Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse

Thacher Island, Massachusetts - 1861 (1771**)

Photo of the Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-01-01.

Built to mark the Londoner Ledge, a treacherous 90-foot-long underwater rock line, the twin lighthouses at Cape Ann were constructed on Thacher Island. This was the first time a lighthouse was used to mark a dangerous spot in the sea, rather than a harbor entrance.

Thacher Island, which sits less than a mile offshore, was named for Anthony Thacher whose ship named the Watch and Wait was wrecked during a hurricane in 1635. Thacher and his wife were the only two survivors amongst the 23 souls on board. To recompense him for his loss, the General Court awarded him the deed to the 50-acre island in 1637.

Although the island remained in the Thacher family for many years, it was eventually sold off by John Appleton, an heir of Anthony Thacher, in 1717. The island was sold several other times, before being purchased by the Council of the Province of Massachusetts in 1771 for 500 pounds.

John Hancock, a wealthy merchant and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, petitioned the General Court requesting a light station on Thacher Island or the mainland of Cape Ann to protect his shipping interests. The act was passed on April 26, 1771, and dues were collected from local vessels to pay for the lighthouses.

Later that same year, twin 45-foot tall towers standing 300 yards apart were constructed of wood and stone on the barren island. They were lighted for the first time on the night of December 21, 1771, but wouldn't stay lit for very long as they were extinguished during the American Revolution in 1775. They would be the last lighthouses under British rule of the colonies and would become affectionately known as "Anne's Eyes."

The first lighthouse keeper, Captain James Kirkwood, was branded as a Tory and was forcibly removed from his post by Captain Rogers and his Minute Men. The following was reported to British headquarters: "This day [July 6, 1775] two or three companies went from Cape Ann to Thacher's Island, broke the lighthouse glasses and lamps all to pieces, brought away the oyl [sic] together with Captain Kirkwood's family and all he had on the island and put them on the main to shift for themselves." Kirkwood and his family would flee to Canada.

Upon conclusion of the revolution, the towers were left is disarray. The Government tried to rent the island, but found no takers. At that time, they appointed Peter Coffin and Samuel Whittemore to get the station back to working order. This work was completed by 1784 although the towers would stay dark until 1793.

Starting in June of 1790, all lighthouses of Colonial America were ceded to the newly formed federal government and the twin lighthouses of Cape Ann were no exception.

By 1810, new advances in lighting were being experimented with. Once such exercise that took place in the south tower was by Winslow Lewis and utilized a series of Argand oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. The south tower was said to be a "brilliant star" by Henry Dearborn, a local lighthouse superintendent. Two years later, there was a contract in place to outfit all American lighthouses with the patented lighting apparatus.

Winslow Lewis, along with supplying lighting systems for towers, started doing other contract work for the Lighthouse Establishment including supplying oil. In 1816, he constructed a one-story, two-room brick dwelling measuring 20 by 34 feet near the south tower at a cost of $1,415. And in 1828, new iron lanterns were installed on both towers.

Winslow Lewis's work with the Lighthouse Establishment continued, and in May of 1841, he installed new lanterns and lighting apparatus in both towers. Lewis, who was not an engineer by trade, and knew very little about proper construction techniques, would have his work questioned. A report of I.W.P. Lewis, a nephew of Winslow Lewis, less than two years would call out many deficiencies:

Towers of rubble masonry. North tower thirty-nine feet high, laid up in lime mortar; base resting on the surface of ledge; masonry in a bad state; walls very leaky, and require pointing; interior wood work, staircase, window frames, floors, &c., all very much decayed; walls covered with ice in winter, and green mould in summer; soapstone roof, very leaky. South tower thirty-five feet high, and in a similar condition to the other in every respect.

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.

Starting around 1852, most lighthouses in the United States were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens. However, by 1857, the twin lights at Cape Ann had still not been changed over. Later that year, the Lighthouse Board announced that the Cape Ann station occupying "a prominent position, with many dangers to the navigator...would be greatly benefited by having two lights of the first order in place of the present ones."

It would take another two years, but in March of 1859, Congress appropriated $81, 417.60 for the "rebuilding the two lighthouse on Thacher's Island, Cape Ann, and for fitting them with first order illuminating apparatus." Although construction of the new towers started in July of 1859, the original towers were removed in August of 1860, replaced by temporary lights, prior to the new tower's completion.

Granite for the new lighthouses came from New Hampshire rather than the local quarries at Rockport due to high iron content of the local granite. Massive granite blocks, 45 courses in all were cut on shore and numbered before being transported to the island for assembly.

By July of 1861, twin granite towers separated by 300 yards standing 124 feet tall were complete. The towers were 30 feet in diameter at the base and tapered to 18 feet at the top. Each tower was lined with a two foot thick brick wall and had a cast-iron spiral stair case consisting of 156 steps to reach the lantern.

Inside the lanterns were massive first-order Fresnel lenses. Each lens stood 12 feet tall, six feet in diameter, and weighed three tons. The light from the first-order Fresnel lenses was visible for 22 miles at sea. Both towers were illuminated for the first time on the night of October 1, 1861.

Although both the north and the south towers were outfitted with first-order Fresnel lenses costing $10,000 each, they were sourced from different companies out of Paris, France. The lens from the south tower was made by Henri Lepaute. The lens for the north tower was made by L. Sautter & Cie.

A new keeper's dwelling, constructed of 86,000 bricks and 3,000 feet of lumber, was completed on September 24, 1861 near the northern tower. Also constructed at that time was a fog signal building near the south tower.

Several other buildings were constructed during the 1860s. In 1867, a coal shed was built. Then in 1869, a new engine house was built to enclose an Ericsson engine to power a 15-foot trumpet. At this time, the old fog signal was discontinued. In 1875, a duplicate fog signal was established.

A request was made by the current keeper in 1872 for additional living space citing that there were five keepers and only two dwellings. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1872 had the following entry:

58. Cape Ann, Thatcher's Island, Massachusetts - As there are now five keepers for the two lights and steam fog-signals at this station and but two dwelling-houses, a new dwelling for the principal keeper is required.

Although the request was made 1872, it wasn't recommended to the Lighthouse Board until 1874, and would take another two years before it was constructed. A two-story wood-framed dwelling was constructed over a granite foundation near the south tower. Measuring approximately 2,000 square feet, it would become known as the principal keepers dwelling.

It appears that a lot of repair work was conducted in 1881. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entries:

65. Cape Ann, on Thatcher's Island, three fourths of a mile from Cape Ann, Massachusetts - The fog signal and machinery were overhauled and repaired, and the two covered ways to tower and the wood- shed re-shingled and repaired.
65, 66. Cape Ann, on Thatcher's Island, off Cape Ann, Massachusetts - Interior painting was done on the work rooms and first and fourth assistant keepers' dwellings. The boat winch was repaired.

A few years later, it appears that extensive work was conducted on the fog signal equipment. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entries:

65, 66. Cape Ann, on Thatcher's Island, off Cape Ann, Massachusetts - Ten-inch steam-whistle in duplicate. The north boiler was retubed, new safety-valve put in, and engine refitted. The steam pumps, valves, and connections of both signals were repaired and repacked. Thirty-four feet of rubber hose, with couplings and connections, and two sets of grate-bars were furnished. The coal-car was fitted with new journals.
64, 65. Cape Ann, on Thatcher's Island, off Cape Ann, Massachusetts - Ten inch steam whistle in duplicate. The tubes of the south boiler were calked. The engines of both signals were overhauled and repaired; the steam pumps, valves, and connections of both signals were repacked; 22 feet of rubber hose with couplings and connections, and four glass gauges were furnished; and the ceiling in the south whistle-house was replastered.

It appears that lightning was a problem for the station. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1883 had an entry stating that the covered walkway between the north tower and the dwelling was repaired after being damaged by lightning. As a precaution, both lighthouses were outfitted with lightning conductors. In 1889, a 16 foot by 19 foot oil house was erected, and in 1890, a lightning conductor was added to it.

Rough seas and heavy weather has always been a part of lighthouse keeping, and the Cape Ann station was no different. Keepers would regularly risk their lives just getting on and off the island. On October 20, 1891, first assistant keeper John Farley lost his life as he attempted to land at the boat slip in heavy seas.

Around 1888, a railroad system was built on the island to move supplies around. In 1896, the railroad was rebuilt in a more favorable location. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:

85, 86. Cape Ann, Thatcher Island, Massachusetts - The railroad was rebuilt in a more favorable location, and a hoisting engine was set up in connection with it to facilitate the landing of coal and supplies at the signal house. One of the fog-signal boilers was replaced by a new one.

A year later, the railroad was extended and a car supplied. In 1898, several repairs were made including the boat slip. Due to the Spanish-American War, a telephone line to the naval station at Pools Hill in Rockport and to Rockport itself was run in the name of national defense.

Starting in 1895 and then again in 1899, additions were made to the assistant keeper's house or "stone house," which was the original keeper's dwelling built in 1816 by Winslow Lewis. The additions included a cellar, two L-shaped rooms, a storm porch over the back door, and attic space on the third floor which was converted to rooms.

Just after the turn of the century, various changes were made to the fog signal. In 1902, a fog signal boiler and a "Van" heater were installed. In 1903, a brick fog signal chimney was built. Also that year, a dam of earth and rock, was constructed to create a water supply for the fog signal.

Four years later, a new fog signal boiler and steam drum were installed. At this time, the railway from the landing was extended to run to the northern dwelling, and a new turntable was built. The following year in 1907, a brick hoisting engine house was constructed.

Fog frequently enshrouded the island and it is said that the Thacher Island Lighthouses saved the life of President Woodrow Wilson. While returning from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 aboard the SS America, the vessel ran into rain and fog in the vicinity of the station. The fog signal was sounding, but the vessel kept heading towards the island. Maurice Babcock, the third assistant on duty at the time, placed the foghorn into manual mode and sounded it continuously. With that, the captain steered away and averted disaster.

Although the government first proposed the idea of discontinuing the north tower in 1912, complaints from mariners earned it a stay of execution for nearly two decades. However, on February 1, 1932, the north light was removed from service, never to be lighted again. The twin lights of Thacher Island were once one of seven "twin light" stations along the Atlantic Coast and the last of the stations to have its twin decommissioned.

Starting as early as the 1860s, most lighthouses began using mineral oil, later called kerosene, as the illuminant. This was used until spring of 1932 when a submarine cable brought electricity to the island. The new electric light boosted the output to 70,000 candlepower, and the characteristic of the tower was changed to five flashes every 20 seconds.

The station got a unique visitor in 1967 when federal agents brought Joseph "The Animal" Barboza to the island for safekeeping. Once a member of the Patriarca crime family, he was flipped by the FBI and became an informant while in prison in 1967. It didn't take long before his whereabouts were known and he was moved off the island. He was moved several more times before ending up in San Francisco under the witness-protection program until his murder on February 11, 1976.

The federal government, in an effort to save money, designated the north tower as excess property in April 1970. In 1972, the entire northern section of the island which encompassed 22 acres was transferred to the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, which would later become known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In order to preserve the site, town officials formed the Thacher Island Committee, and in 1976, leased the section of the island from the group.

Photo showing a damaged prism from the first-order Fresnel lensDamaged prism from Fresnel lens

The original first-order Fresnel lens of the south tower was removed in 1975 and put on display at the Coast Guard Academy Museum in Groton, Connecticut. The first-order Fresnel lens of the north tower was destroyed over the years by vandals. Only pieces remain, with several pieces at the Sandy Bay Historical Society, several pieces at the brick assistant keeper's dwelling on the island, and a few pieces at other museums. The piece pictured above was found at the Fishermen's Museum at the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Maine.

The south lighthouse was automated in 1979, and the Coast Guard left the island in 1980. The Thacher Island Committee leased the other section of the island and appointed a civilian keeper. To provide the necessary funding for the preservation of the station, The Thacher Island Committee formed the Thacher Island Association in 1981.

Stating in 1986, the north tower underwent restoration with a combination of funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as those provided by the Thacher Island Association and the Lighthouse Preservation Society. The work a new roof, new windows and a door, tile and masonry work, and cleaning and painting. The tower was then relit with a 15-watt fluorescent bulb to replicate the original 1771 light as a private aid to navigation.

Replacing the first-order Fresnel lens in the south tower was a DCB-224 which had a red flash. The new beacon was 160,000 candlepower and was visible for 19 miles. The DCB-224 was in use until 1998 when the Coast Guard installed a solar panel array to power the south tower and fog whistle. The light was changed to a VRB-25 which included a 450mm red rotating beacon.

The Cape Ann Light Station is the only twin light station still operating in the United States. On January 3, 2001, the Cape Ann Light Station on Thacher Island became a National Historic Landmark, one of fewer than 2,500 sites nationwide.


  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 Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
  5. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  6. The Lighthouses of New England - 1716-1973, Edward Rowe Snow, 1973.
  7. Twin Lights of Thacher Island, Cape Ann, Paul St. Germain, 2009.

Directions: Given that the twin lights sit on Thacher Island almost a mile off shore, viewing by boat is the best option. Many tours depart from Rockport and Boston that pass by the lights. This page has more information on getting to Thacher Island -

If that is not an option, the lighthouses are viewable from shore as well. Follow Route 127A south out of Rockport. Make a left (head east) onto Eden Road. Follow this east and south. The light should be visible from along this road. At the end of Eden Road is Penzance Road. The lighthouses would also be visible from this area as well.

Access: Grounds open. North tower open on occasion.

View more Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 124.00'
Focal Plane: 166'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 42.63700 N
*Longitude: -70.57500 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.