Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-02-23.
French explorer Samuel de Champlain first visited Stage Harbor in Chatham in October of 1606 with an eye towards settling the land. Initially greeted by the Monomoyick Indians, however; after two weeks of escalating hostilities, a skirmish erupted resulting in fatalities on both sides. Soon thereafter Champlain left the area.
English settlers arrived in 1656 and William Nickerson negotiated with the Monomoyick Tribe for four square miles of land. Although he filed papers for incorporation as a town, without a resident minister, their application was denied. In 1711 Reverend Hugh Adams became the town minister and papers were filed again.
Although they requested the town name of Monomoit, the court in Boston requested they give up the Indian-derived name in favor of a more English sounding name. The name Chatham was chosen, taken from a seaport town in England.
By the late 1700s, Chatham's population had swelled. Farming was no longer providing for the community, so many of Chatham's men took to the sea for subsistence. To dry the fish, many racks, called stages, were set up. The harbor soon became known as "Stage Harbor" after the drying racks for the fish.
By the early 1800s, the waters off Cape Cod had become one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, second only to the English Channel. To help mariners navigate the area, the Cape Cod Lighthouse was established near Truro in 1797, followed by the Chatham Lighthouse in 1808, and the Monomoy Point Lighthouse in 1823.
As Stage Harbor was still a bustling fishing port, in 1878, the Lighthouse Board had recommended a lighthouse be established. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse for that year had the following entry:
Stage Harbor, Chatham, Massachusetts - The establishment of a light at this place, giving a good range with one of the Chatham lights, would serve as a guide into Old Stage Harbor, and would be of great value to vessels seeking refuge there at night and during bad weather. If built on the beach, the light-house, with keeper's dwelling, including apparatus (fifth or sixth order) and land, would cost, say, $10,000. An appropriation of this amount is respectfully submitted in the estimates.
The following year, on March 3, 1879 Congress appropriated $10,000 for the lighthouse. A 48-foot cast-iron tower was erected along with a wood-framed keeper's dwelling at a cost of $9,862.74. The light was placed into service on July 15, 1880 exhibiting a fixed white light from a fifth-order Fresnel lens visible up to 12 nautical miles.
A few years later, in 1882 a chimney ventilator was added. The following year, a barbed wire fence was put up around the lighthouse lot. Over the years various minor repairs were made.
In 1889, the lighthouse station was surveyed and boundaries were marked with copper bolts or stone posts. Detailed plans of the station were then drawn up. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
112. Stage Harbor, west side of Chatham, Massachusetts - The light-house site was surveyed and properly marked, the buildings were measured, and ground-plans of them will be made.
Stage Harbor Lighthouse
After the turn of the century, a well to supply fresh water was installed in 1902 and a few years later, an oil house and another small outbuilding were added in 1905. At that time, a new fence was erected as well.
It would appear that keepers of the Stage Harbor Lighthouse were an exceptional group. Although the lighthouse was only in use from 1880 to 1933, many keepers of the station would receive commendations and / or efficiency stars.
Alfred A. Howard, keeper from 1906 to 1916 was commended several times for rescuing boaters in trouble. In 1912, he retrieved a boat that had run out of gas, safely bringing four passengers back to harbor. That same year he guided the yacht Arcturus into the harbor as the captain was unfamiliar with the area.
The following year, on March 30, 1913, Keeper Howard rescued Walter C. Harding, a member of the nearby Monomoy Life Saving Station. Harding's boat had capsized in rough seas, and Keeper Howard was able to come to his aid. Harding was taken back to the lighthouse where he was given dry clothing and made comfortable.
In December of 1914, Keeper Howard would perform another daring rescue. This time, it was for rescuing a horse stuck in quicksand. Captain Ephraim Smith wrote the following letter to the Lighthouse Board in Boston:
I deem it my duty to report to you the valuable assistance rendered me by Alfred. A. Howard, Keeper Stage Harbor Light Station, in saving my horse from drowning; also supplying my man with rubber boots and dry stockings, etc. On the 18th inst. p.m. I sent my man after seaweed on Harding's Beach, who is quite elderly and his sight not very good. In driving the horse across the marshland, the horse got mired and went down in mud and water. My man couldn't do anything to save the horse, so he ran for Mr. Howard, the light keeper, at the station; who responded to the call readily and through some very hard work got the wagon and harness clear and then got the horse out of the quicksand and mud and water to hard land all right. And as he would not take money for his very kind service, I take these means to write you for your kind consideration towards commending him for his prompt and efficient aid towards saving my pet and valuable property.
The Lighthouse Board rewarded Keeper Alfred A. Howard by giving him a pay raise from $560 to $600 per annum in 1915. In October of that year, Mr. Howard again offered assistance to a disabled boat by towing it to shore.
Mills Gunderson took over the keeper duties in 1916 when Alfred A. Howard transferred to another station. He would serve until June 15, 1919 when he hung himself in a shed for unknown reasons. Upon his death, his son, Stanley Gunderson would take over as principal keeper.
During prohibition, Keeper Stanley Gunderson was known to hide liquor under the wooden floor of the covered walkway between the house and tower. During a surprise visit by an inspector, the loose board was noticed. Rather than suspecting anything deceptive, the inspector advised the keeper to nail the board down.
In 1933, plans were set in motion to replace the lighthouse and keeper with an automated light on a steel skeleton. Keeper Stanley Gunderson didn't take to the news too well and penned a letter to the Boston Post. He wrote the following:
"To save money they put in something that is far more expensive and less reliable and call that economy and put another employee on the unemployment list. Rather a poor way to reduce unemployment and surely help toward better times."
Gunderson's request fell upon deaf ears, and the station was closed. He moved briefly to the Great Point Lighthouse on Nantucket as an assistant keeper for a year, after which, he transferred to the Dutch Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island.
Gunderson served at the Dutch Island Lighthouse from July 1934 to March 1935, after which he resigned citing his mother's health. His resignation included the following, "My mother's rapidly failing heath makes it imperative that she live ashore...I also have been in poor health [because of] the three months I served at Great Point Lt. Sta. [Nantucket] under the extremely disagreeable conditions existing there."
As the lantern at Stage Harbor was in good condition, it was removed and presumably sent to a lighthouse depot for future use. The tower was capped off, and the lighthouse and three surrounding acres of land were sold at auction to an Army officer.
By 1936, the property was for sale again. Henry Sears Hoyt ended up purchasing the property. After the transaction, he learned that the three acres of lighthouse property were part of the original land purchased from the Monomoyick Tribe by his ancestor William Nickerson back in 1656.
The Stage Harbor Lighthouse is still owned by the Hoyt Family. The amenities at the lighthouse are lacking. There has never been electricity or plumbing except for a single pump. Although the lighthouse is privately owned, the family has occasionally opened it as part of the Cape Cod Maritime Week in May.
Note: The lighthouse is private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
Directions: From Route 28 (Main Street) in West Chatham, follow Barn Hill Road south for about .4 miles. Hardings Beach Road will veer to the right. Follow that to the end where there will be a parking area. From here it will be almost a mile walk out to the lighthouse. Don't forget that it is a mile back to the parking lot as well.
If you don't want to walk it, you can follow Route 28 to Stage Harbor Road. Follow Stage Harbor Road to Cedar Road to Battle Field Road to Sears Road to get a decent view from across the inlet.
Access: The lighthouse is private property, please respect this and do not trespass. Grounds and tower are closed.View more Stage Harbor Lighthouse pictures