Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-01-15.
Originally an 8-mile long peninsula extending southward from the "elbow" of Cape Cod's flexed arm, Monomoy is now made up of two separate islands, North Monomoy and South Monomoy. Natives used the peninsula as a location for hunting and shellfishing. Early settlers used the grassy inland area to pasture livestock and even set up a tavern in 1711 at Wreck Cove, near the present location of Hospital Pond.
Monomoy Point on the northern side and Great Point on Nantucket Island formed the boundary of Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Where these two bodies of water meet, dangerous rip currents are formed when the powerful Atlantic waves crash over the much shallower shoals and bars of the Sound. French explorers labeled the area as Cape Malabar - "Cape of Evil Bars."
Despite all of the inherent dangers brought forth by the bars and rip currents, the area around Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean was one of the most active in New England due to the regional shipping routes of Boston, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
One of the first villages to be formed on Monomoy was called Whitewash Village around 1710. It was a small fishing community centered on a deep harbor, which today is a shallow pond called Powder Hole.
The first navigational aid at Monomoy came in the form of an old couple that lived in a shanty on Sim's Knoll. An 1864 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine had the following account:
"Eighty years ago," said a Monomoy Pointer, "we had no light-house here. But in a shanty up there on Sims's Knoll (it's gone now and the sea's more'n a quarter 'f a mile inside), there lived an old couple who used to answer the purpose pretty well. One or the other would come out on the risin' above the water whenever any vessel was passing by into the Sound, and would pint out the course and the marks. Channel ran pretty close inshore for schooners, and so on, and so mostways 'twan't hard to hear."
This would serve until November 1, 1823 when Monomoy would receive its first lighthouse. On March 3 of that year, Congress appropriated $3,000 to establish the aid to navigation. The act provided, "That the Secretary of the Treasury be empowered to provide, by contract, for building a light-house on Monomoy Point, in the State of Massachusetts, and also, to agree for the salaries, wages, or hire, of the persons to be appointed by the President for the superintendence of the same; Provided, That no moneys shall be expended in erecting such light-house until the jurisdiction to such portions of land as the President shall select as the site of the same shall be ceded to, and the property thereof vested in, the United States."
To establish the location, the U.S. Government purchased a four-acre parcel of land on the southern tip of Monomoy in an area known as Sandy Point.
The Collector of Customs, who also served as the local inspector or lighthouses in Boston contracted with James B. Gill of Hingham to build the lighthouse and dwelling at Monomoy Point. He constructed a 34 by 20 foot, side-gabled, one-story, two-room brick dwelling set over a cellar. On the northwest side of the dwelling was a 12 by 14 foot kitchen which gave the structure an L-shape.
The light tower, which the keeper would reach the lantern via steps from the attic and scuttle door, was an octagonal wooden frame stretching 16 feet above the house walls, topped off with an iron lantern. The lantern, doors, and tower window were painted white, while the dome of the lantern was painted black.
Inside the lantern was a patented Winslow Lewis lamp and reflector system. Eight lamps arranged in a circle where backed by 13-inch reflectors and rendered a fixed white light. Contractor James B. Gill also constructed an outhouse and a brick cistern.
Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender visited the location in 1838 while reporting on many Massachusetts Lighthouses. He reported the following:
Monomoy light - This memorable light stands on Sandy point, eight miles from Chatham, a long, low beach that reaches off right into the very heart of the whole coasting navigation, and requires to be lighted, perhaps, more conspicuously than any other part or point in the district. This light, on the keeper's dwelling, elevated only 25 feet above the level of the sea, has but a single series of lamps, while almost every other light in the district (most of them more elevated and interior to this) has a double. I acquainted myself with the reputation of this light, and found it perfectly satisfactory and good. I myself saw this light from Nantucket, 15 feet above the level of the sea, a distance of 13 miles.
By 1842, the station was in poor condition. The report of I.W.P. Lewis states that the "whole establishment requires rebuilding" and he stressed in his report, the importance of the lighthouse:
This is one of the most important locations on the coast of the United States. Thousands of vessels pass here annually, amid the numerous and very dangerous shoals that obstruct the navigation. The light originally stood within sixty yards of the beach; now it is five hundred yards distant therefrom, owing to the alteration of the sands; and vessels frequently get ashore directly abreast of the light, which is the worst on the coast of Massachusetts, saving and excepting its next neighbor, Nantucket light, which is equally bad.
This point of land has received an accession of several hundred yards from the sea, making it probable that, in the course of a few years, when the land shall have formed a little higher, it will be advisable to remove this light farther to the southward.
The report contains a statement from Solomon Doane, the keeper of Monomoy Point Lighthouse dated September 28, 1842. In his statement, he comments on the walls being cracked in several places causing leaks, the lantern shaking during storms causing the glass to crack, worn out reflectors, the kitchen chimney leaking, as well as many other complaints.
By the late 1840s, it was apparent that a new station was needed for Monomoy. For some reason, two separate Collectors of Customs, one out of Boston, the other out of Edgartown contracted with two entities to construct the new light station.
Pelham Bonney was contracted in October 1848 to build a new wood-framed keeper's dwelling and brick cellar. Cyrus Alger & Co. out of Boston was contracted to construct a new cast iron lighthouse and lantern. The decision to use cast iron at this point in history was very unusual, as it had only been used several times previous. The first use was at Boston's Long Island Head in 1844. Next was Vermont's Juniper Island in 1846, and then Mississippi's Biloxi Lighthouse in 1848.
Many speculate that the use of iron was selected as it would be better able to handle the windswept point. Frequent and powerful winds would often blow the sand away from the 1823 tower leading to an exposed foundation and the possibility of it being undermined.
Constructed was a 40-foot cast iron tower erected upon a brick foundation and a wood-framed dwelling of nearly identical dimensions as the 1823 keeper's house, the only exception was an added half-story. Both buildings were complete by December of 1849.
The illuminating apparatus installed in the tower was most likely a modified version of the Winslow Lewis lamp and reflector system. The Lighthouse Board had recommended, due to the importance of the station relative to traffic in the area, that the tower be equipped with a second-order Fresnel lens.
A report dated July 27, 1850 stated that the following:
This is a new establishment altogether - an iron light-house, a wooden dwelling, and a new fashionable apparatus. The workmanship to the light-house, I presume, is good, but it is neither large enough, nor high enough, nor stiff enough; for I can take hold with one hand of any part of the lantern and shake it to such a degree as to break the tube glasses on the lamps.
In 1857, several changes came to the station. To increase its stability, it was lined with brick. The other change to take place that year was an upgrade to its lighting apparatus. The Lighthouse Board widely adopted the use of the Fresnel lens and proceeded to upgrade most towers throughout the 1850s. The Monomoy Point Lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1857 which was produced by Henri Lepaute of Paris, France.
Around 1850, the fishing community of Whitewash Village reached its peak with nearly 200 residents. In the early 1860s, a storm rolled through the area which caused the sands to shift. The harbor at Whitewash Village filled in, turning it into a shallow brackish pond.
In 1871, the Lighthouse Board recommended upgrading the tower to a second-order Fresnel lens. One of the main purposes of the Monomoy Point Lighthouse was to guide vessels into Stage Harbor to the north, but most of the harbor was silted in rendering it useless. However, since most vessels traversing between New York and points east had to pass by Monomoy Point, the Lighthouse Board still considered the lighthouse useful and recommended that it be upgraded.The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1871 had the following entry:
Monomoy Point - The light at this station, which is of the fourth order, on a tower about 40 feet high, was originally intended as a guide to Old Stage Harbor. The harbor has been filled with sand, and cannot now be entered, and the light is therefore of no further use for that purpose. But, inasmuch as nearly all vessels (both steamers and sailing) plying between New York and the eastern ports pass this point, and have no other guide than the light-ships, which cannot be seen a sufficient distance, it is considered a matter of the greatest importance that this light should be replaced by one of sufficient power to guide vessels safely through this intricate passage. For this purpose there is recommended a second-order fixed light, varied by red flashes, for which an estimate is submitted.
The Lighthouse Board would make the same recommendation for the next three years; however, Monomoy Point would never be upgraded.
Several changes would come in 1881. The tower received two coats of paint; some glass was replaced, as well as a few other things. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following descriptive entry:
96. Monomoy Point, on the beach, southern extremity of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - The exterior of the light-tower was repainted, and two panes of glass were set in the lantern. A new shed was erected and a new covered way was built, with two rooms - one a work-room, with a bench for lamps, the other for a summer kitchen. The boat-ways were almost wholly rebuilt and various minor repairs were made.
The following year, the Monomoy Point Lighthouse received its unique red paint, which was to improve its purpose as a day-mark.
In 1889, the Lighthouse Board decided to take care of some exterior issues. They replaced the wooden decking surrounding the lighthouse with spruce planks, and added about 100 feet of fencing designed to catch sand. The following year a 25-foot deep well was drilled.
The severe winds at Monomoy Point continued buffeting the lighthouse. In an effort to reinforce the free-standing tower, iron trusses were added. Prior to the addition of iron trusses, bracing was implemented with guy wires anchored to sunken timbers. The entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1892 tells of the work performed:
108. Monomoy Point, southern extremity of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - Six iron trusses were provided and attached to the tower to prevent vibration. Various repairs were made.
Monomoy Point with iron trusses.
That same year, part of the Lighthouse Board's recommendation from 1871 was employed. To enhance navigation in the area, a fixed red sector was added between the bearings W. 1/4 S. and W. 7/8 N on May 25, 1892.
Many lighthouses in the late 1800s were changed over to burn the more efficient kerosene, sometimes called mineral oil. Kerosene was cheaper to produce and didn't involve the slaughter of animals as whale oil did. The downside to this fuel was its volatility.
Where whale oil was commonly stored at the base of the tower or in a cellar, the Lighthouse Board recommended that kerosene be stored in a separate shed or oil house. These structures were commonly located several hundred feet from the tower and other structures for safety. The Monomoy Point station received an oil shed in 1894.
In the name of national defense, a telephone line was installed at the station in 1898. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
136. Monomoy Point, on Monomoy Beach, the southern extremity of Cape Cod, Massachusetts - A telephone line was built by contract to connect the station with Monomoy Life-Saving Service station, under the appropriation for national defense.
By the turn of the century, the keeper's dwelling nearing 50 years old and was showing its age. An inspection by Major William Stanton, engineer for the 2nd Lighthouse District, revealed that many of the boards were rotted and the dwelling was hard to heat due to a "useless hall" separating two rooms. Major Stanton made recommendations dated July 1899 suggesting that the upper chambers be reconfigured, fireplaces be removed and replaced with coal stoves, and the addition of direct hot water heat. He also recommended changes to the roof including dormers, a bathroom in the covered walkway, and the addition of some Victorian details.
The Lighthouse Board acted on Major Stanton's request and asked Congress for an appropriation of $2,600. The following year, changes were made to the keeper's dwelling which included renewing and rearranging the lower story.
It appears that funding was not as requested or never came, so the Lighthouse Board acted on only portions of Stanton's plan. They implemented many of the recommendations he made, but passed on others. Due to the costly nature, alterations to the roof line were not made. And while Victorian details added character to the dwelling, they served little purpose and added to construction costs, so they were skipped.
The Cape Cod Canal opened in 1914. No longer would vessels have to go into the open Atlantic Ocean past the dreaded bars and round Monomoy Point. They could easily pass through the Cape Cod Canal into the relatively protected waters of Buzzards Bay, and continue to their destination.
In 1923, changes were made to the Chatham Lighthouse several miles to the north. One of the twin lighthouses was moved further up the Cape to Nauset and would become the Nauset Beach Lighthouse. The remaining tower at Chatham had its power boosted to compensate.
To create a safe passage through Pollock Rip, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the area creating the Pollock Rip Channel. This work negated the need for the Pollock Rip Lightship (LV-47), and the Monomoy Point Lighthouse. Both were discontinued on February 17, 1923, saving the government $26,269 annually.
Although from government records, it appears that the Pollock Rip Lightship would not stay decommissioned very long. Light Vessel 73 would serve for a year until LV-110 took over in 1924. Several other vessels would serve the location until the last ship; Light Vessel 114 (WAL-536) would take over in 1958. It would remain on location until 1969.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service removed the Fourth-order Fresnel lens and the property was sold George Dunbar of Chatham for $500. The property changed hands several times, eventually being sold to a Chatham car dealer named George Smith Bearse whose great-grandfather David Bearse was once a keeper at Monomoy Point.
During World War II, the light station was used for target practice. Pilots would fire machine guns at the lighthouse and dwelling, while practicing bombing at the Air Force Gunnery Range. This facility was operational from 1944 through 1950, and it is unclear if the lighthouse was privately owned at that time.
In 1944, North Monomoy, South Monomoy, and a portion of Morris Island were merged to form the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased the property in 1964, and it came under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s.
The station received some restoration work in 1988 by K & K Painting of Baltimore, Maryland. The group painted the tower, re-sided the dwelling, rebuilt wooden decking, and replaced windows and doors, as well as a staircase to the cellar.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded Monomoy Point $1.5 million via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Of the two contractors bidding on the work, the lowest bid was by Campbell Construction of Peabody, Massachusetts at $2.1 million.
Due to laborious access to the island, the bids came in higher than expected; therefore work had to be scaled back. The revised bid of $1.24 million included replacement glass panes in the lantern, masonry and structural work on the lighthouse, and a new roof, siding, and windows for the keeper's dwelling. Other work included wiring the dwelling for electricity and radiant heat to protect the wood inside.
Future work, should the money be raised, would include a 15-kilowatt wind turbine to provide electricity for the dwelling.
The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is a popular location for birds, with as many as 300 species having been spotted there. Gray seals recently have been calling Monomoy home.
Directions: This lighthouse sits on Monomoy Island. There is a ferry service (Monomoy Island Ferry Service) that offers wildlife tours to the island, which include a stop over at the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ground open. Tower Closed.View more Monomoy Point Lighthouse pictures