The first official lighthouse America was built in 1716, and, though the original Colonial Era structure was destroyed, there’s is still a lighthouse at the location on Brewster Island, Boston Harbor.
Today’s blog post explores reasons for building that first lighthouse and some details of it’s early history!
Safety For Maritime Commerce
Remember talking about maritime commerce and it’s important role in Colonial development? Well, those ships carried profits, and no merchant or captain is happy when his profits are wrecked.
Similar to the ancient world, early colonial settlements used beacon fires to guide or warn approaching ships. Also, beacon fires were sometimes prepared to warn the settlers of dangers from the sea – approaching pirates or raiders. If a group of ships was spotted and wasn’t expected, the guards would light the beacon fires as a signal to assemble the militia for the defense of the settlement.
Since the colonies weren’t united and each had it’s own government, it was up the citizens of each colony or settlement to decide if they wanted or needed an official lighthouse or light tower. After-all, the structure would have to be built with funds appropriated from the colonies treasury, and the keeper would have to be paid to tend the aid to navigation.
By 1713, Boston harbor flourished with a brisk trade. However, the local merchants wanted to make it easier for ships to enter the harbor, avoid the islands, and be able to sail in directly if they arrived at night. The harbor needed an aid to navigation – aka, a lighthouse. They petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts which eventually agreed to the request and set aside funds to build a lighthouse on Beacon Island (now called Brewster Island).
To help fund the project, the court set up a system of dues for ships/merchants to pay. “One Penney per Ton Inwards [coming into the harbor], and another Penney Outwards [leaving the harbor], except Coasters, who are to pay Two Shillings each, at their clearance Out, and all Fishing Vessels, Wood Shoops, etc. Five Shillings each by the Year.” And that’s how the Boston Light was funded in the Colonial Era.
Colonial builders started constructing the lighthouse in 1715 and completed the structure the following year. The original lighthouse was described and depicted as a stone building with “a tall, graceful tower.”
On September 14, 1716, a beacon light shown from Boston Lighthouse for the first time. That first light was probably created by lamps or candles, probably with some sort of reflector – but it would’ve been nothing like the brilliant beams produced by the Fresnel Lens in the next century (more on that in another blog post.)
Keepers At Boston Lighthouse
The Massachusetts General Court hired the first keeper, George Worthylake. His contract stated that he would receive fifty pounds per year, keep the light burning from sunset to sunrise, and could pilot boats into the harbor. If he failed to perform his contracted duties, Worthylake would be fined one hundred pounds (two years wages!). George Worthylake and his wife and daughter apparently lived on the island at lighthouse for two years and faithfully tended the light until their deaths in 1718 (see next section.)
Two years later (1718) the court gave the Boston lightkeepers a raise – seventy pounds per year. In 1719, they added a fog signal – a large cannon that had to be fired at regular intervals in bad weather. By the 1730’s the court permitted the keeper to officially pilot boats into the harbor and receive payment from the ship masters for the work.
Tragedies, Fires, & War
November 3, 1718 – George Worthylake, Mrs. Worthylake, their daughter, and two men were somewhere in Boston Harbor, returning to the island. Their boat capsized and the occupants drowned; it was an early precedence for the dangers lightkeepers and their families would face in the coming decades. Although no known copies have survived, young Benjamin Franklin, working in a print shop, wrote some “wretched verses” to memorialize the tragedy and sold them in newspapers on Boston streets.
The Boston Lighthouse attracted fire…because it attracted lightning. The light tower was struck by lightning on several occasions, and in 1751, a fire burned all the wooden stairs and interior of the structure. Obstinately, the keepers and lighthouse overseers avoided putting up a lightning rod, believing it was God’s Providence that the tower would be lightning struck and that it would displease the Almighty to interfere. However, after a few more fires, they gave in, begged God’s forgiveness, and installed a lightning rod.
Boston Lighthouse witnessed the early days of protest in Massachusetts – its light would’ve guided the East India Company ships into the harbor with that cargo of tea (which would end up in the harbor and possibly drift past the lighthouse after the Sons of Liberty had their say). It would’ve warned and guided the British ships, arriving to close Boston Harbor and greeted the transport ships bringing the troops to occupy the “rebel town.”
However, in 1775, American soldiers removed the lamps from the lighthouse tower and burned the tower so it wouldn’t aid the British any longer. The following week British soldiers and marine guards arrived at the island and began repairing the lighthouse. George Washington sent Major Benjamin Tupper and three hundred troops to the island in small whaleboats; in the fight, the Americans managed to destroy the new repairs and fought off British reinforcements.
The original Boston Lighthouse became a casualty of the War For Independence on June 13, 1776. The British planted explosives around the tower and blew it up as they left the harbor.
After the war, another lighthouse was built on Brewster Island, and it’s one of several light beacons currently guiding ships in and around Boston Harbor. It’s a National Historic Landmark, is the last lighthouse in 21st Century America to have a government paid official lighthouse keeper, and is overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard.