Lighthouses are invariably connected to the sea. They overlook the water helping to guide vessels safely. However there are three fascinating little lighthouses in Eastham that are not even within sight of water. Sitting quietly in a field 1/3 of a mile from the ocean's waves are the Three Sisters of Nauset. How did they get there? This is their story.
The history of the Three Sisters began nearly 200-years ago when the Town of Eastham petitioned to have a beacon built along the shore to protect passing vessels after there had been so many shipwrecks. The proposal was approved on March 3, 1837 with $10,000($271,000 in 2021) being appropriated for construction of the new light station. However instead of there being one lighthouse it was decided that there would be three. The reasoning was to help vessels differentiate the Eastham lights from the single Highland Light to the north in Truro, and the twin lights of Chatham to the south. The fifteen-foot tall brick structures were constructed by local builder Winslow Lewis and his team who had put in the lowest bid.
The triplet lighthouses were hastily built by Lewis and his crew, 150-feet apart on 5 acres of land that had been bought for $150. In all it took a mere 38 days for construction. The crew did not even abide by the markers for the three beacons that had been laid out. The project was seen afterward to have been cursed as work on the beacons had occurred routinely on Sundays which was seen still at the time as a desecration of the Sabbath. On July 30, 1838 the Eastham lighthouses were lit for the first time.
The three towers which were initially referred to as 'the line lights,' due to the fact that they were constant and not flashing, soon gained the ‘Three Sisters’ nickname. Legend has it that vessels passing by remarked that they resembled three ladies in white dresses wearing black hats. Iconic author Henry David Thoreau came upon them during one of his visits to Cape Cod in the mid 19th century. He was less than impressed, calling the beacons 'shiftless and costly.' Another harsh criticism came from a report from Lt. Edward Carpender when inspecting the site in 1858. He saw the Three Sisters as serving no purpose as they did not help to guide vessels into any nearby harbor. Carpender also stated that the job of the three could just as easily be done by one beacon, preferably with a red-colored lantern.
Despite less than favorable opinions by some the lighthouses did their job for decades until shoreline erosion threatened them. Today when a lighthouse is threatened measures are taken to save them by moving them safely away from the eroding cliffs. In the late 1800’s though the three brick towers were simply allowed to succumb to nature and fall into the sea. They were replaced in 1892 by three new ‘Sisters’ standing twenty-two feet tall and 150-feet apart. These new wooden towers with brick foundations were positioned thirty-feet back from where the original towers had fallen.
|The Three Sisters watching over the Eastham bluffs. (Eastham Historical Society)|
The relentless hand of nature continued to eat away at the cliffs of present day Nauset Light Beach. In less than twenty-years the shoreline had eroded to the point that it was within eight-feet of one of the towers. Finally in 1911 it was decided that a single flashing lighthouse would be the best course of action going forward and the Three Sisters were decommissioned. Only the center tower would remain as a solo beacon attached to the lighthouse keeper’s house. The two discontinued lights were sold to B.J. and Helen Cummings in 1918 for $3.50 ($60.37 in 2021) each. They were moved in 1920 to Cable Road after some repairs, joined together by a room, and renamed the ‘Twin Lights Cottage.’ The beacons were used, one as a pair of bedrooms, the other as a kitchen, as the cottage also saw use as a gift shop and dance studio.
The career of the remaining Sister along the shore was short-lived. By 1923 it has also fallen into disrepair. Rather than fixing it up it was decided that it would be decommissioned and replaced. It would be sold to Albert and Mary Hall for 50 cents($7.62 in 2021) and turned into a cottage much like the other two Sisters, named 'The Beacon.'
A perfect substitute to take command of protecting Eastham’s coastal waters sat thirteen miles to the south in Chatham. It was there at the Coast Guard Station where another recently decommissioned lighthouse, one of the Chatham Twin Lights, resided. The forty-eight foot tall cast iron tower was moved to Eastham. Nauset Lighthouse was born, although it did not get its partial coat of red paint until 1940.
After the formation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961 the lighthouse cottages were grandfathered in. In 1965 the Twin Lights Cottage on Cable Road was purchased by the National Park Service. The center tower cottage was purchased ten years later in 1975. It was reunited with its other Sisters, being placed in its former spot between them for the first time in over 50 years. After extensive renovations in the 1980's the Three Sisters were opened for tours with a formal dedication of the site taking place on May 16, 1990.
Around the turn of the 21st century the Three Sisters caused a bit of a stir along the shore. It is just off shore at Nauset Light Beach that a circular brick foundation was unearthed by the shifting sands. It was determined to be a foundations of one of the Three Sisters that had fallen over the bluff. Though it's been basically covered back up in the years since every so often it becomes exposed again and when the tide is low enough one can walk right out and touch it.
Lighthouses are a part of the fabric of Cape Cod and have been for centuries. Some have simple stories, some have complex stories, it is likely though that none have a story as unique as that of the Three Sisters.
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