Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse

Truro, Massachusetts - 1857 (1797**)

Photo of the Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-01-05.

History says that the Pilgrims first made landfall in Provincetown and explored the area in November 1620. After exploration, they loaded up and sailed across the bay where they landed at Plymouth Rock.

Prior to the town of Pamet being settled in 1646, most of the Outer Cape was known as Nauset. Although Pamet was the town's official name, most mariners called it Dangerfield due to the Peaked Hill Bars and its many frequent shipwrecks. Pamet's name would later change to Truro after incorporation on July 16, 1709, and would become an official town of the Massachusett's Bay Colony.

As maritime traffic steadily increased around Cape Cod, the Massachusetts Humane Society, a predecessor to the U.S. Life Saving Service and the Boston Marine Society petitioned the governor of Massachusetts in 1792 to ask the newly formed United States Congress for a lighthouse "upon the High Land adjacent to Cape Cod Harbour." Unfortunately no action was taken.

The Boston Marine Society wasn't about to give up. The group formed a committee to draft a petition which it would send directly to Congress. Reverend James Freeman noted in the petition that the "high land of Cape Cod, well known to seamen" and that "A light house near the Clay Pounds should Congress think proper to erect one, would prevent many of these fatal accidents."

The committee included The Massachusetts Humane Society and the Salem Humane Society in the petition, which it sent in February of 1796. Congress reacted quickly, appropriating $8,000 for a lighthouse on May 17, 1796.

To start the process of establishing a lighthouse at Truro, the commissioner of Revenue, Tench Coxe called upon the superintendent of Boston lighthouses, General Benjamin Lincoln to procure a suitable site for the lighthouse by "gift or purchase."

After looking over several locations, General Lincoln selected ten acres of land on the Highlands of Cape Cod. He purchased the land from resident Isaac Small for $100. Since Small owned an adjacent plot of land that would need to be crossed to get to the lighthouse site, an additional $10 was given for a "right of passing" bringing the total $110.

Many speculate that the deal was made with Small in mind to become the keeper. As he had already farmed the land to support his family, he wouldn't rely solely on a keeper's salary, and as he owned the adjoining parcel of land, the cost of fencing could be shared.

Superintendent of Lighthouses, Benjamin Lincoln hired his brother, Theodore Lincoln to construct the lighthouse, which caused a bit of controversy at the time; however Commissioner Coxe felt that Superintendent Lincoln's integrity and candor were impeccable, and allowed the contract.

Theodore Lincoln erected a 45-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse approximately 500 feet from the bluff. To support the station, a host of other ancillary buildings were established. For living accommodations, a 25 by 27 foot one-story dwelling and well were established. For storage, a barn and oil storage shed were put up. The cost of the station was $7,257.56, and it went into service on November 15, 1797.

An inspection the following month revealed that the copper dome of the lantern was leaking and that many panes of glass were cracked. The root cause was determined to be movement of the foundation and repairs were carried out quickly.

After several years in operation, it was feared that mariners would confuse the Highland Light with that of the Boston Harbor Light. Although consideration was given to establishing twin lights at Highland, it was nixed due to cost.

To remedy the situation, it was decided by Lincoln and Coxe that the Highland Lighthouse would be the first in the nation to flash. An "eclipser" mechanism with accompanying clockwork designed and built by James Bailey Jr. was employed in the tower. It was nothing more than a screen to obscure the light for 30 seconds out of the 80 seconds it took to complete a revolution.

There were many problems with apparatus. The weather seemed to affect the clockwork mechanism which caused the timing to be irregular. The claim was that a single winding of the machinery would keep the eclipser going throughout the night, but it proved to not be true.

Many times, Keeper Small would have to wind the clockwork twice per night to keep the eclipser moving. In 1798, to ease the burden on Keeper Small, his salary was raised from $150 to $200 per year. Although the eclipser was capricious in nature, it was used until 1812 when the tower was slated to be upgraded to Winslow Lewis's patented lamp and reflector system.

By 1810, the 1797 tower was in poor condition. Many panes of glass in the lantern were cracked, and mariners complained that due to the height of the cliff combined with the height of the lighthouse, it was obscured by water vapor produced from the crashing surf below.

To remedy this, the tower's height was decreased by 17 feet and a new lantern measuring 10 feet tall was equipped. Shortly thereafter, the new lamps and reflector system was installed and in use by February 1812. The characteristic of the light was changed from flashing to a fixed white light at that time. In 1811, the Boston Harbor Lighthouse was assigned a flash sequence to distinguish the two lighthouses apart.

Isaac Small, the keeper in charge of the Highland Lighthouse complained that the new lighting system required more attention than the previous spider lamps. Winslow Lewis, inventor of the apparatus wrote a letter to the superintendent stating "Mr. Small's various pursuits will not allow him to pay attention to the Light House."

Political connections, even back in the 1800s ran deep. By October 1812, Keeper Small was replaced by 70-year-old Constant Hopkins, brother of Michael Hopkins, who was a member of the Boston Marine Society with Winslow Lewis. Hopkins would pass away less than five years later.

Although the tower was reported in poor condition in 1810, a report by local lighthouse superintendent Henry A.S. Dearborn in 1828 called attention to it. The report stated that the winds shook the tower so much so that the glass in the lantern would frequently break.

The following year, David Henshaw, the new superintendent of lighthouses, would recommend to Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, that the lighthouse be replaced. It would take two years, but in March of 1831, Congress appropriated $5,000.

Winslow Lewis, inventor of the patented lamp and reflector system, soon branched out to provide oil and later to build many lighthouses for the government. He was contracted to build a new 35-foot brick lighthouse near the site of the original 1797 tower. Also constructed at that time was a new 26 by 28 foot brick keeper's dwelling. The work was completed in 1833 at a cost of $4,162.

Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender visited many lighthouses along the Massachusetts coast in 1838, and reported on each. He had the following critical report:

Cape Cod light - This great and important light stands nine miles to the eastward of Race point, on the high land of Truro, 160 feet above the level of the sea. It consists of 15 lamps, with 15-inch reflectors, in two circular series, 8 in the lower and 7 in the upper. These lamps are so arranged as to be seen from Boston bay as well as the sea. I noticed one of the lamps, in the lower series, to be fronting the iron door of the lantern; of course, to no useful purpose. It should be removed to the upper series, where there is room enough for it. These reflectors are from one to two inches apart, while (without any apparent reason for it) there are ten inches between two of them. I recommend, as at Long Island head, the removal of these reflectors, so that all the lamps in the lantern may be seen from all points of the compass - an effect which cannot be produced while the reflectors intercept the light of half the lamps.
I visited this light a few minutes before sundown, and found the keeper (alarmed at the sight of the revenue cutter) stolen into his lantern to make a hasty rub-up against the expected visit. Time did not admit of the necessary preparations being made before the hour of lighting. But few of the lamps were trimmed. Such chimneys as had been touched were imperfectly cleaned. The reflectors had no appearance of having been recently burnished, and the glass of the lantern was smoked. This light, on account of its magnitude and elevation would, if properly kept and attended, illuminate this whole coast all the way down to Chatham, a distance of 25 miles; at all events until it intersected that light, which is itself 70 feet above the level of the sea.
This tower is of brick, 30 feet high. The walls, at the base, are 3.5 feet thick - one-third more than the walls of the stone tower at Clark's point, which is 10 feet higher. The interior width at the base is 15 feet, two feet more than that tower. The finishings (as steps, doors, sills, &c) are of wood, exhibiting, though only built seven years, some signs of decay.
This lantern is eight feet high, two feet higher than is necessary. The glass, 12 by 14, is of a better quality than any yet observed. Premises in good order.

Isaiah William Penn Lewis, Winslow Lewis's nephew, a civil engineer by trade had entered into lighthouse related construction under encouragement from his uncle. He quickly became critical of his uncle's work and soon thereafter began to bid on contracts himself, many times under cost, just to get the contract.

I.W.P. Lewis, in the summer of 1840, won a contract to replace the lantern of the Highland Lighthouse and install a new lighting apparatus. The new apparatus, based on the English model still utilized lamps and reflectors, but was more efficiently designed. The elements were better positioned and affixed in such a way that they weren't easily knocked out of alignment.

During execution of the work, Lewis found most of the woodwork in the tower, such as door frames, window sills, window frames, and stairs were all rotten and needed replacement. Upon closer inspection, it was found that the interior walls were laid without mortar and that the interstices were filled with sand, and that there was no foundation, the tower was merely built upon the ground.

To install the new lantern, I.W.P. Lewis had to remove the top 13 feet of the tower, and rebuild it. Upon rebuilding it, and installing the new lighting apparatus, the door frames, window sashes, and a staircase were all replaced with cast iron, bringing the total cost of the rehabilitation $5,919.

American poet and author, Henry David Thoreau visited the Highland Lighthouse four times between 1849 and 1857, during which he wrote about his experiences with the area:

The Highland Light-house, where we were staying, is a substantial-looking building of brick, painted white, and surmounted by an iron cap. Attached to it is the dwelling of the keeper, one story high, also of brick, and built by government. As we were going to spend the night in a light-house, we wished to make the most of so novel an experience, and therefore told our host that we would like to accompany him when he went to light up. At rather early candle-light he lighted a small Japan lamp, allowing it to smoke rather more than we like on ordinary occasions, and told us to follow him. He led the way first through his bedroom, which was placed nearest to the light-house, and then through a long, narrow, covered passage-way, between whitewashed walls like a prison entry, into the lower part of the light-house, where many great butts of oil were arranged around; thence we ascended by a winding and open iron stairway, with a steadily increasing scent of oil and lamp-smoke, to a trap-door in an iron floor, and through this into the lantern. It was a neat building, with everything in apple-pie order, and no danger of anything rusting there for want of oil. The light consisted of fifteen argand lamps, placed within smooth concave reflectors twenty-one inches in diameter, and arranged in two horizontal circles one above the other, facing every way excepting directly down the Cape

With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood the business.

The Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $15,000 for improvements to the Highland Lighthouse. The plan was to increase the height of the tower and to outfit the lantern with a first-order Fresnel lens, however the appropriation was never granted as plans to move the lighthouse were discussed.

Two years later, Congress appropriated $25,000 to move the lighthouse to a suitable location and to establish a steam-operated fog signal. The Lighthouse Board, depending on where the tower was moved, contemplated discontinuing the Three Sisters Lighthouses to the south in Eastham. Rather than moving the 1833 lighthouse, it was determined that a new, taller lighthouse would be built near the same location.

By 1855, the keeper's dwelling constructed in 1833 was in ramshackle condition. During one instance, a section of the ceiling fell during dinner and landed on the table. Further damage was done in 1856 when a blizzard struck Cape Cod on January 5. Relief came later that year when a new dwelling was put up.

A new 66-foot conical brick lighthouse was erected the following year at a cost of $15,000. Inside the lantern was a new first-order Fresnel lens from L. Sautter and Company of Paris making the Highland Lighthouse one of the most powerful lighthouses on the East Coast.

As originally planned by the Lighthouse Board, a fog signal was established at the station. The system was operating by a coal-fired caloric engine to compress air which powered a Daboll trumpet. With frequent thick fog shrouding the area, the apparatus was utilized with regularity. Since the fog signal added additional duties, two assistant keepers were brought on to balance the workload. To house the new assistants, an additional duplex was built in 1857.

By 1878, the keeper's dwellings were in poor condition. An entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year recommended replacement. However, nothing was done. It would take several more years before the structures were overhauled. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1881 had the following entry:

89. Cape Cod (Highlands, Truro) on northeast or seaward side of Cape Cod (Highlands, Truro), Massachusetts - The buildings were thoroughly repaired during the year, the dwelling refloored, shingled, and clap-boarded, new doors fitted, old doors and windows repaired, new shingling for wood-shed, new pump put in, and some painting done. The station is now in excellent condition.

The following year, the plastering in the principal keeper's dwelling was repaired, and 235 feet of drain pipe were laid. That same year, some repair work was carried out on the fog signal by patching the outer end of the trumpet.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1883 lists the first class Daboll trumpet as having been in operation for 1,012 hours. Two separate entries list the extensive repairs that took place that year:

89. Cape Cod, (Highlands,) on northeast side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - First-class Daboll trumpet. New sheet-iron casings, supply cross-heads, brasses for slides of working piston, and cross-head pins and rollers were supplied, and the machines thoroughly repaired. One rock-shaft was renewed and three oil-gauges furnished.
89. Cape Cod (Highlands, Truro) on the northeast side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - First-class Daboll trumpet. New grate-bars and linings were furnished for each of the three 24-inch caloric engines, and the machinery was thoroughly overhauled and put in good order.

Repairs continued in 1885 which three new smoke-stacks supplied, and the station was enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. By 1890, recommendations were being made for an oil house to be established at the station.

The following year, one of the dwellings was struck by lightning which caused extensive damage and a brick oil house was built. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:

99. Cape Cod, on the northeast side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - The dwelling in its clapboarding, masonry, plastering, interior joiner work, shingling, and lead flashing was quite severely and extensively damaged by lightning on February 28, 1891, and was immediately repaired. A brick oil house, 12 by 13 feet in plan, was built and various minor repairs were made.

In 1900, the fog signal's old caloric engine was replaced with a 4-horsepower engine with compressor thus completing the duplicate fog signal apparatus. Later that year, an act approved on June 6, 1900 appropriated $15,000 for a new first-order Fresnel lens to change the characteristic from fixed white to flashing white. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1901 had the following entry:

135. Cape Cod, on the highlands, seaward side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - The act of June 6, 1900, appropriated $15,000 for changing the characteristic of the first order light from a fixed white to a flashing white. On March 13, 1901, after correspondence with French and English manufacturers, an optical apparatus was ordered. It has four panels of 0.92 meter focal distance, revolves on a float in mercury, and will give, every 5 seconds, flashes of about 192,000 candlepower nearly one-half second in duration. It will soon be received and installed. Materials for building a temporary tower for use during the installation of the new optical apparatus were sent to the station. The work of repairing, rearranging, and improving the first and second assistants' dwellings, commenced in June, was almost completed at the close of the fiscal year. The fog-signal machinery was put in order.

The entry the following year clarified the installation and work that took place:

136. Cape Cod, on the Highlands, seaward side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - The act approved on June 6, 1900, appropriated $15,000 for changing the characteristic of the first-order light from fixed to flashing white. The new apparatus was installed in September and October, and the light was first exhibited on October 10, 1901. The lens revolves in mercury, and gives a flash of 192,000 candlepower of 0.38 of a second duration every 5 seconds. During the installation, a third-order light flashing white every 5 seconds was exhibited from a temporary skeleton tower. The tower was sold at auction when it was no longer needed. The old fourth-order fixed lens and the temporary third-order lens were returned to the general light-house depot. The improvement and repair of the double dwelling occupied by the assistant keepers were completed and a veranda was built on the keeper's dwelling. Counterweights were provided for the oil engines.

Highland Lighthouse courtesy National Archives Highland Lighthouse circa 1959

With the new lens installed, the Boston Globe provided the following description of the light, "Through the darkness, its beams appear like flashes of lightning in a tempest." As bright as that was, it probably didn't seem like much when electricity was brought to the tower in 1932.

Replacing the oil lamps was a single 1,000-watt electric light bulb. This bulb, coupled with the magnifying power of the first-order Fresnel inside the lantern propelled the Highland Lighthouse to the coast's most powerful at 4 million candlepower. The lens was removed in 1946, being replaced by a Crouse-Hinds DCB-36 aerobeacon. Unfortunately, during the removal of the priceless Fresnel lens, it was destroyed. Only fragments are on display at the museum today.

The Coast Guard replaced the 1857 assistant keeper's dwelling in 1961 with a modern duplex. Several Coast Guard personnel called the lighthouse home over the years, the last one being Seaman Patrick Prunty. The Prunty family is said to have experienced some peculiar "haunting" behavior while there.

Katherine, Patrick's wife, on two separate occasions, had heard a woman talking very fast in the kitchen, which was just below the bedroom. When she checked the doors, they were locked. On another occasion, Patrick was painting inside the tower while listening to music. When he left, the radio was plugged-in and playing, however, when he returned the next morning, the radio was unplugged and smashed on the ground below. The Prunty family left the station in 1986, when the lighthouse was automated.

The coastline of Cape Cod is ever-changing. When the first lighthouse was completed in 1797, it stood over 500 feet from the edge. That distance had shrunk to 336 feet 1885 and by 1990s, the tower was a mere 112 feet from the bluff. The rate of erosion of the bluff was typically 2-3 feet per year.

The Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers had been looking into ways to save the lighthouse and had come to the conclusion that the most cost-effective way to save the lighthouse would be to move it. With crews needing a minimum of 100 feet of clearance around the tower as a safe working area, the situation was dire.

Several groups were organized with an eye towards saving the structure. Volunteers within the groups began distributing brochures, collecting signatures for the petition, and selling merchandise. Through these efforts, the groups were able to raise $180,000. The town of Truro donated a parcel of land further inland in which the tower was to move.

By June 1996, the necessary funding of $1.5 million was secured allowing the move of the 404-ton structure to proceed. International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, NY along with Expert House Moving of Maryland, the same group that had moved the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse in 1993, would be responsible for moving the historic structure.

Utilizing 60-ton hydraulic jacks and roller dollies, the two companies worked together to push the lighthouse to its final resting place, which included a drop in grade of 10 feet in a mere 18 days. The tower was relighted on November 3, 1996, and opened to the public for tours in the summer of 1998.

The station was restored in 2001 by Campbell Construction of Beverly, Massachusetts which included removal of lead paint, ironwork, brickwork, and fresh paint to dress the tower up. Other maintenance items were covered ensuring the tower is set for the future.


  1. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  3. The Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
  4. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  5. The Lighthouses of New England - 1716-1973, Edward Rowe Snow, 1973.

Directions: From MA-6 just north of Truro, follow Highland Road east to the end. Make a right onto Aldrich Road. The lighthouse will be on your left just after you make the turn.

The official website for the Highland Lighthouse is

Access: The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and managed by the Cape Cod Highland Light and Museum, Inc. The grounds are open. The tower is open in season.

View more Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 66.00'
Focal Plane: 183'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 42.03900 N
*Longitude: -70.06200 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.