Preservation Magazine, Spring 2016

Outside the Box: Lighting the Way at Boston Light

A vintage postcard showing Boston Light.

photo by: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY-NC ND 2.0

When viewed through the lens of today’s digital age, lighthouses appear more as romantic relics than technological marvels. But Boston Light was an absolute wonder when it was first kindled on September 14, 1716. A candlelit pillar that guided tempest-tossed mariners to safety, Colonial America’s first lighthouse was so far ahead of its time that nearly 50 years passed before another was constructed in the United States.

Three centuries later, the blinking eye of Boston Light—the only remaining U.S. Coast Guard beacon with a resident keeper—still shepherds sailors through the city’s island-studded harbor. “Boston Light has saved plenty of lives and money. It’s pretty astounding that it’s still operating and still manned,” says Sally Snowman, the lighthouse’s 70th keeper and the first woman to hold the position.

In preparation for Boston Light’s 300th birthday this summer, the Coast Guard has undertaken a $1.5 million facelift of the venerable light station, part of the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. Starting in May of 2014, the pounding of hammers drowned out the cawing seagulls and ringing bell buoys on Little Brewster Island. Workers replaced the windows and cedar roofs on the keeper’s house and outbuildings before repainting each structure.

While refreshing the mortar and repointing the granite blocks of the postcard-perfect light tower—rebuilt in 1783 after British soldiers blew up the original seven years earlier—the project team made a remarkable find: The beacon’s first story sported smaller, rounder stones from the initial structure. “You could actually see they used the original foundation in the reconstruction,” Snowman says. “The granite stones had turned almost cherry pink, which happens when they’re put under a lot of stress, such as an explosion.”

The project’s location on a windswept island 3 miles out to sea proved particularly challenging. Workers first needed to build a stone road for moving construction equipment before transporting tools and supplies by barge. Up to 10 crew members at a time slept overnight in a 36-foot trailer or pup tents pitched on the 2-acre island.

The initial project was completed in May 2015. Now, the Coast Guard and the National Park Service have worked together to stabilize the foundation of the island’s boathouse and transform the building into a visitor center by the end of this year. Public tours resume in June, and a big birthday bash will be held this September, with a public celebration on the city’s Long Wharf followed by the unveiling of a new historical plaque on Boston Light.

Online Extra: Six Must-Visit Lighthouses

This summer, Boston Light, America’s earliest lighthouse, celebrates 300 years as a beacon along the coast of Massachusetts. Now, here are six more lighthouses worth the trip around the U.S.

By: Christopher Klein

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