Seeing the light

Oct 25, 2022 | Charting the Past

James Wellman image

By Bill Amaru

Imagine the following:

You have been out to sea for two days. It’s mid-December, the shortest days of the year and colder than usual. It’s been blowing northwest, 10 to 20 knots with three- to six-foot seas. Your catch of 7000 pounds of cod, haddock and flat fish are below, well iced to ensure best quality, and hopefully the best price. The trip to Joe Bragg’s ridge you and your three-man crew began earlier in the week is nearing its end.

Close to midnight, you are still 15 miles from Chatham bar. Ahead you sight a flash on the western horizon. Despite being deathly tired (you’ve slept a restless four hours in the past 48), you feel a surge of energy and satisfaction rarely felt by landsmen. You sight the double flash of Chatham lighthouse and you know in two hours a safe harbor and home are yours.

Within a few minutes, as the flash gets stronger, your mind drifts back to your constant worry: Will the prices hold?

That lighthouse, seemingly so permanent, perched in front of the Chatham Coast Guard Station, has been sending this message to mariners since the early 1800s. Since the birth of our country, the importance of lighthouses on our shores and throughout the country cannot be overstated. While modern GPS navigation aids have simplified bringing a boat in or out of our harbors, it is very reassuring to see a beacon guiding your way home.

Chatham has one of few east-facing major harbor inlets on our part of the coast, and Stage Harbor inlet which faces south towards Chatham Roads and Nantucket Sound. That means mariners leaving Chatham Harbor must cross and recross the entrance facing directly towards the Atlantic Ocean and the swells it carries. Many days in summer are fair, seas are slight, but winter produces crashing combers that at night in particular are dangerous. The need for a true guide to help boats crossing the bar has been essential.

That is what our lighthouse once did. It tells us: Here is your way to safety. Other lighthouses may indicate the light should be taken to port or starboard or indicate the risk of shoals, rocks or reefs. Chatham lights our way directly home, or once did.

Our first lighthouses (there were once two, side by side), built in 1808, were constructed of strong native white spruce wood, six-sided with bands of steel to help support the structures through gales and hurricanes. The first lighthouse keeper, Samuel Nye, was appointed by then-President Thomas Jefferson.

The lights were side by side to distinguish Chatham’s from others along the outer Cape that had various lighting schemes. Not only fishing boats but packet sailing vessels carrying freight would sometimes enter the harbor. As recently as the late 1990s sailing vessels of around 150 tons would bring exotic hardwood lumber from the Caribbean and Central America to boat yards around Oyster and Mill Ponds. From this wood meticulous and highly skilled craftsmen fashioned beautiful seagoing launches, sailboats and power boats still found in our harbors and bays.

Today a single lighthouse built in 1882, made of brick and steel with a double Flash, stands by the inner harbor, no longer across from the inlet but several miles from it. It stands nearly 50 feet tall, visible 19 miles out to sea when the air is clear and humidity low. Until 1923 it had a sister light next to it.

The nature of our inlet throughout the centuries has an incredible story to tell. The sands of our outer beaches are fickle, changing week to week, year to year, era to era. Storms break through the barrier beach that protects the inner harbor and shore seemingly at will but actually at predictable intervals and results. When this happens, the channel into the harbor will move miles.

The lighthouse cannot move to follow — or can it? In the early 1800s, the wooden lights were very much able to move. The location could be adjusted to match the march of the inlet up and down the beach. Clever and inventive mariners placed skids along what is now Beach Road and rolled the lighthouse along rails. From Claflin landing to where the tennis club now stands was a set of rails and skids set high above on the bluff of the harbor. The light sat upon a flatbed system and followed the inlet, always staying in line with the opening to the sea.

The permanent home of steel and brick came in 1882. The second lighthouse that sat astride our present light was brought to Eastham in 1923 and now is called Nauset or Coast Guard light. Its distinctive flash includes a red and white pattern, repeating every seven seconds. Our light retains a double white flash, reminiscent of the twin lights of a century and more ago.

The Coast Guard now runs and maintains the automated Chatham light. The station we see today started its career as the lighthouse keeper’s house for the twins, added in 1882.

While many of our national lighthouses have been decommissioned or sold as homes or museums, our light has a bright future. Its 2.8-million candle power electric bulb replaced the tallow and whale oil-fired flame and Fresnel lens once housed atop the tower.

The retired yet still incredible fourth order Fresnel lens can be seen at the Atwood House Museum on Stage Harbor Road. The lens is a masterpiece of optical engineering developed by Augustus-Jean Fresnel in the early 19th century. His lenses revolutionized the capability of light to be seen at great distances and resulted in saving countless lives from a watery grave.

Cape Cod Light and Coast Guard Beach Light to our north both have their places and are used daily by mariners approaching the backside of the Cape. But Chatham Light is the only beacon on the Cape that still guides mariners directly home. As long as there is power to turn the great dome and electricity to light the powerful incandescent bulb, we hope it remains that way. That double-flash on the horizon in winter from 15 miles offshore continues to send to our fishermen and women a welcome:

“Come home, we’re waiting for you”

(Bill Amaru writes about the sea when not fishing from Chatham)

Additional information on lighthouses and much more can be found in “BRILLIANT BEACONS, Lighthouses of the United States” by Eric Jay Dolan


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