Sankaty Head is a ninety-foot high bluff on the eastern shore of
Nantucket. The bluff gives a commanding view of the many dangerous
shoals offshore. By the mid-19th century, lighthouses had already been
established at Brant Point
and Great Point, but there was
nothing to aid vessels navigating the passage
near Sankaty Head. After Lt. Charles Davis of the US Navy discovered
a reef further out and more dangerous than other known shoals in 1847, he
recommended construction of a lighthouse.
In 1848, $18,000 was appropriated for construction of a lighthouse
at Sankaty Head. In May 1849 the government purchased 10 acres of land
from George Myrick for $250. Materials were brought into
Nantucket harbor and transported across the island to the construction site.
The 60-foot tower was painted white with a red
stripe to serve as a day mark. A single-family brick keeper's house was constructed
Sankaty Head lighthouse was the first US lighthouse to receive
a Fresnel lens as original equipment. A second-order lens was installed,
and the light lit on February 1, 1850. The US lighthouse establishment had been
slow to adapt the powerful Fresnel lenses, which had been first developed
in 1822 in France. The new lens made the Sankaty Head lighthouse the
most powerful light in New England. The "blazing star" - as
local fisherman dubbed it -
was visible approximately 20 miles away, and
was considered one of the best lights in the US. The light
became a popular local attraction - the Nantucket Mirror
noted in 1856 (Clark, p. 154) "The narrow aperture in the
platform under the lantern...has been widened to allow ladies
with hoop skirts to pass up through to see the reflectors."
The station was upgraded over time.
The light received a telegraph and telephone lines in 1886.
The brick keeper's house was replaced in 1887 with a wooden
dual dwelling to accommodate both
the keeper and assistant. About 1888, the tower was raised 10
feet and the lantern room replaced. A temporary light was
displayed from a nearby wooden tower until the upgrade
was complete. An oil house was built in 1892.
In 1933, the station was powered by electricity.
A motor powered the rotation of the lens, and the keeper
was no longer required to wind the clockwork or maintain
oil lamps. This greatly simplified maintenance, and the light
became a single-keeper station.
The station continued to change after the Coast Guard
took over management of US lighthouses. The keeper's dwelling
was torn down and replaced by a ranch house. The Fresnel lens
was replaced by aerobeacons in 1950. The lens and pedestal were
preserved, thanks to the efforts of Nantucket historian
Reny Stackpole, and have been displayed
in the Nantucket Whaling Museum since 1981.
Two additional residences were added in 1960.
The light was automated in 1965, but personnel continued
to use the residences until 1992.
The lantern room was
replaced by an "odd-shaped aluminum cap" (Clark, p. 156) in
1970, causing the light to sweep over local houses and
autos. Complaints caused the Coast Guard to restore the
lantern room shortly afterwards.
Sankaty Head was placed on the National Register of Historic Places
in 1987. Despite its status, the light was threatened by erosion as of 2006.
The Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the site in 1990 and predicted
that the tower would be in danger in 10 years unless moved.
The estimated cost in 1992 was $1 million.
The remaining residences were removed from the site in 1994; one
ranch house was moved to Miacomet Village as low income and elderly housing.
The rest were razed. Only the tower remained at the site - perilously
close to the cliff's edge.
In 2006, the Sconset Trust contracted International Chimney of
Buffalo, NY to move the tower. The cost was estimated at $3 million.
In 2006, the tower stood only 79 feet
from the bluff. Only 67 feet could support the machinery needed to move
the light, and 55 feet was required. The bluff was been losing about
a foot a year, but a 1991 storm removed 17 feet.
In October 2007, preparations began. A path was created to move the light
400 feet and down a 15-degree grade to its new location near
the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course. Raising the light
revealed two additional steps of the spiral staircase which had been buried.
The move was completed by October 10, but further restoration work continues.
The Sconset Trust continues to raise money to pay for the move.
As of 2007, the grounds are expected to re-open to the public
sometime in late 2008.
Nantucket Lights, Butler pp. 65-88
Lighthouses of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - Their History and Lore, Clark pp. 152-157
The Lighthouses of New England, Snow pp. 284-287
Massachusetts Lighthouses - A Pictorial Guide, Thompson pp. 104-105
Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations Along the Massachusetts Coast, Claflin pp. 106
New England Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 74-75
Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Roberts and Jones pp. 70
Lighthouse Digest October 2006, November 2007