history of the Chatham Lighthouses is a long, fascinating and
complex one. Many changes have taken place in both the shoreline
and lighthouse structures of Chatham since the first American
settlements. Since shipping along the coast has long been menaced
by shoals, these settlers realized the need for lighthouses very
early in their colonization. Many were built along the northeastern
coast of the North American continent, the twin lights of Chatham
being among them. Little did they realize that three sets of lights
would be erected because of the destructive forces of the waters
upon the shoreline. The Atlantic Ocean eventually took its toll
on these structures; only one set of lights remains in existence
today. Sadly, no physical evidence remains of the first two twin
sets of lights.
The first lights were constructed in 1808 on the bluff called
James' Head. In order that sailors could differentiate the Chatham
from the Highland Light [Truro], twin lights were erected at Chatham.
The constructor who erected Chatham's first light had trouble
before his work started. His plan was to build it out of nearby
stones; he did not know about the scarcity of stones on Cape Cod.
Realizing his predicament, he set out to get the stones elsewhere,
but found himself unable to transport them to the construction
site. He finally reported on June 26, 1806: "There are no
stones to be had so the Lights will have to be made of wood.
In 1808 the 43-foot high octagonal shaped wooden towers
were completed on James' Head. They were placed 70 feet apart.
Between the towers a 17' x 26' Keepers dwelling was constructed.
The lights were fixed in character, and an 81/2' reflector backed
six oil lamps in each light. Interestingly, the lights were set
upon heavy wooden skids five feet from the ground, allowing for
mobility; however, it is reported that the structures only needed
to be moved once.
The completion of the station and lights was a grand occasion
in Chatham and on all of Cape Cod. After much celebration, a petition
with more than 125 names was forwarded to President Thomas Jefferson,
declaring Samuel Nye as overwhelming favorite for the position
as light keeper. On October 7, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson
appointed Samuel Nye as first Keeper of the Chatham Lights.
Joseph Loveland followed Samuel Nye, then came Samuel Stinson,
the third keeper. Samuel Stinson had a reputation for neglect
as Keeper, and in 1832 was finally warned about his neglect of
duty by the local superintendent. Stinson turned in his resignation
In 1841, a second set of 40-foot towers was built of brick
to replace the old wooden structures. The towers were fitted with
nine oil lamps each with 14' reflectors. Stephen Pleasanton, Fifth
Auditor of the Treasury, decided the Lights would be painted white
instead of whitewashed, as the wood structures had been. White
paint has been used on the towers ever since.
Collins Howes was appointed the new lights' first Keeper.
Howes was succeeded by Simeon Nickerson, who died in October of
1848. Nickerson's widow was then given the position of Keeper
of the Lights, a position she held until the mid-1850s.
A 4th order Fresnel lens replaced the reflectors in each
tower in 1857. The characteristic remained fixed. When Josiah
Hardy II became Keeper in 1872, he kept a diary of events. Hardy
served at the lights for a total of 28 years, and much detail
about his life as Keeper can be found in his diary recordings.
(Captain Hardy's diary is now the property of Robert and James
Hardy of Chatham.)
Although Josiah Hardy's diary recounts an astonishing number
of shipwrecks in the area, all apparently went well with the Lights
until the fall of 1870. At that time, the mainland extended far
beyond the lighthouses on James' Head. Below the banks were two
wharves where vessels would load and unload their cargoes.
On November 13, 1870, a storm of incredible magnitude hit
Chatham causing extreme high tides, growing higher by the hour
due to heavy rains and gales. The town grew anxious, and as fishermen
secured their boats, the people waited with mounting tension.
Suddenly the cry came: "The beach has broken through!"
Sure enough, water was rushing in around the pfles at Hardy's
The 1870 nor'easter marked the beginning of the end for
the town's second set of twin lights. After this storm, James'
Head bluff quickly began to wash away, and the towers were endangered.
Before the 1870 storm, the Lights stood 228 feet from the
edge of the bank. Hardy's diary records the gradual but insistent
wearing away of the lighthouse bank. Four years after the 1870
storm, he writes: 'November 23, 1874, a day of storms, ushered
in by a northeast wind and high course of tides." He notes
also that the lighthouse bank did not fare well as a result of
this storm, with more of the shoreline plummeting into the sea.
Other entries recorded soon after reveal the slow but sure
erosion of the lighthouse bank: December 1874 - 'The distance
was measured today. From the edge of the bank to the foot of South
Tower is 190 feet." He says that 38 feet in width have been
cut off since 1870. November 15, 1875 - "The fourth anniversary
of the breaking through of the beach; it has washed away on an
average of 50 feet a year opposite the house of Capt. Josiah Hardy
and abreast of the Lights just 3 1 feet a year." On April
25, 1877, it was decided to build a new set of lighthouses and
keeper's dwelling, this time on the west side of the road. These
towers, built of a brick lined cast iron shell, were 100 feet
apart and 42 feet high. On September 6, 1877, the lenses from
the old towers were moved to the new ones, and that night they
were lighted. At that time the lamps burned lard oil. On June
18, 1878, the government supply boat, Myrtle, landed two barrels
of kerosene and fixtures for its burning. The lanterns were equipped
with these, and on the night of July 4, 1878, kerosene was burned
for the first time.
In 1879, an amazing discovery was made by schoolboys walking
along the shore. An easterly gale of great force had just swept
the coast, and the boys noticed that the underpinning of the old
lighthouse had entirely washed away to reveal clay pits, two to
three feet deep, in which they found several ancient coins. No
one knows for sure how the coins made their way under the foundation,
but local inhabitants believe that pirates buried their booty
there long before the tower was erected.The ocean continued to
take its toll on the land, and on Monday, December 13, 1879, at
1 P.M., the old South Tower toppled over the bank-just eight years
and one month since the harbor broke through. A little over a
year later, the cast side of the keeper's dwelling fell. 1881
marked the end for the second set of lighthouses, for on March
26 at 2:30 P.M. the old North Tower was claimed by Chatham's waters,
leaving only a cone-shaped piece standing on top.
In 1923, South Tower was equipped with a new Fresnel lens
of 20,000 candle power, burning oil vapor and flashing four times
every thirty seconds. On May 15 of the same year the North Tower
was moved to Nauset [Eastham] to replace a trio of lighthouses
affectionately called "The Three Sisters." This lighthouse
is still in existence today known as Nauset Light.
When the Coast Guard assumed all of the Lighthouse Society's
duties in 1939, an electric motor replaced the clockwork drive.
The lamp intensity was increased to 1,000 watts which illuminated
800,000 candle power. Another major change was made in the Chatham
Light in 1969, when high intensity, electric searchlights were
installed along with completely new housing. In 1987 (reminiscent
of 1870), the harbor broke through again, once more causing serious
erosion and damage to Chatham's shoreline and surrounding structures.
This break, directly across from the Light, has grown to a length
of over a mile in only a few years' time. During this period,
the town beach which the lighthouse towered over washed away,
and homes along the shoreline have fallen victim to the pounding
surf. Although the shore continues to slowly wash away and homes
are still imperiled, the lighthouse at present is not in any real
danger. This is largely due to the wise planning of those who,
back in 1877, thought it best to build it and the dwelling house
on the west side of the road.
Today, the South Tower, known as Chatham Light, still stands
alone. Now modernly equipped, it flashes its special characteristic
of two flashes every 10 seconds, rises 80' above the sea, and
can be seen from 28 nautical miles. The overlook, commonly called
James' Head Bluff in earlier days, is frequented each year by
tourists who wish to see both Chatham Light and the now-famous
Chatham Harbor breakthrough. The Chatham Coast Guard is housed
in what was once the Keeper's dwelling and it is here where a
watch over vessels is maintained.
Editor's note: Our thanks to the Chatham Coast
Guard for the use of History of Chatham Coast Guard by Daniel
R. Moreau, Seaman; Donna J. Charrette, Seaman; Kyle A. Santheson,
Boatswain Mate First Class. 1989. We regret we were unable to
print the manuscript as it was written. However Chatham Light's
long and interesting past could not be detailed within the confines
of this book; therefore, editing was necessary to accommodate
the available space. We hope, in the selected bits of information,
to introduce those who are unfamiliar with our area, an overview
of the dramatic history of Chatham Light.