One of the busiest shipping areas in the 1700's was
the passage between Nantucket and the mainland.
The route between Great Point (or Sandy Point, as it was known)
was one of the most hazardous. In 1770, residents of Nantucket
formed a committee to persuade the General Court of Massachusetts
to build a lighthouse at Great Point. They later sent a local
representative to "use his influence" to gain support
for the lighthouse.
In 1784, a total of 1389 pounds was allocated for construction
of the lighthouse. The first Great Point Light (also known as Nantucket Light)
was built in 1785. The original wooden tower initially had no keeper's house at the site -
the keeper had to travel seven miles across the barrier beach to and from the
The first keeper was Captain Paul Pinkham. Pinkham was initially paid $166.66 a year -
a figure later increased due to the hardships of maintaining the station.
Eventually a residence was built near the station.
Keeper Pinkham resupplied the station by driving a horse and cart to Coatue,
across from the town of Nantucket, left his horse in a shed he had constructed
at the beach, and rowed across the channel into town.
During his time at the light, Pinkham created the first accurate chart of the nearby
shoals. This chart proved invaluable to mariners. Pinkham presided at Great Point
when responsibility for the station was turned over to the Federal Government in 1789.
In 1795, thieves stole keeper Pinkham's boat and used it to rob the Nantucket Bank.
Keeper Pinkham died in 1799, and was replaced by George Swain.
Jonathan Coffin, the next keeper, was forced to resume the long trek
to the light when a fire destroyed the keeper's residence in 1812.
Coffin petitioned directly to the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin,
and was granted hardship pay for the arduous journey.
The original tower was destroyed by fire in November 1816 - arson was suspected,
but never proven. Due to the importance of the location, $7500 was quickly allocated
for a new lighthouse. A temporary wooden skeleton light tower was installed
during construction. The stone tower was completed in early 1818 for $7385.12.
The tower was 60 feet tall, and whitewashed for greater visibility.
The 14 lamps were visible 11 miles away.
The keeper's house was not replaced until 1825, when
a new stone structure was built with a covered walkway to the lighthouse.
Several major renovations took place during the light's history.
In 1857, a third-order Fresnel lens was installed
An assistant keeper's house was added, and the
tower lined with brick. The lantern room was replaced in 1861.
The residences were replaced with a new double-keeper's dwelling in 1889.
The presence of the lighthouse failed to prevent shipwrecks. Between
1863 and 1890 there were 43 wrecks off Great Point.
Mariners were apparently unable to distinguish Great Point
with the Cross Rip an Handkerchief lightships - all fixed lights.
The problem was finally remedied in 1889 when a red panel was placed
in the lantern room at Great Point to mark the Cross Rip Shoal area.
Great Point Light was automated in the 1950's. The keeper's residence
was boarded up. On October 23, 1966, a suspicious fire burned the
keeper's residence to the ground. In 1971, the Fresnel lens was replaced
with a modern optic. As time passed, erosion
brought the sea closer and closer to the lighthouse.
While there was much discussion on how to save the tower,
nothing was done, nor was the funding available. In 1981, the Coast
Guard estimated moving the lighthouse would cost $450,000.
Some maintenance did occur - in November 1983, the Coast Guard
repainted and refurbished the tower.
The preservation efforts were too late.
On March 29, 1984, the lighthouse was destroyed in a hurricane-force storm.
No one learned of the collapse until the following morning, when the
point was seen from the air.
The storm also created a break in the barrier beach, temporarily turning
Great Point into an island.
When the Coast Guard proposed placing a skeleton tower at the point,
the islanders vetoed the proposal. To maintain the historical
character of the island, a replica of the 1818 tower was built.
The new tower was erected three hundred yards west of the previous tower.
It was 70 feet tall, and used exterior rubblestone from the 1818 light.
The inner core was reinforced concrete, and the interior lined with brick.
The tower foundation was sunk 35 feet below ground.
An aluminum spiral staircase was installed, and the modern optic powered
by solar panels. The red sector was also replaced.
The cost of the new light was $1 million, and was funded by an
amendment to the Continuing Resolution of 1817, which appropriated
funds for the 1818 light.
The new tower was lit on September 6, 1986, and remains an active aid to navigation.
Nantucket Lights, Butler pp. 43-64
Lighthouses of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - Their History and Lore, Clark pp. 146-151
The Lighthouses of New England, Snow pp. 278-284, 286
Massachusetts Lighthouses - A Pictorial Guide, Thompson pp. 106-107
Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations Along the Massachusetts Coast, Claflin p. 103
New England Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones p. 75
Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Roberts and Jones pp. 71