Lighthouses in Cape Cod
There are 14 historic lighthouses in Cape Cod, all built between 1797 and 1923. Today, many of these lighthouses continue to guide ships through the dangerous shoals that cloak the peninsula. Others now operate as inns, vacation rentals, or museums. These unique historical sites are both relics of the Cape’s rich maritime history and markers of its contemporary maritime and resort cultures.
Highland Light (1797), in North Truro, was the first lighthouse in Cape Cod. Before the lighthouse was completed, ships travelling from Europe to Boston had to feel their way along the dark peninsula and into Massachusetts Bay. Without a light to guide their way, many sunk in the shoals just off the coast. Highland Light was, for many years after its construction, the first glimpse of America seen by immigrants coming to America from Europe.
Chatham Light (1808) is the second oldest lighthouse on the Cape. The “Twin Light” originally had two towers that were meant to differentiate it from Highland Light and to improve the range of its beacon. Through the years, Chatham Light has played an integral role in keeping Chatham Harbor safe. In 1952, for example, Coast Guard personnel stationed at the lighthouse conducted a daring and successful rescue of the crew members of the SS Pendleton.
In the early nineteenth century, a record number of fishing and whaling vessels began taking to the choppy waters off Cape Cod. While there were no shortages of hidden rocks and strong currents in any water off the Cape, the dangerous shoals of Chatham Harbor spelled particular doom for ships trying to skirt the outer edges of the peninsula.
The eight-mile sandbar that runs through Chatham Harbor destroyed so many ships that sailors began to say it was haunted by the stallion of a drowned mooncusser. The mooncusser, they said, had attached decoy lanterns to the stallion before meeting his own untimely end on the sandbar. At night, sailors would mistake these lanterns for the lights of the harbor and steer their ships toward the deadly sandbar.
To keep ships off the dangerous shoals, the town of Chatham erected a small lighthouse on a crumbling bluff overlooking the harbor inlet. Chatham Light, which was completed in 1808, was just the second lighthouse on the Cape. The “Twin Light” originally had two towers that were meant to differentiate it from other lighthouses and to improve the range of its beacon.
In the early days, the weather, climate, and geography of Chatham Harbor were hard on the lighthouse. By 1840, storms had all but destroyed the original wooden structure. While it was reconstructed in 1941, a Nor’easter in 1870 left it tottering dangerously close to the edge of the ocean bluff. As a precautionary measure, the town rebuilt Chatham Light further from the bluff.
In 1879, the ground under the old lighthouse gave way and the south tower plunged 50 feet into the ocean below. A year later, the rest of the old structure followed. Meanwhile, the town continued to update the new structure, slowly phasing out the two tower system. In 1939, the US Coast Guard took over operation of Chatham Light and electrified the beacon.
Through the years, Chatham Light continued to play an integral role in keeping the harbor safe. In 1952, Coast Guard personnel stationed at the lighthouse successfully rescued crew members from the SS Pendleton, a tanker that broke in two during a gale off the Cape. The rescue, which is depicted in the movie The Finest Hours, is one of the most daring in Coast Guard history.
Today, the lighthouse remains an active Coast Guard station involved in maritime law enforcement, Search and Rescue, and Homeland Security. The lighthouse is also a popular with beachgoers who flock to the nearby Chatham Light Beach.
Learn more about Chatham Light:
- New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide, Chatham Light
- Take a tour of Chatham Light:
- US Coast Guard, Flotilla 11-1, Lighthouse Tours
Before 1797, there were no lighthouses on Cape Cod. At night, ships travelling from Europe to Boston had to feel their way along the dark peninsula and into Massachusetts Bay. Without a light to guide their way, many sunk on the shifting sand bars just off the coast. Many would-be immigrants survived seven weeks at sea, only to perish on the doorstep of their new home.
The most dangerous waters off Cape Cod were north of Truro, in an area that sailors nicknamed “Dangerfield.” In 1717, the pirate Bellamy met his end in Dangerfield, after a hostage tricked him into sailing towards the sandbars. Later, during the Revolutionary War, the British warship HMS Somerset also met its end in the deadly Peaked Hill Bars of Dangerfield.
“The inhabitants hear the crash of vessels going to pieces as they sit round their hearths,” Henry David Thoreau wrote about North Truro in 1865, “and they commonly date from some memorable shipwreck. If the history of this beach could be written from beginning to end, it would be a thrilling page in the history of commerce.”
Leaders from Cape Cod began asking Congress for a lighthouse shortly after the American Revolution and, in 1797, North Truro put the finishing touches on Highland Light. To maximize its range, the lighthouse was perched high on a precipitous clay cliff. For many years, Highland Light was the first glimpse of America seen by immigrants coming from Europe.
The men who kept Highland Light had to stay extremely vigilant, particularly in bad weather. Thoreau writes that the keeper he met “spoke of the anxiety and sense of responsibility which he felt in cold and stormy nights in the winter; when he knew that many a poor fellow was depending on him….Surely the light-house keeper has a responsible, if an easy, office. When his lamp goes out, he goes out.”
Unfortunately, the original Highland Light deteriorated quickly. In strong gales, the wind would sometimes shatter the lighthouse’s glass windows and extinguish its oil lamps. In winter, frost coated the windows and masked the beacon from sight. The issues were so extensive that, in 1857, builders demolished and completely rebuilt the tower and keeper’s house.
Today, Highland Light is still a functioning lighthouse managed by the Coast Guard and the National Park Service. The lighthouse’s beacon has improved substantially over the last two centuries. Instead of oil lamps, the beacon now gets its light from a state-of-the-art Vega Marine LED beacon model .
Take a tour of Highland Light:
Race Point Light (1816) is perched on the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula in Provincetown. Before the Cape Cod Canal opened in 1914, ships travelling between Boston and New York City had to sail around Cape Cod to reach their destinations. In 1816, Provincetown built this lighthouse to guide ships through the strong crosscurrent or “race” that rushes around the tip of the Cape.
Race Point Light
Before the Cape Cod Canal opened in 1914, ships travelling between Boston and New York City had to sail around Cape Cod to reach their destinations. The waters off of the peninsula were treacherous, particularly at the tip where a strong crosscurrent or “race” pushed passing ships towards a number of dangerous shoals.
To keep ships off of the shoals, Provincetown erected the Race Point Light in 1816. Perched on the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, this lighthouse was an isolated outpost located in “sandy desolation,” as one early visitor put it. To reach Provincetown, the lighthouse keepers and their families had to walk two miles in soft sand. On horseback, the trip took more than an hour.
The weather on Race Point was harsh and unforgiving, even in the summer. Race Point is one of the windiest spots on the coast and, year round, the wind threw sand against the tower, the keeper’s house, and the anyone brave enough to venture outside. In the winter, keepers had to fight through a cutting mixture of sand and snow on their way to and from the facility.
To make life easier for the keeper, builders constructed a covered passageway between the tower and the keeper’s house. Ducking into this passageway at night, the keeper would visit the tower every four hours to fill the oil lamps and trim their wicks. These lamps lit up a revolving beacon, which ships could see from as many as nineteen miles away.
Even after Provincetown erected the lighthouse, the shoals off Race Point were more than a match for many passing ships. In her diary, the wife of keeper William H. Lowther remembers watching helplessly from shore as two men drowned in a shipwreck off the point. In his diary, keeper Clifford Morong writes about how his children once unearthed human bones on a nearby beach.
Today, people are drawn to Race Point Light for the very reasons that people once found it so unappealing. Visitors looking for a quiet escape frequently spend the night in the isolated keeper’s house, which is conveniently located between Race Point Beach (to the north) and Herring Cove Beach (to the south). The lonely lighthouse even inspired a romantic comedy, The Lightkeepers, which is set in Cape Cod in 1912.
Learn more about Race Point Light:
- Lighthouse Friends, Race Point, MA
- Take a tour of Race Point Light:
- Race Point Light Station, American Lighthouse Foundation
- Stay overnight at Race Point Light:
- Race Point Light Station, American Lighthouse Foundation
Monomoy Point Light (1823) sits on Monomoy Island, a sandspit that extends from Chatham south into Nantucket Sound. The moving shoals around this sandspit once spelled doom for ships skirting the edge of the Cape as they moved between New York and Boston. To prevent shipwrecks, Chatham erected the first lighthouse on the sandspit in 1823, although the current cast-iron structure dates back to 1849.
Sandy Neck Light (1826), which marks the entrance to Barnstable Harbor, sits at the end of Beach Point near Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable. Since 1826, this rugged lighthouse has guided ships around the dangerous shoals that lie just off Beach Point. Ships headed for Barnstable Harbor or Yarmouthport still depend on this working lighthouse to ensure their safety.
Long Point Light (1827) marks the southwestern end of the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. While Provincetown first placed a lighthouse on the southwestern end of Provincetown Harbor in 1872, the lighthouse’s square shape and white-brick exterior date back to 1875. Today, Long Point Light still guides mariners in and out of the busy waters of Provincetown Harbor.
Nobska Light (1829) lies just east of the village of Woods Hole in Falmouth. In the early nineteenth century, Woods Hole was a hub for the booming local whaling industry. The village, which is located between the historic whaling towns of New Bedford and Nantucket, saw dozens of vessels pass through Vineyard Sound every day on their way to and from these major ports.
Three Sisters of Nauset (1838) is a collection of three beacon towers on Nauset Beach in Eastham. In 1838, the town chose to construct this lighthouse with three towers to distinguish it from the two towers of Chatham Lighthouse, to the south, and the single tower of Highland Lighthouse, to the north. Due to coastal erosion, the towers were moved several times before they were eventually decommissioned. Today, the restored towers are open to the public.
Hyannis Rear Range Light (1849) once guided ships to the Hyannisport Wharf, where the ships could unload goods like coal, grain, and lumber onto trains there or, occasionally, pick up local goods from these trains. Because this lighthouse was only meant to guide nearby ships to and from the railroad wharf, it stands shorter than the Cape’s other lighthouses. From top to bottom, it measures just 20 feet in height.
Wing’s Neck Light (1849) is located on the shores of Buzzards Bay in Bourne. In the mid-nineteenth century, the ports of Wareham and Sandwich saw a large increase in marine traffic. In response to the heavy maritime traffic, the federal government commissioned the lighthouse at the end of Wing’s Neck in the village of Pocasset. Today, Wing’s Neck Light is a vacation rental.
West Dennis Light (1855) is located in the small village of West Dennis, at the mouth of the Bass River on the Nantucket Sound. Like many early Cape Cod lighthouses, West Dennis Light combined the tower and keeper’s house into one building by placing a raised beacon on the roof of the house. It is, however, one of only a few lighthouses that still uses this design today.
The small village of West Dennis lies at the mouth of the Bass River on the Nantucket Sound. In the nineteenth century, the village was an important source of salt and small ships for the surrounding towns. Many West Dennis residents made a living through fishing and coastal trade and, as Nantucket Sound grew in importance, the village prospered.
Around 1850, a West Dennis resident who lived on Wrinkle Point, Warren Crowell, started lighting a lantern in the attic window of his home each night. The lantern helped guide sailors across Nantucket Sound in the absence of a lighthouse. Local sailors appreciated his efforts and sea captains began giving Crowell $0.25/month to help pay for the lantern oil.
West Dennis residents began petitioning Congress for a proper lighthouse and, in 1854, builders began construction of West Dennis Light. Like many early Cape Cod lighthouses, West Dennis Light combined the tower and keeper’s house into one building by placing a raised beacon on the roof of the house. It’s one of the only lighthouses on Cape Cod that still uses this design.
Crowell, the man who lit the lantern in his attic window, left West Dennis to fight in the Civil War in 1861. In Virginia, he was wounded and captured by Confederate soldiers. When he finally returned to Cape Cod, he became keeper of the West Dennis Light. He served as keeper from 1869 until 1880, when the government closed the lighthouse temporarily.
After it reopened, the beacon in West Dennis Light stayed on until 1914. Experts had been debating whether or not the lighthouse was necessary for years. When the Cape Cod Canal opened, it redirected most through traffic from Nantucket Sound to Buzzard Bay. At that point, it became clear that the lighthouse had become redundant.
After it closed, a private buyer purchased West Dennis Light from the government. Eventually, real-estate developer and Massachusetts State Senator Everett Stone purchased the property, hoping to resell it. To pay the mortgage, he began hosting guests in the lighthouse. His guests loved the location and the experience, so Stone decided to open the Lighthouse Inn instead.
Today, the Lighthouse Inn hosts hundreds of guests during the summer months. While West Dennis Light is no longer an operational lighthouse, the innkeepers do keep the beacon on throughout the tourist season.
Learn more about West Dennis Light:
Wood End Light (1872) is perched on the desolate Wood End Bar, which is located west of the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. Wood End Light is identical to nearby Long Point Light, which was restored three years after Wood End Light was completed using the same design. The two lighthouses also have identical fog horns, which call back and forth in bad weather.
Stage Harbor Light (1880) in Chatham marks the entrance to Stage Harbor, where ships sailing around the Cape often sheltered during bad weather. In 1933, the lighthouse was stripped down and converted into an automated skeleton tower. Today, the skeleton tower continues to guide ships along the foggy coast with periodic flashes of white light.
Nauset Light (1923), the iconic lighthouse from the Cape Cod Potato Chips logo, is perched on the northern end of the Coast Guard Beach. In 1923, the town of Eastham built the lighthouse using one of two towers from the Twin Light in Chatham. The tower was originally completely white, but painters restored the tower in the 1940s, giving it its icon red and white appearance.