Newburyport Range Lighthouse

Newburyport, Massachusetts - 1873 (1873**)

Photo of the Newburyport Range Lighthouse.

History of the Newburyport Range Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-05-14.

Newburyport Front Range LighthouseNewburyport Front Range Lighthouse

To guide vessels into Newburyport Harbor, private aids to navigation were established at the mouth of the Merrimack as early as the 1790s. It would take until 1873 for the Lighthouse Board to build the government-maintained Newburyport Harbor Range Lights.

During the late 1700s, private aids to navigation were established at the northern end of Plum Island and further inland, to guide vessels into the mouth of the Merrimack River. By 1783, the lights at the end of Plum Island were being maintained by the Marine Society of Newburyport, which had hired men to raise the lanterns each night.

Although these beacons had provided some help, they were still largely deficient. Therefore, merchants of Newburyport successfully petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts, which had authorized the construction "two small wooden lighthouses at the north end of Plumb [sic] Island" in 1787. By the following year, they were built and placed into service.

With the Lighthouse Act of 1789, the newly established federal government assumed control of colonial lighthouses. The following year, the General Assembly of Massachusetts had signed over control of the Plum Island Lighthouses. As the inner range lights weren't erected under the auspices of the General Court of Massachusetts, they were excluded and therefore remained under private control.

The pair of range lights on Plum Island were rebuilt and moved numerous times over the 80 years. During that time, the inner range lights continued to be privately maintained. Finally, in 1871, the residents of Newburyport petitioned the federal government to take ownership of them. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following:

The citizens of Newburyport have for several years maintained by subscription two range lights to guide vessels in the inner harbor, and they have lately petitioned the Government to take charge of them. Should this petition be granted it will be necessary to erect two small structures near the sites of the present lights. As a further aid to navigation entering this difficult harbor, it is recommended that a day beacon be erected on Black Rock, near the entrance. This point is at present marked by a spindle, which will probably sooner or later be carried off by the ice; moreover it does not sufficiently mark the rock in the night.

The entry then goes on to recommend that $10,000 be appropriated for the pair of range lights to mark the inner harbor at Newburyport and an additional $6,000 for the day beacon for Black Rock.

During the second session of the forty-second meeting of Congress, the matter regarding the inner range lights for Newburyport Harbor was brought up:

For reestablishing and setting up two small beacon-lights in the harbor of Newburyport, the site one of which has been washed away by a storm, $10,000.

On May 22, Benjamin Franklin Butler, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts's 5th district said the following:

I should like to have the attention of the House while I explain this case. This does not come in as any new case, militating against the report of the Committee on Appropriations. These are two small beacon-lights that range the harbor. The Light-House Board recommend a new light-house and the reestablishment of these beacon-lights. Unfortunately, since the report, one of these sites was washed down by a storm. I desire now to get this to reestablish these beacon-lights, and not to build any light house.

With that, Representative James A. Garfield of Ohio confirmed, "What the gentleman says is correct, and this appropriation ought to be inserted." James Garfield, would go on to become the 20th President of the United States, but would only spend 200 days in office. He was shot by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881 and died on September 19, later that year.

As the appropriation for the lights were approved, plans for the inner range lights moved forward. By 1872, negotiations were in progress to obtain the titles for the sites of the lights and by June 1, 1873, the lights were activated. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:

54, 55. Newburyport, upper harbor - Two range-lights to guide up the river Merrimack to the city of Newburyport have been established in the same position as the private lights heretofore maintained by subscription, and were lighted June 1, 1873. The front light is on an iron tower, conical in form, 14 feet 6 inches high, located on Bayley's new wharf, and the focal plane is 25 feet above the sea. The rear light is about 350 feet W. ½S. from the front light, on a brick tower, pyramidal in form, 32 feet high, and the focal plane is 47 feet above the sea.

As there was never a keeper's dwelling built for the Newburyport Harbor Range Lights, locals were hired as keepers. George W. Stickney would serve as the station's first keeper, a position he would hold from 1873 to 1886. A series of other keepers would serve until responsibility of the range was shifted to the keeper of the nearby Plum Island Lighthouse.

In 1882, some work was required on both the front and the rear range lights. The exterior of the cast-iron front tower was repainted and the stone foundation was repointed. At that same time, the foundation of the brick rear tower was replastered where necessary.

In 1897, a pipe well was sunk to provide water for the keeper and his family and in 1900, some 80 running feet of fencing were built to enclose the station. In 1901, barbed wire was added to the top of the fence.

Physical changes were made to both towers in 1901. The front range light's height was increased by eleven feet when a twenty-foot hexagonal, wooden, shingled tower was built atop the iron tower after the original lantern was removed. At that time, the rear light was also raised by nine feet.

The Newburyport Harbor Front Range Light displayed a fixed red light, while the rear range light displayed a fixed green light. On March 15, 1907, to bring the lights in sync, the rear range light was changed to display fixed red.

The Newburyport Harbor Range Lights were decommissioned in 1961. Soon thereafter, the rear range lighthouse was sold into private ownership. In 1964, the front range lighthouse was relocated a short distance onto the grounds of the Merrimack River Coast Guard Station.

Both lights have received some maintenance over the years. In the 1990s, the wooden tower extension of the front range light was removed. Installed was a more traditional replica lantern room. The developer and owner of the rear range light, David Hall, has restored the tower, which included repointing the tower, and repainting of the channel-facing sides of the tower white.

Today, the Lighthouse Preservation Society offers gourmet dining at the top of the Newburyport Rear Range Lighthouse. For $350, you will get dinner for two, and help the Lighthouse Preservation Society raise $2 million to create a national Coast Guard Memorial on the waterfront at Newburyport.

Newburyport is widely recognized as the "Birthplace of the Coast Guard" due to a 1965 proclamation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, declaring it as the birthplace. However, and more importantly, the cutter Massachusetts was built in the town in 1791 and was the first cutter to enter active service under the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Although many recognize Newburyport as the "Birthplace of the Coast Guard," the Coast Guard has never officially declared Newburyport as its birthplace.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  3. "Newburyport lobbies to be official birthplace of the Coast Guard," Kathleen Conti, The Boston Globe, October 10, 2010.
  4. Lighthouse Preservation Society website.

Directions: The Newburyport Rear Range Lighthouse is located at 6½ Water Street, in Newburyport. The Newburyport Front Range Lighthouse is located on the grounds of the Merrimack River Coast Guard Station. It is easily viewed from the parking lot behind the rear range lighthouse.

Access: The Newburyport Rear Range Lighthouse is privately owned, but the Lighthouse Preservation Society offers dinners in the lantern room. More information is available on their website. The Newburyport Front Range Lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds and tower closed.

View more Newburyport Range Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 53.00'
Focal Plane: Unknown
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1961)
*Latitude: 42.81126 N
*Longitude: -70.86605 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* 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.