Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-02-02.
In the early 1800s, Sippican Harbor was ripe with maritime traffic. The area was an expanding coastal community thank to shipbuilding, overseas trading with areas as far away as Europe and the Orient, and a profitable fishing and whaling fleet.
A small island, comprised of less than two acres, sits at the entrance to Sippican Harbor near Buzzards Bay. Just north of the Bird Island sits the dangerous Bird Island Reef and Centerboard Shoal, both of which make the entrance extremely difficult.
Tower with original lantern.
Congress, in an effort to increase navigability of the area, set about establishing a lighthouse on Bird Island. An appropriation of $11,500 on March 3, 1819 provided for three lighthouses in Massachusetts. In addition to Bird Island, the other two were Long Island Head and Half Way Rock, both in Boston Harbor.
The government purchased the island from George Blankenship for $200. Contractor Bela Pratt of Weymouth was hired to build the lighthouse and dwelling for $4,040. A twenty-five foot conical rubblestone tower surmounted by a twelve-foot-tall iron lantern was constructed. Inside the lantern were ten lamps outfitted with fourteen-inch reflectors. The dwelling was twenty by thirty-four feet and connected to the tower by a covered walkway.
The first keeper appointed to the station was William S. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812. He lighted the lamps for the first time on September 1, 1819. Local lore claims that William Moore was a convicted pirate, and that his punishment was being banished to Bird Island, left without a boat, with supplies only being delivered periodically. All of which is untrue.
Several months after the lighthouse was established, a winter storm swept the station in December of 1819. Keeper Moore lost his boat and a supply of wood. In a letter to Henry A. S. Dearborn, a superintendent of lighthouses for the Boston area, Keeper Moore described the storm:
A very violent gale . . . has swept away every thing moveable from the island; and among other things my boat. . . . I was under the necessity of removing with my family into the light house, as the seas breaking against the dwelling house, threatened to fill the low part. . . . In the course of being at sea, I have experienced much severe weather, particularly the tornadoes of Africa, and other tropical climates, and they hardly exceed the violence of this gale for a short time.
Other local legends talk of Keeper Moore murdering his wife. Moore's wife, suffering from tuberculosis, would frequently get into liquor and cigarettes, and would become raucous when she did. When the villagers of Sippican would visit the island, many times they would bring her tobacco to the dismay of Keeper Moore.
The legend claims that one cold February morning, after returning from a shed on the island, he found his wife drunk and dancing through the snow. Reports are that he returned to the keeper's dwelling, retrieved his rifle, and shot her. She is reported to be buried on the island, but there is no sign of a grave. Keeper Moore insisted that she had "succumbed from nicotine" when the townsfolk had asked what had happened.
Many years later, when the keeper's dwelling was being torn down in 1889, a rifle and a bag of tobacco were purportedly found in a secret hiding spot. With those items, was an alleged note that said the following:
This bag contains tobacco, found among the clothes of my wife after her decease. It was furnished by certain individuals in and about Sippican. May the curses of the High Heaven rest upon the heads of those who destroyed the peace of my family and the health and happiness of a wife whom I Dearly Loved.
Some books and websites claim that the keeper disappeared after his wife's death, but records show that he was transferred to the Billingsgate Lighthouse in 1822. No one truly knows what happened that day on the island, but many keepers that would succeed Moore have reported being awoken by the ghost of hunched-over old woman, knocking on the door.
By 1842, Keeper John Clark had reported the tower was in poor condition. The tower had leaked badly, wood work was rotted, and poor ventilation often ended in frequent ice building up on the lantern glass. Clark also pointed out that he had to supply his own drinking water from the mainland as there was no source of fresh water on the island.
Relief would come in 1843. An authorization of $1,000 would supply a new stone seawall to slow the erosion of the island, an extension to the wharf, and the installation of a cistern for fresh water collection. The keeper's dwelling received a new roof, and all buildings were painted.
Replacement lantern in 1863.
Fresnel lenses were widely adopted to American lighthouses in the 1850s, and Bird Island was no exception. The old lamp and reflector system was replaced in 1856 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. A new lantern was installed on the tower in 1863.
Like many other lighthouses in New England such as Warwick and Newport Harbor, the Bird Island Lighthouse was affected by a hurricane of September 8, 1869. During the height of the storm, the island was under water. When the water receded, sections of the sea wall were gone, a barn was destroyed, and other buildings were missing.
Nearly twenty years later, the keeper's dwelling was in decrepit condition. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1888 had recommended replacement:
130. Bird Island, entrance to Sippican Harbor, Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts - The keeper's dwelling is in a dilapidated condition. It was built of stone in 1828, and is in such bad condition that it would be a waste of money to give it further repair. If this dwelling is to be kept habitable it will be necessary to expend in its repair a sum that would amount to a considerable part of the cost of a new house. It would be better economy, better for the comfort of the keeper, and for the efficiency of the public service that a new dwelling be built at the earliest day practicable. It is estimated that such a building will cost $3,750.
A new dwelling was built in 1889. Ten years later, the lantern and deck were replaced again. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was replaced with a smaller fifth-order lens. In 1900, the boat was rebuilt and enlarged and several hundred feet of fence was installed. In 1902, a wooden bell tower outfitted with a 1,000-pound bell was constructed on the island. It was operated by an automatic striking mechanism.
Station with fog bell.
With the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, more shipping traffic passed through Buzzards Bay. Lighted buoys were placed out in the channel making the Bird Island Lighthouse unnecessary. It was extinguished on June 15, 1933.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 would start as a category 5 storm in the open Atlantic. But by the time it made landfall in the Northeast, it would be downgraded to a category 3 with gusts reaching 121-mph. Like many of the other lighthouses in the New England area such as Beavertail and Whale Rock, the exposed location of the Bird Island Lighthouse left it open to the full wrath of the hurricane. When the storm had passed over, everything on the island was gone with the exception of the tower.
The Federal Government sold the island in March of 1940 to George Harmon of Maine for $654. Within a month, the island was sold again to Augustus Fiske of Rhode Island. The Town of Marion purchased the island in 1966 for $2,500.
The town had spent several years raising funds for the restoration of the lighthouse. On July 9, 1976 the tower was relighted. But it soon fell into disrepair and was extinguished. Eighteen years would pass with little being done.
Charles J. Bradley formed the Bird Island Preservation Society in 1994. By 1996, the group had hired International Chimney Company of Buffalo, New York to provide the restoration work needed. International Chimney Company was well known in the lighthouse community having moved several lighthouses including Block Island Southeast, Highland, and Cape Hatteras. On July 4, 1997, the tower was relighted as a private aid to navigation.
Bird Island is one of the largest breeding colonies of roseate terns, and endangered species, therefore it is closed to the public for most of the spring and summer.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Bird Island offshore, therefore the best views would be from the water. However, distant views are possible by following Point Road south out of Marion to the end. At the very end of the road is a private golf club, but I just stood on the bumper of my truck with a telephoto lens to get some pretty good photos.
Access: Access to the island and tower is closed.View more Bird Island Lighthouse pictures