This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
On April 17, 1851, the newly constructed lighthouse at Minots Ledge collapsed into the sea surrounding the ledge killing both its lighthouse keepers. Located off the Massachusetts coast south of Boston, the failure of this state-of-the-art lighthouse had been in the making for years.
Local Native Americans believed that evil spirits inhabited Minots Ledge and the rock outcropping roiled-up stormy seas whenever they failed to provide offerings to the spirits. European settlement of the area brought with it shipping and captains unfamiliar with local waters would sail too close to the unmarked rock in their approach to Boston Harbor, so vessel losses increased at the rock during Colonial times. A vessel owned by George Minot was one of these lost ships and the ledge took its name from the unfortunate ship owner. Forty vessels are known to have wrecked there prior to 1841 and at least 40 lives were lost prior to 1850.
Finally, in the early 1840s, the U.S. Lighthouse Service called for a lighthouse to be erected at Minots. The rocky ledge sits a mile offshore and all earlier American lighthouses had been built on dry land, so the service sent an engineer to England to research offshore lighthouses in that country. He returned and designed a structure of eight iron pilings and a central iron column supporting a 30-ton lantern room and keepers’ quarters complex. The theory behind the structure held that heavy seas would find little resistance from the iron stilts while heavy seas could collapse a monolithic tower lighthouse.
The new iron-legged lighthouse began service on New Year’s Day 1850. From the beginning, the structure showed signs of structural weakness and swayed with the action of the waves below. The iron support structure was constantly tightened and re-worked to stop the swaying, but nothing seemed to alleviate the problem. In fear for his life, Minots’ first keeper resigned after 10 months and his successor tried his best to improve the structural integrity of the light.
In 1851, a mid-April storm struck the coast and continued for several days weakening the structure. Eventually, the central iron column snapped placing the load-bearing burden on the eight outer stilts. Due to the seas churning beneath the lantern room complex, the two keepers were unable to escape the confines of the swaying quarters. Within hours, the eight stilts began the sickening process of snapping so, in the early morning of April 17, the keepers took their lives in their hands and jumped into the stormy seas as the lantern room and quarters slid into the sea. One of the men managed to swim to the relative safety of a nearby rock only to die of exposure, while the second drowned in the surf and washed ashore.
In the span of a year, the lighthouse that began as the engineering marvel of its day had become one of the great technological failures of the early 1850s. However, within 10 years, a new engineering marvel would spring-up in its place. Between 1851 and 1860, a lightship guarded the ledge. Meanwhile, plans for a 100-foot lighthouse tower were drawn-up by the service and model makers built the proposed structure in miniature.
The Lighthouse Service approved the tower design and engineers began construction in April 1855. The new lighthouse would be built of stone so the ledge had to be cut down to receive the foundation blocks. In June, the iron stumps of the first tower were removed and 20-foot iron anchoring shafts were set in the holes where the old iron pilings had stood. The large hole in the center was left open to form a cavity for storing drinking water. At the same time, crews began cutting and assembling granite blocks on Government Island, near Cohasset.
In January 1857, during a severe storm, the sailing barque New Empire struck the construction framework demolishing the project’s construction scaffolding. The builders erected a temporary cofferdam from sandbags, so the foundation blocks, laid two feet under the surface of low tide, could be cemented to the ledge. In the spring, the work began again and the first stone was finally laid, July 9, 1857. Seven massive blocks formed the foundation. Strap iron between each stone course kept the two-ton granite blocks apart while the cement hardened. In addition, the service’s first steam-powered vessel, Lighthouse Tender Van Santvoort, became the project’s support vessel providing reliable delivery of stones and construction materials and transportation for crews to and from shore.
In late 1859, the 32nd stone course, located 62 feet above low water, was set in place. The final stone was laid, June 29, 1860. The lighthouse was equipped and ready by mid-August 1860 and first lit, Aug. 22, 1860. The light started regular service, Nov. 15, 1860, when Keeper Joshua Wheeler and two assistants began their duties. The granite tower had taken five years to complete, lacking one day, and the cost of the structure totaled almost $330,000, or over $5,000,000 today.
Minots Ledge Lighthouse has withstood every subsequent gale, the largest waves causing only strong vibrations. On some occasions, the seas have actually swept over the top of the lighthouse causing leaky windows or a few cracked lens prisms. In 1894, a new flashing lantern was installed with a one-four-three flash, which spectators on shore found contained the same numeric count as the words “I love you.” As a result, Minots Ledge became known as the “Lover’s Light.” In 1947, the service automated the light and today its 45,000 candlepower light may be seen for 15 miles.
In June 2007, an expedition supported by personnel and assets from over a dozen local, municipal, state and federal agencies returned to the site of the 1851 lighthouse failure. From the decks of Coast Guard buoy tender Abbie Burgess, divers surveyed the site and located artifacts left from the original structure. In addition, the party placed a memorial plaque on the ledge honoring the two keepers lost when the iron structure sank into the sea. The devotion to duty exhibited by these two brave men and all keepers lost while keeping the light remains an important chapter in the Coast Guard’s long blue line.