Monday, May 10, 2010

In My Footsteps: Cape Cod's Lighthouses

In My Footsteps – Cape Cod’s Lighthouses
Christopher Setterlund

            Lighthouses.  Their defined purpose is that of steering ships from the treacherous coasts that they inhabit.  These guardian angel structures do their job and yet have also gained stature as historic landmarks wherever they stand.  For me, any of my trips that have included coastlines have to include at least one lighthouse; they make the trip.  Luckily for me there are many of these amazing beacons located such a short drive away all over Cape Cod. 
            Incredibly the first lighthouse was not built in America, nor was it even built in the last thousand years.  No, the first example of a structure built to aid in navigation for sailors was the Lighthouse of Alexandria.  Built between 280 and 247 B.C. on the island of Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt the lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  It used fire and reflective mirrors to produce a visible light and was said to be visible from up to twenty-nine miles away due to its incredible height of between 393-450 feet.  Two earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 damaged the lighthouse so much that it was rendered useless; its remains are able to be seen during diving expeditions.
            Cape Cod’s lighthouses can be divided into three categories: easy access, difficult access, and inaccessible.  Obviously the easily accessible lighthouses are the most popular as well. 
Easy Access:  First on this list is Nobska Light(left) in Falmouth.  Located right on the point of Nobska Road and Church Street the current tower was built in 1876 and overlooks a tremendous view of Vineyard Sound, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Elizabethan Islands.  It is available to be toured on specific dates set by the Coast Guard from June to August.
            Also falling into the easily accessible lighthouses is Chatham Light.  Located right across the street from North Beach and run by the Coast Guard, this lighthouse is still an active aid for sea travelers.  Built in 1877 Chatham Light was originally one of two towers on the same location; ironically the second tower is next on the list of easily accessible lights. 
            Nauset Light in Eastham(right) once resided along the shores of Chatham before being moved further north in 1923.  This tower stands out with its red and white body and hovers over Nauset Beach from its perch on a hill.  You can walk right up to the tower here and place your hands on a piece of history.  It is probably this reason that makes it my personal favorite of the lights listed here.  
            Difficult Access:  The second category of lighthouses, the difficult to access lights, deals with ones that you can get to but it takes a bit of leg work.  All of these are highly recommended and the walks are very much worth it.  One such lighthouse is Stage Harbor Light in Chatham.  Located at the mouth of Stage Harbor it does not have its lantern top anymore and is a mile walk down Harding’s Beach.  The walk is surprisingly easy as the dirt path taken doubles as the road for vehicles going to the lighthouse.  The immediate area around the lighthouse is private but you get very close and the beach which faces the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge is very secluded due to its distance from the parking lot.
            Cape Cod Light, also known as Highland Light, in Truro is not as long of a walk but it is still enough of a drive off of the beaten path that I decided to include it here.  This light is unique due to how much it was affected by erosion from the Atlantic Ocean.  Built in 1857 this tower was originally five hundred feet from the coast, by 1990 it was only a hundred feet away, and another forty feet of land was lost during 1990 alone.  In 1996 Highland Light was jacked up and moved to a spot 570-feet from the menacing sea.  The grounds are open year round and the lighthouse itself opens for tours in mid-May including the unique ‘full moon tours’ when appropriate.
            Finally in the list of difficult to access lighthouses on the Cape is Race Point Light in Provincetown(left).  It is accessible from two spots, both are long ways.  First if you have the ability you may drive out to the lighthouse from Race Point Beach, a nearly two-mile drive.  Second is the way I went which is to walk the Province Lands bike trail which begins at the end of the Herring Cove Beach parking lot.  From there you may take a dirt road which connects with the four-wheeling dirt road that leads to the lighthouse, about a mile and a half total.  It sounds like a lot of walking, and it is, but the feeling I got standing next to the lighthouse was one of total peace.  On my trip there the only sounds were the ocean waves and the sea birds.  As with the other lighthouses listed it is well worth the trip.
Inaccessible:  I won’t spend too much time with the inaccessible lighthouses as they are only able to be viewed from a distance, but they are huge parts of Cape Cod history.  Out on the private Great Island in West Yarmouth is Point Gammon Light which is best viewed from the ferry or Centerville’s beaches.  It can be seen from two-miles away but can only be visited with permission from a resident of the island.
            Monomoy Point Lighthouse is located out on South Monomoy Island off the coast of Chatham.  Only accessible by boat it is located a mile from shore and is possibly the least visited lighthouse on the Cape due to its remoteness.  There are excursions to the island which include a visit to the lighthouse; it is the only evidence of any human presence on the island.
            On the west coast of the Cape is Wings Neck Light in Pocasset(right) which is at the end of a private road and is probably better off being viewed from the water.  While on the water in that area there is also Cleveland Ledge Light, a lesser known lighthouse named for President Grover Cleveland.  Located eight miles southwest of the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal this lighthouse was the last commissioned to be built in New England in 1943.  It is visible from Old Silver Beach in Falmouth, or by boat.
            No need to worry about those lighthouses that you cannot reach; there are so many that can be visited that seeing them all will take several days.  Nobska, Chatham, and Nauset Lights are right on main roads you can reach out and touch them.  While Stage Harbor, Highland, and Race Point Lights are a bit of a hike they are great for excursions on a sunny day.  The history of the lighthouse goes back more than 2000 years and even though the Cape Cod lighthouses don’t go back that far they all are their own slice of history individually.  I highly recommend each and every one of them, even the ones that are harder to get to if you so desire.  Have fun and happy traveling!
Directions: Nobska Light, Falmouth: From Rt. 28 heading west take left onto Shore St.  Continue onto Surf Dr., continue onto Beach Rd.  Continue onto Oyster Pond Rd., take left onto Fay Rd, bear left onto Nobska Rd.  Lighthouse will be on the right.
            Chatham Light:  From Rt. 28 heading east, take 3rd exit at rotary for Main St.  Turn right to stay on Main St., lighthouse is on the right, parking across the street.
            Nauset Light, Eastham:  From Rt. 6 heading north turn right onto Nauset Rd., continue onto Doane Rd.  Turn left onto Ocean View Dr., follow it to Nauset Light Beach on right, lighthouse is across the street.

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