Minot's Ledge Lighthouse

Cohassett, Massachusetts - 1860 (1850**)

 
Photo of the Minot
 
 
   

History of the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-10-25.

In stark contrast to the many other coastal towns of Massachusetts, the rocky and rugged shoreline of Cohasset more closely resembles that of Maine. And it isn't just the shoreline. Since many of the rocks stretched out into the Atlantic Ocean forming numerous ledges and reefs, the local Indians called the location Konahasset, sometimes spelled Quonahassit, meaning "long rocky place."

Due to the numerous rocks and ledges in the area, many gained names to help identify them. Some were named after their features, such as Barrel Rock, others were named after industry, such as Quarry Point, and others were named after tragic events.

Although it's unclear how Minot's Ledge received its name, many speculate that it was named after George Minot, the owner of T Wharf in Boston in the mid-1700s. Historian Edward Rowe Snow believes that a ship owned by Minot most likely wrecked on the ledge thus taking his name.

As early as 1811, the Scituate Lighthouse marked the entrance to Scituate Harbor, however; the rather short, 25-foot-tall lighthouse did little to mark the Cohasset Rocks nearly one-mile offshore, and some believed was even cause of shipwrecks.

Soon after the lighthouse was erected, there was some controversy. The Boston Marine Society had some concerns with a fixed white light being displayed only 12-miles south of the Boston Light, also a fixed white light. Thinking that it might confuse mariners, they asked the local lighthouse superintendent, Henry Dearborn, to hold off placing the lighthouse into service until March 1812 so that discussions could be had regarding the characteristic of the light.

The Boston Marine Society had recommended an eclipser be installed which would give the Scituate Lighthouse a "flash" thus making it easy for a mariner to distinguish it from the Boston Lighthouse. The other recommendation the society made was to obscure some of the range of the light which would result in an annual savings of $174.

Although the recommendations were made, none of them were adopted. Instead, the lighthouse went into service displaying a fixed white light on April 1, 1812. Instead, the Boston Lighthouse was given a flashing characteristic to help distinguish it from the surrounding lights in late 1811. Newly installed equipment by Winslow Lewis provided the characteristic.

Although separating out the two light's characteristics by giving the Boston Lighthouse a flash helped with the confusion, many shipwrecks still occurred on Minot's Ledge. In an attempt to alleviate the mishaps, a 15-foot addition was added to the tower in 1827, but little changed.

A report produced by Edward W. Carpender of the U.S. Navy in 1838 had the following statement recognizing the importance of marking Minot's Ledge and the Cohasset Rocks:

Perhaps no place on the coast requires a better light than Scituate; not so much on its own account, for the port is small, and cannot have much trade, but on account of the navigation between it and the mouth of Boston harbor. Directly in the way of the whole coasting-trade of the south shore, and not far from the track of vessels bound in from sea, lies Minot's ledge, reaching nearly two miles into the bay. This is only about five miles from Scituate, so that a good light there would help to prevent some of those numerous and fatal accidents which have befallen vessels on this ledge.

The Boston Marine Society established a committee of three in August of 1838 to take a survey of Minot's Ledge and determine if a lighthouse could be established at that location. In November of that year, the committee reported back the following:

"the practicability of building a light house, on it that will withstand the force of the Sea does not admit of a doubt. The importance of having a light house on a rock so dangerous to the navigation of Boston, on which so many valuable lives & so much property has been lost is too well known to need comment."

By 1843, civil engineer I.W.P. Lewis had reported on many of the lighthouses in Massachusetts, and called out the Cohasset Rocks:

For a long series of years; petitions have been presented to Congress, from the citizens Boston, for erecting a light-house on these dreadful rocks, but no action has ever yet been taken upon the subject. One the causes of frequent shipwrecks on these rocks has been light-house at Scituate, four miles to leeward of the reef, which has been repeatedly mistaken for Boston light, thus caused the death of many a brave seaman and the of large amounts of property...One of the most interesting objects of this inspection was to ascertain the feasibility of erecting a light-house on the extremity of the Cohasset reef; and it was found that, though formidable difficulties would embarrass the undertaking, still they were not greater than such as were successfully triumphed over by a "Smeaton" or a "Stevenson."

In this passage, he is referencing the undertakings of John Smeaton, the engineer that designed the third Eddystone Lighthouse near the entrance to the English Channel and Robert Stevenson, the engineer behind the Bell Rock Lighthouse in the North Sea.

In his report, Lewis calls out over 40 shipwrecks in the nine years spanning 1832 to 1841 incurring loss of life and damage to property totaling $364,000. The report also points out the poor condition of the Scituate Lighthouse and keeper's quarters.

In February of 1847, a brig from New Orleans struck a reef near Minot's Ledge. The vessel, while taking on water, was able to make it to Boston Harbor. The following month, Congress appropriated $20,000 for a lighthouse on the ledge. Although an additional appropriation of $19,500 would be needed to see the project through to completion.

Most favored a stone tower similar to the Eddystone and Bell Rock Lighthouses in Europe, however Captain William H. Swift of the Corps of Topographical Engineers cited the limitations that he had to work with: the ledge was small (about 25 feet wide) and submerged for over 20 hours a day.

1850 Minot's Ledge Tower1850 Minot's Ledge Tower (Courtesy CG)

With that, he recommended an iron pile lighthouse. It would be a lighthouse sitting atop nine iron legs. The idea was that with the open iron work, waves would pass easily through the legs of the structure. Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, and the man in charge of lighthouses at the time, was extremely cost conscious, so this plan appealed to him as it would be far less expensive when compared to a granite lighthouse.

Work on the structure began in the spring of 1847. The men and materials were transported by schooner to the site. Due to the nature of the Atlantic Ocean, the men could only work at low tide and when the sea was calm. If a storm threatened, the vessel would retreat to Cohasset Harbor, otherwise it would stay put and the men would sleep aboard the ship each night.

To ensure stable footing, nine 12-inch-wide holes were drilled into the ledge to a depth of five feet. The drilling was a slow process, and twice during the 1847 season, the drilling apparatus and men operating it were swept into the ocean. Fortunately, no casualties were recorded.

Work was stopped in the fall of 1847 and picked back up in the spring of 1848. But it had taken until September of 1848 to get all nine holes drilled and the iron piles cemented into place. The piles were braced horizontally by iron rods at 19-foot intervals. Diagonal braces were planned for the bottom and middle sections, but they were left off after concerns that they would create additional surface area for wave contact.

Atop the iron piles, a cap was installed upon which the keeper's quarters were built. The structure was topped with a 16-sided lantern which housed a Fresnel lens. Construction was completed in late 1849, and the 75-foot tall lighthouse was lighted for the first time on the night of January 1, 1850, exhibiting a fixed white light.

The first keeper, who had previously served at the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Maine and the Three Sisters Lighthouse in Massachusetts was Isaac Dunham. Within a week of being at the station, he wrote in the log (original spelling retained): "Clensd the Lantern for Liting in a tremendous Gale of wind. It seames as though the Light House would go from the Rock."

By April 1850, Dunham was again reporting the tower would sway in gales. The following was the entry he placed in the log book:

April 5 - the wind N.E. to E. blowing very hard with a sea running mountains high - it must be that we were in the hands of a merciful God for witch I am thankful that we are yet spared - have cleaned the light up.
April 6 - The wind E. blowing very hard with an ugly sea which makes the light real [sic] like a Drunken Man - I hope God will in mercy still the raging sea - or we must perish. . . . God only knows what the end will be.
At 4 P.M. the gale continues with great fury. It appears to me that if the wind continues from the East and it now is that we cannot survive the night-if it is to be so-O God receive my unworthy soul for Christ sake for in him I put my trust.

Shortly after the events of those two days, Keeper Dunham wrote to government officials reporting the swaying and requested the tower be strengthened. This communication angered the building's engineer, Captain Swift, who had the utmost confidence in the lighthouse.

Summer had passed and no additional bracing was added to the structure. With that, Keeper Dunham resigned on October 7, 1850. John W. Bennett took over as principle keeper and openly mocked Dunham and his fears regarding the structure.

Bennett hired two assistants, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine. Of the three keepers, two keepers were always stationed at the tower with one on shore leave. During this time, the horizontal braces were showing signs of strain. They were routinely removed and transported to a blacksmith shop in Cohassett for straightening and to be strengthened. In a letter to the Boston Journal dated October 9, 1850, Bennett reserved his judgments on the tower preferring to experience it firsthand during a strong nor'easter. In the letter, he went on to suggest the tower be braced by sinking iron rods into adjacent ledges.

Again, no additional bracing was ever added. Investigation into the plan later showed that it was impractical. Several weeks later, a furious nor'easter would provide the experience Keeper Bennett was looking for, and suddenly, his mind was changed.

Bennett brought his concerns to lighthouse superintendent Philip Greeley, who gathered a committee to inspect the structure. The day the committee traveled to the lighthouse the seas were calm. During the inspection, the committee noticed that the water flowed effortlessly through the iron supports, and assumed that in rough seas, the water would do the same.

At the culmination of their inspection, they decided against strengthening the tower as they felt it was capable of surviving "any storm without danger."

As leaving the lighthouse was sometimes difficult due to high waves, Keeper Bennett installed a thick rope, called a hawser, from the top of the tower to a large granite rock 200 feet away. He would then attach a basket or sling that he or the other keepers could use to escape the tower in an emergency or during heavy weather.

In early January 1851, Isaac Dunham, the previous keeper, wrote to Stephen Pleasonton, the man in charge of the lighthouses, again reiterating his concerns about the stability of the tower. Pleasonton forwarded Dunham's concerns on to Philip Greely. Greely response included the following:

I have always said to you that, in my judgement, the Light House is perfectly safe. . . but I have thought it was best to get an appropriation from Congress to be expended in strengthening the House. . . and I have recommended also, in strong terms, an increase of the salaries of the Keepers.

After widespread fear that the tower would collapse, Captain Swift felt compelled to make a comment. A letter he had written was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser on January 18, 1851. In the letter, he commented that the tower had survived several winters and that it should survive several more.

Although mid-section diagonal braces were added at some point, Captain Swift reluctantly agreed to install the bottom diagonals, which he suggested might reduce tower vibration. After installation of six of 32 diagonal braces, the job was delayed due to late funding. The additional 26 braces would never be installed.

A nor'easter would strike the New England region on March 16, 1851. For nearly four days, an extremely high tide caused massive flooding in Boston Harbor, overflowing wharves, flooding most of the area virtually turning Boston into an island.

At the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, the keepers were awakened at 2:00am by the wind. As far as they could see, the ocean was seething and frothy, and the storm was only getting started. By later that evening, the storm had become a gale, which is defined as sustained winds of 39-54 mph.

The two keepers felt unsafe in the lantern and sought refuge below in the store room, only leaving to check on the light and repair any damage caused by the storm. Several times, while climbing the rungs of the ladder, they were knocked off by the swaying of the tower under the force of the powerful waves.

For four days, the men hunkered down in the store room without sleep. The only food available to them was uncooked meat and dry bread. By the afternoon of the fourth day, the storm had died down. The next morning, Joseph Wilson had left the lighthouse for shore leave, with Keeper Bennett replacing him.

Upon Bennett's return, he spent a few days below the tower strengthening and tightening the iron bracing. While performing the repairs, he found the station's dory smashed beyond repair and made plans to get it replaced while in Boston during his next leave.

When Joseph Wilson had returned, Keeper Bennett left on the morning of Friday, April 11. Upon his arrival on shore, he spoke to Superintendent Philip Greeley regarding the purchase of a new boat. He tried to reach the lighthouse the next day, however; as winds picked up, he could not.

He had waited for the winds to die down, but by Monday, the winds had increased to gale force and by Wednesday, April 16, they were hurricane force. As the moon was full, high tide was higher than usual which brought about coastal flooding.

The Boston Transcript for the evening of April 16, 1851 had the following report:

"...This is believed to be the highest tide ever known in Boston. It began to recede slowly about twelve o'clock. Thousands of spectators flocked down to the wharves to witness the grand spectacle which the waters...presented."
"Great apprehensions are felt in regard to the lighthouse at Minot's Ledge. The weather is still to misty to distinguish if it is still standing."

At that time that report was printed, the lighthouse was still standing. No one knows for sure what exactly happened as there were no survivors, but by piecing together timelines most believe the following account.

Most likely the central support column had broken first. An eyewitness on shore, viewing through a telescope, had reported that the tower had a slight list on Wednesday afternoon.

Residents of Scituate report that the light at Minot's Ledge was still shining at 10pm on the night of April 16. Keepers Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson knew that the danger would increase come high tide, which would occur around midnight.

Almost as a premonition, the two wrote a note and dropped it into the sea below. The note read:

The lighthouse won't stand over to night. She shakes 2 feet each way now.
J.W. + J.A.

By 1:00am, residents reported hearing the frantic ringing of the fog bell, most likely it was the two keepers calling for help. With the entire structure bent over, the bottom section of the keeper's quarters was receiving the full force of the waves, which caused the last two or three supports to snap off, sending the tower into the furious Atlantic Ocean.

Reports indicate that Joseph Antione and Joseph Wilson used the hawser to escape the tower. Each left with a life preserver on, and lowered themselves into the tumultuous raging sea. The body of Joseph Antione was found washed ashore at Nantasket.

The body of Joseph Wilson was found on Gull Rock the following October. It appears that he had swam there, realized it was not the mainland, took shelter in a cleft away from the outgoing tide. He most likely died of exhaustion and exposure.

Keeper Bennett went down to the shore around 5:00am on the morning of Thursday, April 17. There, littering the beach were fragments of the lantern, bedding, furniture, and even items he recognized as his own clothing. The gale that destroyed the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse would later be referred to as the "Minot's Light Storm of 1851."

Within days of the lighthouse's failure, The Boston Marine Society had ordered the steam towboat R.B. Forbes to take station at the ledge outfitted with a makeshift light, but the boat was forced off station on April 20 due to another storm coming in. The ship returned to its post once the gale died down. Eventually, the R.B. Forbes was replaced by the old Brandywine Shoal Lightship.

The keeper of the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, Captain John Bennett, assumed control of the vessel. An inspection report dated July 1851 showed that the old ship was in poor condition, but it would remain at its post until a new light vessel, LV-7 was constructed and took over duties in 1854.

Captain William Swift, the tower's designer visited the ledge on April 22, 1851. Portions of what remained of the tower were visible nearby in the water, lying on its side. During this visit, he made a sketch of the few remaining bent pilings. While Swift was making his sketch, his assistant, William Dennison made a haunting statement, "I can not [sic] think that, if the lower series of diagonal stays had been put on, the structure would have been standing at this time."

There are many theories of why the lighthouse failed. Some believe that the hawser that Bennett installed caused or at least contributed to the tower's demise. With the central support already broken off, the tower was significantly weakened. The large granite block that had the hawser cable attached to it, was slowly being pushed by the enormous force of the waves. This constant pulling force on the upper section of the tower, which was securely anchored to the ledge, led to increasing strain on the remaining outer supports.

There were several contributing factors to the tower's failure. The size of the ledge limited the height of the tower. As the ledge was only 25 feet wide, the tower's height should have been no more than 50 feet tall. But Swift designed the tower at 70 feet tall, as high as he felt safe, but not out of reach of the highest possible storm waves.

The final contributing factor, and probably the most important, was the lack of lower diagonal bracing. Diagonal bracing is required to maintain stability of a structure by resisting wind-caused torsion or twisting, and is critical to the continued structural stability of a building.

Swift left off the lower diagonal bracing to reduce the surface area of wave contact, but by doing this, he sacrificed the structural integrity of the tower. Most believe, the lack of diagonal bracing was the root cause of the collapse.

The year 1852 brought about big changes in the oversight of the nation's aids to navigation. A new board was established by Congress called the Light House Board, and was made up of engineers, and Navy personnel, which would replace Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury.

Anxious to get a new lighthouse built, Congress appropriated $80,000 for a new lighthouse "of granite, iron, or a combination of both." General Joseph Totten had drawn up plans for a stone tower for Minot's Ledge. Lt. Barton S. Alexander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, made some modifications to the design and was chosen as superintendent of the project.

As the ledge was only about 25-foot wide, much work had to be done to widen it. Workers landed on June 20, 1855 and started chiseling the ledge to level it. Like the previous tower, work could only be done during low tide. By the end of 1855, only 130 hours of work was completed.

Of the nine holes drilled into the rock for the original lighthouse, the eight outer holes were filled with 25-foot high piles. The first course of the seven 2-ton granite blocks were then secured to the pilings by two-inch galvanized wrought-iron bolts, in addition to the iron pilings.

During the entire year of 1856, only 157 hours of labor was completed. Due to poor weather conditions during the year of 1857, only 130 hours of labor were logged. On July 11, 1858, the first stone of the tower was laid, and by the end of the year, the first six courses were completed. As conditions were favorable, 208 hours were logged that year.

Door to Minot's Ledge LighthouseEntrance to tower (Courtesy C. Hanchey)

Most of the granite work was done on nearby Government Island. Each block was cut and dovetailed to its neighbors on either side. They were then securely attached with an iron rod. As a final step, the blocks were cemented together with Portland cement.

The last stone of the tower was laid on June 29, 1860. The lantern and a second-order Fresnel lens were installed, and the lighthouse first cast its beam on November 15, 1860. At that point, Ligthship LV-7 was transferred to Vineyard Sound.

The final cost of the lighthouse was $330,000, which included two keeper's houses onshore, making it one of the most expensive lighthouses in the history of the United States. The most expensive lighthouse ever erected in the United States was the St. George Reef Lighthouse in California, at a cost of $752,000. The equivalent of $20 million today.

To ensure that it will stand up to the mighty Atlantic Ocean, the first 40 feet is solid granite blocks. Although some worried that it too would topple like its predecessor, several keepers reported that although the tower did move and sway during gales, they all felt that it would survive any storm.

Captain F.A. Mahan, an engineer with the Lighthouse Board suggested a new system to assign a unique characteristic to each lighthouse in 1894. Minot's Ledge was given a new 12-panel rotating second-order Fresnel lens and assigned a 1-4-3 flash.

This was a single flash followed by a three-second interval of darkness, then four flashes each separated by one-second, then another interval of three-seconds of darkness, followed by three flashes each separated by one-second. Someone soon decided that the unique 1-4-3 flash sequence stood for "I love you," and Minot's Ledge became known as the "I love you light."

Over the years, many keepers called the lighthouse home. But by 1947, the lighthouse was converted to electric power and was automated. At that time, the second-order lens was dismantled and stored in the tower pending its removal. A third-order lens was installed and put into use.

Before the second-order lens could be removed, vandals broke into the tower and smashed sections of the lens. As a result, it was disposed of. In 1964, to replace the banks of batteries, a power cable from shore was run to the tower. When it was damaged by a storm in 1971, the batteries were used again until a solar power system could be installed in 1983.

The tower was renovated between 1987 and 1989 by the Gayle Electric Company of New Jersey. During the renovation, the lantern was removed from the tower by helicopter, and several damaged granite blocks were replaced. The lighthouse was relit on August 20, 1989 and continues its unique 1-4-3 flash.

The two keeper's houses on Government Island were restored between 1992 and 1993. The Cohassett Lightkeepers Corporation raised the necessary $200,000 to make the restoration a reality.

On Government Island, you can also see a replica of the lantern atop the granite blocks removed during the renovation that took place in 1987. Inside the lantern, a portion of the third-order Fresnel lens is on display.

Also on display are a fog bell and a granite memorial to keepers Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson that perished when the original tower was destroyed in 1851.

Coast Guard divers explored the waters around the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse in June of 2007. They were tasked with finding any remnants of the 1850 tower. After a few days of exploring the area, they located several iron beams, believed to be the pilings of the original lighthouse. Before they left, they lowered a plaque to the ocean floor honoring the fallen lighthouse keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antione.

In June of 2009, the lighthouse was deemed excess property and through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, was made available to any eligible agency. However, by October of 2013, the tower was offered to the towns of Scituate and Cohassett.

Reference:

  1. Northeast Lights - Lighthouses and Lightships, Robert G. Bachand, 1989.
  2. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
  3. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  4. The Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
  5. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  6. Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
  7. Storms and Shipwrecks of New England, Edward Rowe Snow, 2003.
  8. "Minot's Ledge: The First Light Tower Collapse," David A. Gamage, The Keeper's Log, Fall 2015.

Directions: The Minot's Ledge Lighthouse sites over a mile offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, therefore, it is best viewed from the water. Distant views might be possible from Glades Road in Minot.

To get to Government Island, from the center of Cohasset, follow South Main Street to Summer Street. Follow Summer Street to Border Street. While on Border Street, just over the bridge, make a left onto Government Island Road. It is here where you will see the replica of the top of Minot's Ledge Lighthouse and the memorial to the fallen keepers.

Access: The lighthouse sits offshore and is closed. It is currently owned by the Coast Guard.

View more Minot's Ledge Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 87.00'
Focal Plane: 85'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 42.27000 N
*Longitude: -70.75900 W
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* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.