In the 18th century, Nantucket was a major center for the local
whaling industry. The island's geography provided a natural
protected harbor for whaling vessels. The harbor entrance was
bordered by Coatue Beach to the east, and Brant Point to the west.
Mariners also needed to navigate past the Nantucket Bar, two
miles northwest of the harbor.
On January 24, 1746, at a town meeting at the village Sherburne (as the town of
Nantucket was known), 200 English pounds was appropriated for construction
of a lighthouse at Brant Point. Three men - Ebenezer Calef, Obed Hussey, and
Jabez Bunker - were chosen to care for the light. The town made it clear that
responsibility of maintaining the light fell to the ship owners.
A simple wooden structure placed at the point. The Brant Point light
was the second lighthouse built in the American Colonies, after
the light in Boston. The primitive structure served until it burned
down in 1757. Ignition of oil - either stored at the light or spilled from a
lamp - was the likely cause of the fire.
The second Brant Point light was built in 1758. In the historical novel
Miriam Cotton, author Joseph Hart described the light as
"a wooden contrivance of inappreciable ingenuity. In shape it was like
... the frustum of a cone ... without stanchions to secure it
permanently..." The light served until 1774, when it was destroyed
on March 9 by what may have been a tornado. The Massachusetts Gazette
reported "a most violent Gust of Wind that perhaps was ever known
there, but lasted only a minute. It seemed to come down in a narrow
Vein, and in its progress totally destroyed the Light-House..."
A new light was authorized less than three weeks later. The new wooden
light was supported by a "Light Money" tax of six
shillings on all vessels exceeding fifteen tons that entered or
exited the harbor - to be paid no more than once a year. Despite
resistance from ship captains, the General Court (legislative body)
of Massachusetts authorized the tax. The light survived the American
Revolution, but was extinguished at times to avoid aiding the British.
The whaling industry was hard-hit by the war. Fifteen Nantucket
ships were lost, and 134 captured. The lighthouse burned down in 1783.
Another simple light was constructed in 1784. The light was nicknamed a
"bug light" due to its weak signal - reminiscent of a lightning bug.
This light burned in 1786. A similar replacement in 1786 was destroyed by
a storm in 1788.
Another simple wooden tower was constructed in 1788. Despite complaints
from mariners, this light served Brant Point until 1825. In 1795 the
lighthouses of New England were ceded to the Federal Government and
placed under the Department of the Treasury. The light was extinguished again
during the War of 1812. In addition to providing a poor light, reliability
was a problem. According to the Nantucket Gazette,
in 1817 the owners of the Brig William Penn, which
had grounded on the bar, paid a visit to the lighthouse -
"where every lamp in the lighthouse was out. They proceeded to
the lamp-lighter's house and awoke him... this may serve as a caution
to Mariners how they place their dependence on the lights in their
By 1824, the light had deteriorated beyond repair, and
was condemned in 1825.
A new light was constructed in 1825. $1600 was appropriated for the
structure - a keeper's dwelling with a tower atop the dwelling.
The tower was lit with two tiers of lights - two on top and six
at the bottom. Behind each lamp was a parabolic reflector.
According to Lt. Edward Carpenter, who inspected the light in
1838, "The upper lamps are entirely superfluous, and may with perfect
propriety be suppressed." Reports by I.W.P. Lewis
and Keeper David Coffin stated that by 1843, the lighthouse was
in disrepair. The lighthouse rested
on cedar posts, and was not mounted to the foundation in any way -
a storm could carry the entire structure away. The oil was stored
in the basement, which was susceptible to flooding. The lantern room leaked,
which led to rust, condensation on the glass of the tower
(which obscured the light), and
the shattering of hot lamp glass when in contact with cool rain.
The lights and reflectors were also in poor condition.
However, it was not until 1856 that a more permanent lighthouse was built.
Numerous auxiliary lights and buoys have been placed near Brant Point.
The "Nantucket Beacon" was a range light which, when
aligned with the Brant Point light, guided ships into the harbor.
In the 1820's, a lamp atop a small keeper's hut served as the range
light. The range light moved or was rebuilt several times -
partially due to the state of the structure, and partially due to the
shifting sands of the harbor entrance. Today, a pair of range towers
built in 1908 still guide ships into the harbor.
In 1839 a pair of range lights were built above the Cliff area of
the town of Nantucket. These lights served to guide vessels past
the bar and into the harbor. The Cliff Range Beacons (nicknamed
"bug lights") were 1/2 a mile from the Brant Point light,
and had a separate keeper. The original lights were wooden and
obelisk-shaped. The lights displayed fixed lights - white for
the front, red for the rear. The lights were rebuilt as turret-shaped
towers by 1889. In 1908, a newly dredged channel made the Cliff
Range lights obsolete. The lights were purchased by Frank B.
Gilbreath, author of Cheaper by the Dozen, and moved to
his property on Nantucket. The small towers still stand,
and are visible from Jetties Beach.
In 1856, a new, permanent lighthouse was built. a 1853 report stated
that the 1825 tower was "completely rotted as to require reconstruction
with the least possible delay." $15,000 was appropriated.
A location was selected approximately 135 feet south of the previous site.
The new tower was built of brick laid in cement, with a cast-iron
lantern room. The lantern was 58 feet above the foundation, and
displayed a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The new tower was first lit on
December 10, 1856. The cast-iron lantern was replaced in 1895.
By this time, the whaling industry had all but disappeared from the island. The last
whaling ship left Nantucket in 1869. Nantucket evolved from a whaling
town to a tourist destination. The Nantucket Hotel was built near the point.
In 1887, the Federal Government notified the landowners near the point that
they were trespassing on federal land claimed when the property was originally
ceded to the government. A boundary fence was installed that blocked
access to the hotel, and ran through property lines. Some access was later
permitted in the summer during tourist season.
The locals sued the lighthouse keeper, Joseph Remsen, and the fence builder.
The case was not resolved until 1901, when the government decided that
the property in question was surplus. Five lots covering 5.9 acres was sold
to three local residents and the hotel.
By 1901, the shifting sands necessitated the construction of a new light
on the point, about 600 feet from the 1856 light.
The new lighthouse was a 26-foot wooden tower - the shortest
in New England. The lantern room was moved from the old light to the
new light, and the old tower capped. The new light was first lit
on January 31, 1901. The new location was subject to erosion,
so riprap was placed at the tower base in 1902 and again in 1922.
An oil house was constructed in 1904, and an electrically operated
fog tower installed in 1918, replacing the station
fog bell. The light was switched from white to red in 1933,
to avoid confusion with the town lights. The last civilian keeper,
Gerald Reed, served from 1927-1939, when the Coast Guard took over.
In 1948 the boathouse
from the Coskata Life Saving station was barged to the point and
placed just south of the lighthouse.
Today, Brant Point houses an automated modern optic.
The red light flashes every 4 seconds,
and is visible for 10 miles. The fog tower
is gone, but the 1904 oil house and Coskata boathouse
still stand, as well as the 1856 tower, which is used as an office and
radio room for the Brant Point Coast Guard Station. The fog bell
is on display in front of the 1856 tower. The 1908 range lights are
also adjacent to the 1856 tower. The Fresnel lens is on display at
the Nantucket Life Saving Museum.
Historic Nantucket Lighthouses: Brant Point, Claflin pp. 9-54
Nantucket Lights, Butler pp. 9-42
Lighthouses of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - Their History and Lore, Clark pp. 140-145
The Lighthouses of New England, Snow pp. 274-278, 286-287
Massachusetts Lighthouses - A Pictorial Guide, Thompson pp. 101-103
Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations Along the Massachusetts Coast, Claflin p. 111
New England Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 73, 75
Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Roberts and Jones pp. 68-69
19th Century Lights, Clifford pp. 58-59