Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-09-29.
The "Three Sisters of Nauset" referred to three fifteen-foot-tall stone towers that were set upon the shore 150 feet apart to help mariners identify the dreaded Nauset Bars. Back then, the Nauset area of Cape Cod once applied to a fifteen-mile section of the cape from what is modern day Brewster to Truro.
Over the years, many vessels were wrecked on the bars just offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. By 1836, twenty-one Eastham area residents petitioned the Boston Marine Society requesting something be done. Within the Boston Marine Society, a committee was formed to study the request and determined that a light would be beneficial.
Congress appropriated $10,000 for the construction of a light station on March 3, 1837. Nearly five acres of land was purchased from Benjamin H.A. Collins of Eastham on September 14, 1837 for $150. The location that was selected was roughly halfway between the Highland Lighthouse to the north and the twin lights at Chatham to the south.
To differentiate between the lighthouses to the north and south, a unique design was selected. Three conical masonry lighthouse towers standing fifteen feet tall and spaced 150-feet apart were erected. To enhance the station, a brick keeper's house, a kitchen addition, an outhouse and a well were also constructed at that time. It was felt that since there was a single light to the north and twin lights to the south, having three lights at this location would distinguish it.
Three Sisters Lighthouses (Courtesy Coast Guard)
Mariners soon nicknamed the trio of towers "The Three Sisters of Nauset." It was said that the white towers with black lanterns resembled three demure ladies in white dresses with black hats.
Winslow Lewis, a contractor and inventor, would sign the contract to build the light station on May 26, 1838. His crew of four masons, two carpenters, three laborers, and a cook would complete the project in a mere thirty-eight days. Lewis, who was not an engineer by trade, knew very little about proper construction techniques and would have his construction practices questioned.
David Bryant, a carpenter from Boston was hired by the local lighthouse superintendent to oversee the construction. He would question many things he noticed the crew doing, and in the end, refused to sign a certificate stating that the work was honorably fulfilled.
Bryant witnessed many such errors in construction, such as masons filling the space between the double walls of the towers with sand instead of mortar and bricks were laid randomly. Perhaps one of the biggest shortcuts that Lewis's crew took was to construct the entire complex closer to the bluffs due to the uneven ground further back where it should have been built.
Winslow Lewis convinced his friend, Stephen Pleasanton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury that the complex was satisfactory. In the end, Bryant was called into the customs collector office in Boston, and forced to sign the certificate, which he did with objections. At that time, Lewis was paid $6,549 for his work.
Each conical brick tower, standing fifteen-feet-tall was outfitted with ten of Lewis' patented lamps and 13.5-inch reflectors which exhibited a fixed white light. The lighting apparatus was estimated to consume about 300 gallons of oil annually per tower. The keeper's dwelling, a small brick house measuring about 20 by 34 feet had three rooms on the first floor, and two in the attic.
Even before the lamps were light in the trio of towers, Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender inspected the station in 1838 and commented on the lights. He questioned whether three lights were necessary:
Nauset beach has always been considered a dangerous place for vessels, and many have been wrecked there. To guard against such disasters seems to be the object of these lights. I cannot, however, think that three lights are at all necessary. Any single distinguishable light that can be seen eight or ten miles will answer every purpose. Such a light is a revolving red light. There is no revolving red light that I know of, on the coast, so that accidents could not possibly occur from its being mistaken.
He questioned why the government would agree to three towers consuming 900 gallons of oil when 300 or 360 gallons would serve the purpose. Nevertheless, the three lighthouses would soon be illuminated.
By 1843, another survey would take place. This time, Isaiah W.P. Lewis, nephew of Winslow Lewis, was appointed to survey the lighthouses of New England. The report by I.W.P. Lewis was highly critical of the station and pointed out many deficiencies, such as the towers being constructed on sand without foundations, inferior lime used in the mortar, and the lower windows being board up because blowing gravel kept breaking the glass.
Despite the reports of 1838 and 1843, the towers would remain in use for many years, but were however, upgraded many times. By 1850, the ten lamps were reduced to six to conserve oil, and in 1858, all three towers were outfitted with the more efficient sixth-order Fresnel lenses and then to the larger fourth-order Fresnel lenses in 1873.
With the upgraded fourth-order Fresnel lenses, the workload became too much for a single keeper to handle and an assistant was assigned. Due to constrained space, the assistant had to live with the keeper until 1875 when a new wood-frame keeper's house was constructed at a cost of $5,000. When finished, the head keeper moved into the new house, and the assistant took over the 1838 house.
During the 1880s, to increase the range and effectiveness of the lighthouses, a new Haines lamp was installed in each tower. The change in the lamp was said to increase the range of the light from 11 to over 15 miles.
Due to the tower's close proximity to the bluff, by 1892 erosion had come calling. Three new wooden towers were constructed 30-feet to the west of the current station each standing twenty-two feet tall. To save some money, the Lighthouse Board moved the lanterns and the fourth-order Fresnel lenses over from the old brick towers on April 25, 1892. Later that year, an oil house was added to the site, and in 1895, storm porches were added to each tower.
With the new towers constructed and in use, the three original brick towers were abandoned and left to the elements. In time, each of the three towers toppled over the bluff, although it is unclear when exactly that happened.
By 1911, erosion had again threatened the towers. Lighthouse Inspector H.C. Poundstone reported that the cliffs had eroded to within eight yards of the northern tower, and 18 yards from the south tower. Rather than move all three lighthouses back from the bluff, it was deemed that a single flashing light at that location was enough to for mariners to ascertain their location along the coast.
Also at that time, efficiency and economy were a focus of the Lighthouse Board. By eliminating two towers, the amount of oil consumed was reduced by two-thirds, and an assistant keeper position could be eliminated. Lamp and lens technology had vastly improved by then as well, so much so that a single flashing lens was 20 times brighter than the three lights combined.
The north and south towers were extinguished in 1911 leaving the center tower to mark that section of the cape. Later that year, the tower was moved back from the bluff and set upon a solid foundation. At that time, it was also connected to the 1875 keeper's dwelling by a short entryway. It was lit on June 1, 1911.
Inside the center tower, the Barbier & Fenestre fourth-order Fresnel was mounted on a ball-bearing revolving apparatus. This apparatus provided three flashes every ten seconds, some say as a tribute to the "Three Sisters." It was initially lit by a Funk-Heap oil-wick lamp, which was later replaced by a more efficient incandescent oil vapor lamp.
Shortly after the move, because it was so poorly constructed, the structure would shake in moderate breezes. Because the shaking interfered with the rotating mechanism, two guy wires were attached to an iron ring below the lantern and anchored to the ground.
As only one tower was used going forward, the rest of the station was consolidated. The original 1838 brick keeper's cottage sat vacant for many years, and was then used as storage for several more before being demolished in 1912. In preparation for surplus, the old north and south towers were moved to the edge of the lighthouse property and stripped of their lenses and lanterns. The plan was to use them as firewood.
Shortly after their move, two people inquired about purchasing them. As a result, the plan was to put the towers up for auction. However, for some unknown reason, the two towers would sit for seven years before being sold as surplus in 1918 for a mere $3.50. A local named Helen Cummings purchased them and moved them a short distance down the road to be used as a summer cottage and dance studio for forty-five years.
The remaining single "sister" was used until 1923 when the cast-iron north lighthouse at Chatham was decommissioned. For ease of transportation, it was disassembled and moved to Nauset Beach. Once on location, it was reassembled upon a concrete pad to ensure it was stable. It would become known as the Nauset Lighthouse or Nauset Beach Lighthouse.
To outfit the tower, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was moved from the old wooden tower and installed. To complete the station, the 1875 keeper's cottage was moved inland closer to the tower. At this time, the wooden lighthouse was sold to a local named Albert Hall who constructed a single story addition and called it the "Beacon."
The Cape Cod National Seashore was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and put under the auspices of the National Park Service. In December 1965, the National Park Service obtained from John Cummings, son of Helen, the original north and south towers of the Three Sisters Lighthouses.
It would take ten years, but the third sister was purchased back from Hall family and moved to a staging area. Starting in 1980, restoration would take place. The additions added to the north and south towers were removed, and in the summer of 1983, the addition to the center tower was removed.
The "three sisters" were reunited on a plot of land off Cable Road approximately 1,800 feet from the beach. Although there was talk of placing them closer to the bluff, the idea of increased traffic and erosion canceled those plans, and they were left on Cable Road. The center tower with its lantern intact was fully restored while the other two towers received a partial restoration. Restoration work was completed in 1989 and the location was opened for tours in April of 1990. As they originally were back in 1838, the towers were set 150 feet apart from each other.
The following is a list of keepers that was available from the U.S. Coast Guard website:
Directions: The three lighthouses are located on Cable Road about .3 miles west of the Nauset Beach Lighthouse.
Access Grounds open. The towers are open during tours.View more Three Sisters Lighthouse pictures