’ll keep you “posted”!

Submitted by Candace Clifford, September 14, 2016


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