Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-02-17.
The island of Nantucket has been occupied since the mid-1650s. It was originally part of the New York Colony until 1692 when it was transferred over to the Bay Colony of Massachusetts by an act of parliament. The first town on the island, called Sherburne, was settled on the north shore, but later had its name changed to Nantucket in 1795.
The settlers to the island provided for themselves by farming the land and hunting small game. They eventually took to the water and augmented their diet with the abundant fish that were native to the waters surrounding the island.
Occasionally a whale would drift ashore, and the islanders would harvest it. What they found was that the quantity and quality the oil from the big beast was unmatched. By the early 1700s, the men from the island began to organize voyages to the deeper parts of the ocean in search of the whales. Over the next one-hundred-and-fifty years, the island of Nantucket would be the whaling capital of the world.
Many businesses popped up on the island to support the whaling industry. By the middle 1700s, new larger whaling ships were being constructed that could harvest the whales out at sea. More and more vessels began calling the island home.
By 1784, the island had two lighthouses, one at Brant Point and one at Great Point. Great Point marked the northern tip of the island while Brant Point marked the harbor. This left the rest of the island largely unmarked despite an increase in maritime traffic in the area and the presence of dangerous shoals to the southeast of the island.
As early as 1838, mariners began calling for a lighthouse on the bluff near Sankaty Head. An article in The Boston Post written by someone calling himself "A Sailor" was as follows:
"There is a passage inside South Shoal, near Sankaty Head, deep enough for the largest ships to pass - sounding five fathoms. Now, the difficulty to us is that we have no directions to govern us in going through this passage, except some vague ones in Blunt's Coast Pilot. None of these directions would answer for the night time. What the mariner wants is the outside passage surveyed and a lighthouse placed on Sankaty Head, Nantucket Island. It would help coming up the coast and going down, and, for those utilizing the inside route, a saving of 24 hours would be made. Having the lighthouse would mark a place of refuge for any ship running into a strong westerly, which might anchor under the lee of the high shore at Sankaty."
Several years later, I.W.P. Lewis, a civil engineer was tasked with reporting on the conditions of the lighthouses, beacons, and buoys along the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts in 1842. Although there was no lighthouse at Sankaty Head, Lewis called attention to the location:
There is another still more fatal spot upon the coast Massachusetts, where many a brave heart and many a gallant ship lie buried in one common grave. The shoals of Nantucket are known and dreaded by every navigator on the Atlantic seaboard; and among the great number of "missing vessels" recorded at the insurance offices, there are doubtless many that have been swallowed up in these quicksands...An accurate and detailed hydrographical survey of all these shoals, as also of numerous others lying north of same island, is of vital importance to our foreign and coasting navigation...A more important measure, however, is the erection of a first class light-house upon the highlands near Siasconsett, and it is really very remarkable that this most striking omission in the lighting of our sea coast has not before been observed...the establishment of a light-house at Siasconsett would be more generally useful to the commerce of the United States than any other position on the seaboard.
In 1847, a survey of Nantucket shoals was carried out by Lieutenant Commanding Charles H. Davis, U.S. Navy, and led to the discovery of many uncharted shoals. To rectify the findings, the superintendent of the Coast Survey recommended the construction of a lighthouse.
Congress complied with the request by appropriating $12,000 on August 14, 1848. The following year, a ten-acre plot of land was purchased from George Myrick for $250 in May 1849. Civil engineer Benjamin F. Isherwood was hired to oversee the construction of the Sankaty Head Lighthouse.
By the summer of 1849, brick, granite, and other building supplies were delivered by schooner to Nantucket Harbor and were then hauled up to the bluff at Siasconset. Contractor Cabot King of Hingham, Massachusetts constructed a 53-foot conical tower and a story-and-a-half keeper's dwelling at a cost of $10,333.
Atop the 53-foot tower was an additional six feet of granite on which a nine-foot-tall cast-iron lantern was placed. To ensure the tower's stability, it was erected on a five-foot-deep foundation. Soon after construction, the tower received its unique paint scheme - white with a broad red central band.
The story-and-a-half keeper's dwelling was constructed of brick and located adjacent to the lighthouse. The dwelling and the tower were connected which allowed access during inclement weather. A barn was built to the south of the keeper's dwelling and the property was fenced in on three sides.
Outfitted within the lantern was a second-order Fresnel lens constructed by Henry Lepaute of Paris. The lens, at a cost of $10,000 required additional appropriations of $6,000 in 1848 and $2,000 in 1850 to go along with the remainder of the $12,000 appropriated for the tower. Benjamin F. Isherwood traveled to France to purchase the lens, and oversaw the installation in the tower himself.
The Sankaty Head lighthouse Lighthouse was the first lighthouse in Massachusetts to include a Fresnel lens at the time of construction. Prior to that, most Fresnel lenses were retrofitted into the existing tower.
Alexander D. Bunker, the first keeper assigned to the Sankaty Head Lighthouse exhibited the light from the Carcel lamp for the first time on the night of February 1, 1850. Although government documents state that he had no previous experience as a keeper and had no instructions on how to run the lighthouse other than those left Benjamin Isherwood, they go on to praise his abilities.
The principal light-keeper at this station has no other instructions to guide him in the performance of his duties than those written out for him by the officer who superintended the placing of the apparatus...The keeper to this light-house is a man of far greater intelligence than the light-keepers generally in this and other countries, but the successful manner in which he has managed it, without previous instruction, goes far to prove the necessity for employing just such persons in all our sea-coast lights.
Principal keeper Alexander D. Bunker was assigned two assistant keepers; however, due to the lack of additional quarters, they were force to reside off the station "to the detriment of the service."
Several years later, after the formation of the U.S. Lighthouse Board, a comprehensive report was issued on the use of Fresnel lens and the brilliancy of the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The Fresnel lens earned the Sankaty Head Lighthouse the nickname the "Blazing Star of Nantucket."
This lens is acknowledged universally, so far as could be ascertained, to be, if not the best light in point of brilliancy and power, greatly superior to all others (except, perhaps, those on the highlands of Navesink, New Jersey,) on the entire coast of the United States.
The Navesink Lighthouses in New Jersey were the first lighthouses in the United States to employ the French-designed Fresnel lenses. Both towers received the lenses in 1841. Installed in the north tower was a first-order Fresnel while the south tower received a revolving second-order lens.
In 1853, the Collector and Superintendent of Lighthouses, District of Nantucket Eben W. Allen wrote to the Secretary of the Lighthouse Board requesting additional quarters for the assistant keeper:
The assistant keeper at Sankaty head is at present subjected to a daily travel of about seven miles, in consequence of the incapacity of the present dwelling at that station to accomodate more than the principal keeper and his family; this, in the winter season, is not only an arduous task to perform, but is attended with great inconvenience to the keeper, as the daily absence of the assistant from the station is necessarily considerable.
It would take another two years, but in 1855, an assistant keeper's dwelling was constructed at the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. A year prior, Keeper Alexander D. Bunker, a retired sea captain, was put in command of the Nantucket New South Shoal Lightship, which was anchored 23 miles southeast of Nantucket on Old South Shoal. The First Assistant Keeper, Samuel G. Swain, was appointed Principal Keeper.
Many contributing factors would lead to a decline in use of the Nantucket Harbor. Kerosene would become more readily available and cost effective leading to a decline in the whaling industry, the Great Fire of 1846 would decimate nearly 300 homes on the island, and the other whaling ports, notably New Bedford and Salem had access to newly constructed railroads.
Those factors wouldn't spell disaster for Nantucket. Over the years, the island would reinvent itself as a popular vacation resort again leading to an increase in vessel traffic. Much like today with lighthouses as a tourist draw, the same was true back in the 1800s.
Not only would lighthouse keepers have to perform their duties all night long, many would have to entertain visitors during the day allowing them to enjoy the view from the lantern and of the second-order lens. The Nantucket Mirror dated October 25, 1856 had the following notice:
"The narrow aperture on the platform under the lantern at Sankaty lighthouse has been widened to allow ladies with hoop skirts to pass through to see the reflectors."
A myriad of repairs were carried out in 1868. An iron sink, cistern pump, and lead pipe were supplied to the station, lantern work included repairs to the dome ventilator and Fresnel lens. The following year, many other repairs were conducted:
73. Sankaty Head - Eight panes of lantern glass, cut too large, and not properly bedded, long since cracked, and recently opened by action of rust in astragals, have been renewed, and a spare pane supplied; and all the requisite small repairs made, and supplies furnished. The lantern deck does not afford sufficient space outside the lantern for safe and convenient footing for the keepers in cleaning the glass, &c., and, instead of the usual lower mullions, the lantern has a flat ring of iron resting on the deck. This has become rusty, and the lower panes of glass are obscured during rain-storms, by spattering from the deck. The lower zone of the lens is sufficiently high above the plane of the deck to admit of measures to effectually remedy the defect, by putting an annular cast-iron deck around it, having flanges to inclose the posts, mullion sills to receive the glass, and a suitable balustrade.
By 1874, both the tower and the dwelling were in need of extensive repairs. Documents state that the tower was in need of a new lantern. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board that year had the following entry:
95. Sankaty Head, on east side of Nantucket, Mass. - The interior plastering of the keeper's dwelling has been repaired, a new floor laid in the addition, sinks repaired, cellar-stairs renewed, roof repaired and new saddle-boards put on, the exterior walls of the brick and the trimmings and window-sash of the wooden buildings repainted, and the fences about the premises rebuilt. These repairs were paid for from the general appropriation for repairs.
A few years later, in 1878, the assistant keeper's dwelling was repaired. Work continued through the years, and by 1881, the lantern was repaired. New iron stairs and a ladder were installed in 1883 as well as much other work detailed by the entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:
100. Sankaty Head, on the southeast extremity of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts - In the passage-way to the light-tower a new floor was laid and painted. The back-door platform and the cellar stairs were renewed. The drain-pipes from both dwellings and the cesspool were renewed. The sills and floors of the barn were relaid, the roof and one side were reshingled, and various other minor repairs were made. Mineral oil was substituted for lard oil, and lamps for burning the former were put in during November, 1882.
In November 1885, a telegraph line was run to the island of Nantucket. The following year, the U.S. Government Signal Station extended a line from their office at the Pacific Club building to the Sankaty Head Lighthouse and installed telephones in both the lighthouse and the Surfside Life Saving Station. They were later run to the Great Point Lighthouse and the Coskata Life Saving Station as well.
Sankaty Head Lighthouse (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
In order to utilize the Sankaty Head Lighthouse as a signal station, a 50-foot flagpole was erected on the bluff. The keeper would then display different flags to relay weather information. The system went into effect on December 30, 1886.
The year 1888 would see a lot of work done at the station. First, the "unsightly and dilapidated dwellings" built in 1849 were torn down. Erected in their place was a double wood-frame dwelling at a cost of $6,700. Later that year, major work on the tower was undertaken.
The top half of the tower, the lantern and watchroom were removed. As the tower was being reconstructed, its height was increased to 70 feet. When completed, a new iron watch room and lantern were installed. While the work on the tower was in progress, a light was exhibited from a fourth-order Fresnel lens mounted atop a skeletal tower.
In 1890, a survey was conducted of the lighthouse and buildings and all boundaries were marked by stone posts or copper bolts. That same year, an oil house was listed as needed in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board. Two years later the order was complied with and an oil house measuring 8'6" by 8'6" was constructed.
Access to the station was over private property via an unimproved road. Starting in 1896, the owner of the private property rescinded access unless improvements were made to the road. The Lighthouse Board estimated that the work could be completed for $300 and recommended an appropriation be made. It would take a few years, but in 1898 an improved road was established to the station for a public town road.
On November 26-27, 1898, Nantucket Island was hit by the "Portland Gale," a ferocious storm that brought 90-MPH winds and caused damage all over the island. Damage to the station included a chimney blown down, cracks in walls, and all fencing surrounding the station being destroyed.
In 1902, a well for fresh water was driven and the fencing surround the station was repaired. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1902 had the following entry:
150. Sankaty Head, on the southeast part of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts - A well for supplying the station with fresh water was driven. A new boundary fence was built and the road leading from the town road to the station marked with cedar posts 100 feet apart. The barn was repaired.
The station was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor lamp in 1912 and then upgraded to electric in 1933. At this time, the light's characteristic was upgraded to a white flash every 12 seconds. The original clockwork and weights to rotate the massive Fresnel lens were removed at that time, replaced by an electric motor. The assistant keeper position was done away with as well.
Although the newly electrified Sankaty beacon was rated to be visible for 25 miles, many have reported seeing it as far away as 45 miles. It was reported by Captain Grant, master of the San Bias that he sighted the flash at 45 miles off the island.
Several years later, Captain Mosher of the South Shoals Lightship had reported via radio to the Superintendent of Lighthouses that he had noticed a constant flash in the area. A search of the area was conducted for an apparent runaway gas buoy, but none was found. A few days later after he spotted the flash again, they realized that the flash characteristic matched that of the Sankaty Head Lighthouse some 43 miles away.
The second-order Fresnel lens was removed from service in August 1950, replaced by a modern rotating aerobeacon rated at 900,000 candlepower. The original Fresnel lens was put on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
The 1888 double keeper's dwelling was knocked down in 1953, replaced by a barracks-style house. Although the station was automated in 1965, Coast Guard personnel continued utilizing the housing until 1992.
The Coast Guard had tripled the candlepower in 1970 to 3.2 million. During this process, the original lantern was damaged and left off leaving the beacon exposed to the elements. Residents and visitors alike complained, and soon thereafter, a new aluminum lantern was installed.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. That same year, the Army Corps of Engineers had estimated that within ten years the tower would be in danger of being lost due to erosion of the bluff and recommended the tower be moved. The estimated cost of the move was $840,000.
Three years later, concerned citizens formed a group calling themselves "Save Our Sankaty" and began to raise money for the move by selling bumper stickers labeled with "SOS." Legislation drafted in 1994 allowed the lighthouse to be transferred to the Nantucket Historical Association; however, they declined to take on the project.
Many erosion control methods were attempted over the years with mixed results which delayed the move. A blizzard in 2005 worsened the situation leaving the tower a mere 80 feet from the bluff's edge.
The Sconset Trust took over the preservation efforts and applied for ownership of the lighthouse. As the law was written to transfer the lighthouse to the Nantucket Historical Society, the NHA had to act as a middleman, take ownership, and then transfer the tower to the Sconset Trust.
International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, New York was hired to move the structure. The company, along with their subcontractor, Export House Movers had moved several other historic lighthouses over the years, including the Highland (Cape Cod), Block Island Southeast, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouses.
Worked started in May of 2007 to prepare for the move later that year in October. After all of the preliminary work, the tower move was started on October 1. By October 11, 2007, the Sankaty Head Lighthouse was moved 390-feet to the northwest and sat 250-feet from the bluff. The new location is next to the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course.
The following year on October 11 and 12, 2008, an open house was held allowing the public to see the tower at its newly landscaped location. The tower remains an active aid to navigation and is only open on special occasions.
Directions: This lighthouse is located on the eastern end of Nantucket Island. To get to Nantucket, take one of the ferries. Once on the island, the dock will let you off at Broad Street. Follow Broad Street up 6 blocks to Centre Street. Make a left onto Centre Street, and head south. Centre will do a quick jog, and change names to Orange Street. Continue on Orange Street to the rotary. Once in the rotary, you will pick up Milestone Road. Follow Milestone Road 6.5 miles to the end. Make a left (head north) onto Shell Road. This will change names to Sankaty Lane and Sankaty Ave. Follow this north to Bayberry Lane. Turn right onto Bayberry, follow this to the end, and then make a left onto Baxter. Continue north for about .5 miles to the Sankaty Head Lighthouse.
Access: The tower is owned by the Sconset Trust and is closed as it is an active aid to navigation. The grounds are open for visiting.View more Sankaty Head Lighthouse pictures