Lighthouses guide passing vessels from the potentially hazardous shorelines of the world. These stoic giants have been protecting ships for centuries. Many of them are historic attractions, uniquely designed and lending themselves toward spectacular photograph opportunities. Although today the world’s lighthouses sit on exclusively on solid ground there was a long period of time when some sat in the water. These protected passing vessels from sandy shoals that can sneak up on boats and wreak havoc. The beacons that once guarded the shoals were called lightships. Perhaps no lightship station is more well known than the Nantucket. Painted bright red with Nantucket in white on its sides this icon has a history extending for more than a century and a half. Here is its story.
The first lightship was the Nore constructed in 1732 and situated in the River Thames in England. The first lightship in the United States came in 1820 sitting in the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to mark the Willoughby Spit. Around Cape Cod and its islands are many dangerous shoals. Though some can be easily navigated one in particular caused the creation of the Cape’s first lightship.
In the mid-19th century dangerous shoals south and east of the island of Nantucket were cause of much destruction of passing vessels. The route south of the island was important to trans-Atlantic shipping and thus a ‘light boat’ was deemed necessary for the area.
On May 13, 1854 Samuel Knox, Superintendent of Light Houses and Light Boats, announced the construction of the first light boat station in America. The wooden boat, designated LV-11, was 104-feet long with two yellow masts adorned with day-marks and lanterns for night and inclement weather. The lights could be seen from up to thirteen miles away.
It cost $13,462 ($416,000 in 2020) and was built in Baltimore, Maryland. The hull of the light boat was red with ‘Nantucket South Shoal’ painted in large white letters on either side. Appropriately it was positioned at the southern end of Nantucket’s New South Shoal giving a wide berth to passing vessels. The water surrounding the shoal could be as shallow as three-feet making a light boat essential.
The boat was sailed north and moored at its location two miles south of the shoal on June 12, 1854 in 14 fathoms (84 feet) of water. The first ‘keeper’ of the light boat was Captain Samuel Bunker who left his job as keeper of Nantucket’s Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The job of the keeper and crew was basically just to keep the lanterns clean and operational. Thus the crew had a lot of free time and took to weaving baskets to keep from growing bored.
The tenure of LV-11 was a short one. In January 1855 Capt. Bunker sent some of his crew ashore as they were short on water. A tremendous storm on February 5, 1855 drove the LV-11 of its mooring and sent it drifting away. When the crew that had gone ashore returned to where the LV-11 had been aboard the vessel Nebraska they were shocked to find it missing. Luckily Capt. Bunker sent his wife a letter to let everyone know the ship had crashed ashore on some rocks at the east end of Montauk Point on Long Island approximately one hundred miles west. The light boat was towed into New York and declared a total wreck.
The second boat, named LV-1, was built in Kittery, Maine near the end of 1855 at a cost of $30,000 ($896,000 in 2020). It was roughly the same size and decorated the same as the LV-11. The look of the Nantucket Lightship did not change much during the entire century-plus tenure of the station. The new ship was placed in the same spot as the first on January 28, 1856. This vessel had a much longer time in action than the LV-11 though it was not without its own peril.
Within a few months the new lightship was already having trouble with its moorings due to the rough seas at New South Shoal. During its first decade in service the LV-11 broke from its moorings no less than a dozen times. The longest period was nearly three weeks where the lightship was adrift at sea. Each time it was towed back to New South Shoal, sometimes after needing repairs though.
A significant change came in October 1891 when the Lighthouse Board designated $70,000 ($2 million in 2020) for a third lightship to be built for New South Shoal. This ship maintained the overall look of the first two, however it had a pair of major upgrades. First it was made of iron, allowing it to be more securely moored at the shoal. Second it came equipped with a steam powered fog whistle, this would make it easier to find if by chance it did break from its moorings. The whistle also sought to curb the number of vessels that would crash into the lightship in foggy conditions, something that happened from time to time. The new ship LV-54 went into service early in 1893.
In 1896 New South Shoal was renamed Nantucket Shoals which is how it would be known for the next century. By the turn of the 20th century lightship service had peaked in the United States. The highest total in use at one time was in 1909 when there were fifty-six across America.
At that time there were twelve lightships dotting Cape Cod's coast. Some of the more well known included: Pollock Rip Lightship east of Monomoy Point in Chatham, Handkerchief west of Monomoy in Nantucket Sound, Stonehorse also near Monomoy, and Hen and Chickens at the entrance to Buzzards Bay.
As the 20th century progressed the era of the lightship winded down. Buoys and fixed towers on the water proved safer for marking travel lanes. It meant that crews no longer had to be exposed on manned lightships anymore. Stonehorse was the last Cape Cod lightship, being officially decommissioned October 5, 1963. The final Nantucket lightships, LV-112 and WLV-612(they would alternate at the site), would remain in action much longer though. In fact upon the retirement of the Columbia River Lightship in Oregon in 1979 Nantucket became the final lightship station in service in the entire country.
The LV-112 was decommissioned in 1975. At the time of its retirement this vessel been the longest tenured at the Nantucket Shoals station, there for 39 years. The National Park Service declared it an historic landmark in 1989. However after being towed from its spot off the shoals to Straight Wharf on Nantucket it has come close to being scrapped. It has been moved to several ports and been used as a museum and tourist attraction in the decades since.
The WLV-612 was the last surviving lightship in America, being officially decommissioned in 1983. It was saved from the scrap heap in 2000 when former Massachusetts senator Bill Golden bought the vessel on eBay for $126,100 ($190,000 in 2020). The former lightship was redesigned into a spacious yacht for his family and has remained in his ownership since. In 2020 the WLV-612 is docked in Boston Harbor and is up for sale as of September. The asking price? $4.95 million. The floating home is two levels, six bedrooms, and 4,000 square feet.
If the asking price is too steep for the lightship the ever-collectible Nantucket Lightship baskets are somewhat more affordable and can be found for sale on eBay as well. There are replicas also that range from about $45 and up.
The WLV-612 real estate listing for those interested: Elliman.com - Nantucket Lightship for Sale
In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bill Cox's Sea Grill
Photo Prints available here: Smug Mug.com
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