Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-09-10.
Nestled along the banks of the Acushnet River at the confluence of Buzzards Bay sits the port town of New Bedford and the Butler Flats Lighthouse. It was first explored as early as 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold, but wasn't settled by Europeans until some fifty years later. It would take until 1787 before it would be incorporated as the town of New Bedford.
The late 1700s would see a lot of growth and development in the town. The town's first post office and newspaper were started in 1792, and some four years later the first bridge was constructed in town. Although farming was the main way of life in the area, by the late 1700s, residents began engaging in whaling.
Butler Flats Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
One such individual, William Rotch, Jr., is attributed with having brought the whaling industry from Nantucket to the Bedford Village, which is today known as New Bedford. He set up a whale fishery on the ten waterfront acres of land his grandfather had purchased in 1765. He eventually came to run the family business of harvesting the whales, processing the parts into saleable goods, and then bringing the goods to market.
By the 1840s, New Bedford was experiencing as much success with whaling as Nantucket. Whale meat and oil was extremely valuable and the industry provided many jobs to the locals. Two things would help propel New Bedford past Nantucket as the most powerful whaling town and become one of the richest per capita cities in the world.
A local blacksmith by the name of Lewis Temple set about a way to revolutionize the whaling industry and created the toggling harpoon. Simply known as the toggle iron, the device was a harpoon that would lodge under the blubber of the whale making it virtually impossible for the animal to break free.
The other factor that would drive New Bedford forward was the depth of the port. Nantucket Harbor was relatively shallow with many moving sand bars; this meant that many of the larger sailing vessels could not cross the bar. The New Bedford Harbor didn't have this problem. Many of the newer and larger vessels which sat deeper in the water could still call New Bedford Harbor home.
Not only was New Bedford at the forefront of the whaling industry, many factories also set up shop in New Bedford. By the late 1800s, it had become the third largest city for manufacturing in Massachusetts. The port of New Bedford would see nearly 500,000 tons of goods pass through it in 1890.
With the amount of shipping traffic entering and leaving the the New Bedford Harbor(more than 1800 vessels in 1890), it would become clear that a new lighthouse would be needed to replace the aging Clark's Point Lighthouse at Fort Tabor. Recommendations had started appearing in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1889. The following entry was placed:
- Butler's Flats, New Bedford Harbor, Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts - The entrance, near buoy No. 9, on the point of Butler's Flats, to the lower harbor of New Bedford, is narrow, obscure, and difficult to find in snow-storms, fogs, and dark nights. If a light, with a fog-signal, were placed on that point it would accurately mark the entrance as well as the point where vessels alter their course; would guide them to an anchorage in the lower harbor, and would form, with Palmer's Island light, a range very useful in enabling them to avoid North Ledge, Henrietta, and Hurricane Rocks in Buzzard's Bay, and greatly benefit navigation. The site is submerged to the depth of about 12 feet at mean low water. The estimated cost of a suitable structure is $45,000.
This entry would appear in subsequent volumes of the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1890 through 1893. However, the 1891 entry had the following additional text:
The Board, as stated in its last annual report, is of the opinion that the needs of commerce and navigation require the establishment of a light and fog signal at this point. It is estimated that they can be erected for $45,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
It appears that in 1892, some effort was made towards the establishment of the lighthouse. A bill was passed by Senate on February 19, 1892; however, it required action on the part of the House of Representatives during that session of Congress.
Since no action was taken during that session, the House of Representatives initiated a new bill on December 11, 1893 that called for a lighthouse at Butler Flats. However, this time, the bill was not acted upon by the Senate. By 1894, both the House and Senate had both acted upon a new bill dated January 22, 1894 authorizing the Butler Flats Lighthouse.
Although the bill was passed, there was no appropriation made for funding the construction of the lighthouse. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1893 had renewed the recommendation that $45,000 be appropriated for the purpose. The appropriation was approved on March 2, 1895.
By 1896, it appears that the bidding and contractual processes were established. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1896 had the following entries:
167. Butler Flats, New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts - Contract was made for building the structure. The light and fog signal is to be established by the end of this year.
161. Butler Flats, New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts - Bids will be asked to build the station by contract. It is intended to complete the station during the coming season.
During 1897, construction of the lighthouse was underway. Due to the soft muddy bottom of the Acushnet River, construction was rather difficult. Five-feet of mud were dredged up, and then the thirty-five-foot-diameter iron cylinder, constructed on Crow Island, was set in place. Once set, it was filled with stone and concrete to hold it in place.
It was completed during 1898. The lighthouse differs from the usual cast iron lighthouses of the late-1890s. Although the lighthouse sits on a cast iron caisson, the tower itself is actually made of brick rather than the typical cast iron plates bolted together.
The unique design of the lighthouse was by Francis Hopkinton Smith, a renowned artist and writer. Along with writing, he was also an engineer and contractor with many federal projects to his name. Some of his more notable works include the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, the Race Rock Lighthouse and many life-saving stations. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1898 has the following entry:
166. Butler Flats, New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts - A fifth-order light, showing a white flash every five seconds, and a 4,000-pound bell fog signal, operated by an oil-burning steam engine, were established here on April 30, 1898. The structure was built by contract. Congress appropriated on March 2, 1895, $45,000 for this station. The appropriation was practically exhausted.
When the Butler Flats Lighthouse was activated on April 30, 1898, the Clark's Point Lighthouse was permanently discontinued the same day. The Butler Flats Lighthouse was initially left the natural red brick color; however, this was changed on November 8, 1898 when the tower was painted white.
The 4,000-pound fog bell was originally operated by a Steven's bell-striking machine that operated on mineral oil. However, by May of the 1899, the Steven's bell striking machine was substituted with a Shipman oil engine.
Originally the keeper of the Clark's Point Lighthouse, Captain Amos Baker Jr. was appointed keeper of the Butler Flats Lighthouse when it closed. His son, Charles A. Baker was hired as an assistant keeper.
It was noted that occasionally ice floes would hit the tower causing it to shake. By 1904, for protection, two-hundred tons of rip-rap was placed around the base of the tower. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1904 had the following entry:
184. Butler Flats, entrance to New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts - About 200 tons of large stones were placed around the pier the lower for its protection.
Head keeper, Amos Baker Jr. passed away in 1911 leaving his son Charles A. Baker to take over the duties. Keeper Charles A. Baker was alone in the lighthouse at the time when the Great Hurricane of 1938 struck. The storm started as a category 5 hurricane in the open Atlantic, but lost some steam as it approached the southern New England coast.
When it struck, it was still a category 3 storm with wind gusts reaching 121-mph. Unlike the Whale Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island which was toppled over killing the keeper, the Butler Flats Lighthouse fared better.
As the wind and the waves battered the structure, but Keeper Charles A. Baker kept the light shining. A resident of New Bedford stated to Baker that as long as they could see the light, they knew he was alright. To that Baker responded, "What a foolish remark. As long as I could crawl, I would get the light going." Charles Baker would stay on as keeper by himself until his retirement in 1941 when the Coast Guard took over.
Several other hurricanes would hit the area. The Great Atlantic Hurricane struck the area in 1944, Hurricane Donna struck ten years later, and Hurricane Edna ten days after that. By 1957, the Corps of Engineers recommended construction of a hurricane dike to protect the New Bedford Harbor. President Eisenhower signed a public works bill into law in 1958; however problems plagued the project that would cause a delay of nearly four years.
Construction of the hurricane dike to protect the New Bedford Harbor started in November of 1962 and took nearly four years and $19,000,000 to complete. The wall consists of 899,000 tons of granite rock, some the size of automobiles, spans 3.5 miles and is higher and wider than the Great Wall of China.
By 1975, a new automated light and fog signal were placed on the hurricane barrier which made the Butler Flats Lighthouse redundant. The Coast Guard automated the lighthouse in April of 1978, and it was decommissioned on July 13 that year.
The Coast Guard had plans to dismantle the aging lighthouse, but residents protested. The City of New Bedford leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard and started restoration. For power, the group installed solar panels making it one of the first solar-powered lighthouses in the country. The city obtained a license to allow them to light the tower as a private aid to navigation.
By the 1990s, the tower was in need of restoration again. In 1993, to deter vandalism, physical security was enhanced with exterior lighting and additional features making the lighthouse harder to enter.
Starting in 1997, inmates from the Bristol County House of Corrections performed work on the structure including sanding and scraping stairwells, walls, and ceilings, rewiring the electrical system, and replacing outdated plumbing.
The Butler Flats Lighthouse celebrated its 100th birthday on April 30, 1998 with more than 600 people in attendance. Prior to the official relighting ceremony, several upgrades to the lighting system were executed. A 250-watt optic was installed and submarine cable was brought from the mainland to provide the power.
On May 15, 2012, the General Services Administration put out a notice of availability making the lighthouse available to eligible entities under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Interested parties were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest.
As no interested parties came forward, the lighthouse went to auction. The General Services Administration started the auction on August 5, 2013 with an end date to be determined. As of September 10, 2013, there is a single bid of $25,000.
Directions: The lighthouse sits offshore in Buzzards Bay. A good viewing area is from the pier at the foot of Nina Street in New Bedford.
Access: The lighthouse sits offshore in Buzzards Bay. It is a private aid to navigation and access is prohibited.View more Butler Flats Lighthouse pictures