Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-01-23.
The area to the south and east of the island of Nantucket is extremely dangerous. The range, measuring 23 miles by 40 miles, lies just off transatlantic shipping routes with some areas as shallow as three feet. Strong currents kept the shoals in a constant state of flux making them hard for mariners to avoid.
With as many as 100 shipwrecks in the area, this issue was brought before Congress in 1843. It would take another ten years, but Congress approved the construction of a lightship to mark the area with an appropriation of $15,000.
In 1853, Tardy & Auld of Baltimore, Maryland was awarded the contract to build Light Vessel 11 with a contract price of $13,462. When completed in 1854, it would be known as the Nantucket New South Shoal lightship. LV-11 would serve until 1855 when the mooring failed allowing the vessel to be blown 50 miles to the west where it went aground on Montauk Point.
Light Vessel 11 (LV-11) was salvaged and towed to the New York Navy Yard where it required an $11,000 rehabilitation to make it seaworthy again. While LV-11 was being repaired, Light Vessel 1 was stationed at Nantucket in January of 1856. Once repaired, LV-11 went on to mark the Brenton Reef in Rhode Island.
There is evidence that this location, being exposed to the open Atlantic was a tough station. Records show that LV-1 parted chain, or lost its anchor 23 times, possibly more as records are incomplete, sending the vessel adrift. Sometimes it would take as many as 20 days to work back to its location, other times it would require towing to bring it back to its location.
Both LV-11 and LV-1 were built in the 1850s, and as such were powered sail. In 1891, The Lighthouse Board requested a steam-propelled lightship equipped with a steam fog-signal for the Nantucket New South Shoal station. It was approved in 1892.
Light Vessel 54 was an iron-hulled steam-powered vessel that would take the place of LV-1 on November 13, 1892 and become the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship. This vessel would serve the location until April 10, 1893 when it was withdrawn for repairs. Relief Light Vessel 9 would serve until LV-54's replacement on June 21, 1893.
During the time LV-54 was withdrawn for repairs, 25-tons of pig iron were added for ballast. Government records indicate that the vessel was deemed unsuitable for such an exposed area, and on July 26, 1894, LV-58 replaced LV-54, which went on to serve as the Boston Lightship.
Light Vessel 58 served as the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship until July 1896. To honor a petition by steamship owners, the Lighthouse Board established a lightship presence at Fire Island to provide a safer passage to New York Harbor. As Light Vessel 68 was under construction, LV-58 was ordered to Fire Island on July 15, 1896.
On July 6, 1896, Light Vessel 66 took over and assumed the role as the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship. On October 17, the station position changed. The vessel was ordered to move 17-and-a-quarter miles southeastward, and the name was changed to Nantucket Shoals.
Light Vessel 66, in need of repairs, was ordered to steam to New Bedford. Relief Light Vessel 58 arrived on December 5, 1905 and five days later it developed a leak in the fire-room compartment during a heavy gale. After rising water extinguished the boilers and suction pumps failed, the crew had no choice but to bail water by hand.
While LV-58 was being towed back to port by the tender Azalea in heavy seas, the crew exhausted having bailed water for over 24 hours, gave the signal "must abandon." The crew safely evacuated to the Azalea, and within ten minutes, LV-58 listing heavily starboard, slipped below the sea.
Upon news of the sinking, LV-66 returned to the station immediately, arriving on December 18, 1905. This vessel would continue to serve at the Nantucket Shoals location until 1907 when Light Vessel 85 took over. LV-85 would serve the location until 1923.
The Lighthouse Board would move lightships around as needed. Light Vessel 106 took over the station in 1923 and would serve until 1931. The next vessel to take over duty was Light Vessel 117.
Light Vessel 117 was built in 1930 by Charleston Drydock & Machine Co. at a contract cost of $274,434. LV-117 was only in service for four years before being rammed by the British White Star Line RMS Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic, on May 15, 1934 in dense fog.
Although the lightship's radio beacon was detected by the Olympic, the captain misjudged them and ordered the ship's course to be changed 10 degrees port. After failed attempts by the radio operator to reach LV-117 to determine their exact coordinates, the captain thought they were clear of the lightship.
A few minutes later, the lookout of the Olympic spotted LV-117 dead ahead and notified the captain, who gave the orders to set the rudder full to port and engines to full speed astern. By then, it was too late. Although the Olympic had slowed to 3 knots, it collided with the side of LV-117 at 11:06am.
Passengers aboard the larger Olympic reported feeling only a "slight jar", but noticed a change in the engines signaling that the ship was stopping. Life Boats were deployed quickly, but after nearly an hour of searching, only seven of the 11 man crew from LV-117 were recovered, three of which died in the Olympic's hospital.
It was reported that the Nantucket Lightship (LV-117) sank so fast that anyone below deck would have had very little chance of survival. For restitution, the White Star Line paid the U.S. Government $500,000, some of which was used to build Light Vessel 112.
Light Vessel 106 would return to Nantucket Shoals upon the sinking of LV-117 and would stay until 1936 when LV-112 was completed. Light Vessel 112 was built in 1936 by Pusey & Jones of Wilmington, Delaware at a cost of $300,956, more than any other lightship ever built in the United States. The length of the vessel was 148' 10" displacing 1050 tons making it the largest lightship in the United States.
Not only was LV-112 the largest lightship ever built in the U.S., but to make sure it would withstand a collision, it was constructed to the specifications of a battleship. Comprised of 43 watertight compartments and a double hull made of nearly 1.5-inch armor plating, it was said to be virtually unsinkable. The vessel was also equipped with six exits to the upper deck to make escape possible should it be necessary in an emergency.
LV-112 would serve as the Nantucket Shoals Lightship until 1942 when it was pulled by the U.S. Navy, painted gray, armed with two 20mm guns, and renamed to the USS Nantucket. It would become an examination vessel off the coast of Portland, Maine during World War II. At the culmination of the war, LV-112 was returned to mark the shoals and would serve until 1958.
During Hurricane Edna, LV-112 would sustain heavy damage. Hours would pass as the vessel endured 110-mph winds and 70-foot seas. When the storm had passed there would be damage to the bow plates, the pilot doors and windows blown in, life boats demolished, anchor lost, and the rudder severely damaged. But it survived.
WLV-196 would take over duty from 1958-1960. At that time, LV-112 was renamed Relief, and would serve to relieve other vessels along the east coast. In April 1960, LV-112 was ordered to Curtis Bay, Maryland for modernization, which included a new 900HP diesel engine, removal of the steam stack, and upgrades to the lighting apparatus.
Upon completion of the renovations, it was returned to Nantucket Shoals, a position it would serve from 1960 to 1975. On March 21, 1975, WLV-612 took over the Nantucket Shoals station, and LV-112 was retired from duty.
By December of 1975, the government auctioned off LV-112 to several officials from Atlantic City, New Jersey. A group nicknamed "The Dirty Dozen" from Nantucket felt the vessel should remain in Nantucket Harbor following its retirement, and worked with the officials to arrange a trade. Atlantic City would give up LV-112 (Nantucket) and receive the Boston Lightship, which was recently deemed excess.
Upon execution of the deal, LV-112 was moved to Nantucket where it acted as a floating museum until 1984. Over time, maintenance was not kept up with, and the lightship gradually fell into disrepair. It was later sold to Nantucket Lightship Preservation, Inc. a non-profit group in 1985.
The vessel was towed to Boston in September 1985 where it was overhauled and restored to operating condition the following year. On July 4, 1986, it was one of the vessels in the OpSail '86 celebration of the Statue of Liberty's restoration. Follow that, the ship had cruised to several ports in the New England area for maritime events and had called Portland, Maine home.
After several years, the Nantucket Lightship Preservation, Inc. was looking to sell the vessel to a group in Portland, Maine, however, there was a catch. When "the Dirty Dozen" out of Nantucket sold the vessel to the NLPI, there was a stipulation in the agreement that would let a Nantucket resident acquire the vessel for $1 if it was to come back on the market.
After trying for several weeks to gain support for bringing LV-112 back to Nantucket, a local resident, William Kevin Murphy, paid the $1 and purchased the ship. Straight Wharf, the island marina where LV-112 was previously docked from 1975 through 1984, and the only marina on the island capable to berthing the large vessel, had declined to host the ship.
Murphy sought out another marina to dock the ship at. It eventually ended up at Little Harbor Marine in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Such an old vessel needs constant maintenance, and by March of 1990, there were estimates that it needed as much as $200,000 in repairs.
William K. Murphy, realizing that he didn't have the necessary funds to sustain the vessel long term agreed to sell it to Lightship Nantucket Inc. of Portland, Maine. In return, the group paid off $32,000 of debt that Murphy amassed while he owned the ship. After a few years, the group couldn't secure funding to cover the ongoing maintenance and had to dispose of the vessel.
The Intrepid Air-Sea-Space Museum in New York City acquired LV-112 in 1993 from Lightship Nantucket Inc. After plans to monetize the lightship fell through, the museum donated it to the H.M.S. Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The former U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot on Staten Island was selected as the location for the newly formed National Lighthouse Museum in 1998, and by 2002 the museum had acquired LV-112 for $1. After a few months of being docked at the museum's pier, it was towed to Oyster Bay on Long Island so volunteers would have better access to help restore the ship.
Plans called for the ship to be there only a short time before being moved back to the National Lighthouse Museum. However, due to funding issues, the National Lighthouse Museum had failed to open, and as a result, the lightship sat tied to the public pier in Oyster Bay for eight years.
Like most of the preceding organizations before the National Lighthouse Museum, they too didn't have the funds to maintain the aging lightship, and offered to sell the vessel for $1 to a qualified support group. Robert Mannino Jr. read of the plight in August of 2008 in the Boston Globe, and by May of 2009, he had established the United States Lightship Museum.
Despite difficult economic times, the group had raised the nearly $150,000 through a combination of cash and in-kind donations. By May of 2010, LV-112 had arrived in Boston Harbor where it underwent an intensive examination to determine its needs. The USLM estimates the full restoration to be around $1 million and a $10 million endowment to maintain the lightship in perpetuity.
Directions: This lightship is docked at the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina. The address is 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, MA 02128.
Access: The lightship is owned by the United States Lightship Museum, Inc. The vessel is undergoing restoration and open during weekends from April through November. More information here: http://www.nantucketlightshiplv-112.org.View more Nantucket Lightship (LV-112/WAL-534) pictures