In some ways, the Boston Light lighthouse welcomes travelers to Massachusetts. Passengers on night flights landing at Logan International Airport often look down into crowded Boston Harbor and see a tiny lighthouse on one of the many islands scattered in Massachusetts Bay. No more than ten miles east of Boston, this light has guided ships toward the port of Boston for nearly three centuries.
Just beyond it are some of the busiest docks, piers, and wharves on the Eastern seaboard, if not in the Western Hemisphere. Tankers, freighters, cruise ships, naval vessels, fishing trawlers, recreational sailboats -- all have made their way past this historic light en route to one of the most important ports in the world.
Much about the world has changed since the first Boston Light was raised in 1716 (Sir Isaac Newton was still alive in that year!), but through it all -- wars, revolutions, social upheavals, changing presidents and Congresses, and scientific breakthroughs -- this light has faithfully guided mariners into port.
The Pilgrims had been in eastern Massachusetts for 96 years when they built a lighthouse on Little Brewster Island. "They" in this case refers to the resident merchants of Boston (traders in rum, tea, sugar, cotton, and so on). They successfully lobbied the powers that be in the colony for what historical documents refer to as a "Light House and Lanthorn on some Head Land at the Entrance of the Harbor of Boston for the Direction of Ships and Vessels in the Night Time bound into the said Harbor."
The need for a lighthouse in the early 18th century (before the Industrial Revolution produced steam-powered engines) was even more pronounced than it is in modern times. In the old days sailing vessels made their passages solely at the mercy of the winds and currents, and therefore they could not always leave or make port before nightfall.
The lighthouse was seen by merchants as a means of getting loaded ships safely into and out of port more quickly, and their practical arguments proved persuasive. In June 1715 the local authorities appropriated enough money to build a lighthouse on Little Brewster Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor.
Records show the first light appeared at the lighthouse on September 14, 1716, in time for the winter Nor'easters. Hand-drawn sketches that have been passed down from that early Colonial period show a conical, six-story tower with a two-story clapboard lighthouse keeper's residence nearby.
The lighthouse was of such importance that all those who used the waters of Massachusetts Bay were required to pay for its upkeep. History records that the tax rate for incoming freight was one penny per ton to pay for the lighthouse, while outbound freight was taxed at two shillings per ton.
All fishing vessels and wood sloops paid a tax of five shillings each year for the lighthouse. The court hired George Worthylake as lightkeeper and paid him a salary of 50 pounds per year. For this he kept the lights burning from dusk to dawn each night. Unfortunately, Worthylake, his wife and daughter, and two other men drowned while returning to the lighthouse two years later. Young Benjamin Franklin wrote one of his first works of literature, an elegiac poem, on this tragedy.
In 1775 the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island was temporarily shut down to protect Boston from British warships. Disaster struck the following year when the British blew up the lighthouse during their general retreat from the area. It was not until 1783 that the lighthouse was fully restored. The new Boston Light was, like its predecessor, a conical lighthouse, but was given more substantial walls (seven feet thick at the foundation). Its height was raised in 1853 by 15 feet, and it was also given a second-order Fresnel lens in 1859.
Today the Boston Light remains in service -- the only lighthouse in the country with resident keepers. In this way the coast guard pays tribute to the revered tradition of lighthouse-keeping on the U.S. coasts. Although the island is about ten miles from Boston, it is part of the Boston Harbor Islands national park area and can be viewed on local boat tours and exploration cruises.
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