Thursday, June 4, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Journey of the Three Sisters of Nauset

    Lighthouses are as much a part of Cape Cod’s history and allure as its miles of beaches, quaint villages, and fabulous shops. There are eighteen lighthouses on Cape Cod. Some of them are more universally known, such as Chatham Light, Nauset Light, Race Point Light, Highland Light, and Nobska Light. There are a few lesser known like Cleveland Ledge Light, Wings Neck Light, and Point Gammon Light, yet all of the structures have one common thread, they are located on the water. However there are three lighthouses in Eastham that are not even within sight of water. In fact they sit quietly in a field on Cable Road more than 1,800-feet from the ocean. These are the Three Sisters of Nauset and their story is one of the most fascinating in Cape Cod history. It is a story that is still going on to this day.
The Three Sisters at the turn of the 20th century. Eastham Historical Society

     The history of these structures begins 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 in 1836. However instead of there being one lighthouse it was decided that there would be three. The reason for the three 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 idea of the three lights was that of Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Percival.
     The fifteen-foot tall brick structures, placed 150-feet apart, were constructed by local builder Winslow Lewis and his team who had put in the lowest bid of $6,549 ($180,500 in 2020) on May 26, 1838. The towers took only 38 days to complete. Legend has it that the construction and layout was rushed and careless with the construction supervisor David Bryant even initially refusing to sign the completion certificate. The three beacons were seen as being too much at the site, even being referred to as ‘shiftless and costly’ by legendary author Henry David Thoreau upon a visit.
     Originally referred to as ‘the line lights’ by passing vessels the three towers 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. 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 still 150-feet apart. These new wooden towers with brick foundations were positioned thirty-feet back from where the original towers had fallen. These towers were easier to move back from the cliffs if necessary.
     The relentless hand of nature continued to eat away at the cliffs of present day Nauset Light Beach. It was decided in 1911 that the Three Sisters would be decommissioned as the shoreline had eroded to the point that it was within eight-yards of the north tower. Only the center tower would remain as a solo beacon attached to the lighthouse keeper’s house.
The Towers Eastham Historical Society

     The two discontinued lights, minus their lanterns, were sold to Patrick and Helen Cummings of Attleboro in 1918 for $3.50 each ($59.43 in 2020). The couple had visited Eastham via automobile while the Three Sisters were still hovering above the eroding cliffs. They were approached by a man at the beach and ironically were offered a cabin, stable, and roughly 20 acres of land in exchange for their vehicle.
     After making the deal the pair of lighthouses needed to be removed from the cliffs within ten days. In order to make it work the Cummings’ had them moved via oxen and rollers to a site near the old French Cable Station in Orleans. The Cummings family spent a pair of summers in those towers before finally having them moved to Cable Road in Eastham in 1920 where the 26x28-foot dwelling they had purchased sat. The former Sisters became bedrooms on either side of the home. The summer home became known as the ‘The Towers.’
     The career of the remaining Sister along the shore was short-lived. By 1923 it had also fallen into disrepair. Rather than fixing it up it was decided that it would be decommissioned and replaced. It was sold to Albert Hall of Hyannis at auction in 1924 for $.50 ($7.50 in 2020) and turned into a cottage much like the other two Sisters. His was known as ‘The Beacon.’
The reunited Three Sisters facing north.  Christopher Setterlund

A perfect substitute to take the reins 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 and the top third was painted red. Nauset Lighthouse was born.
The Towers summer home began to allow renters after the 1932 season. In time it also had a gift shop and a dance studio. The Cummings family sold the property to James Kingsland who in turn sold it to the National Park Service in 1965. Ten years later, in 1975 the Beacon was sold to the NPS by Albert Hall’s son Harold. A $510,000 restoration of the three lighthouses was completed in 1989. In 1990 the Three Sisters were reunited for the first time in nearly 80 years on Cable Road. They were placed in the same order and spacing as they once were overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
In recent years a ghost of the original Three Sisters reappeared. It was just off of Nauset Light Beach that a circular brick foundation was unearthed by the waves. When the tide is low enough one can walk right out and touch it. The foundation was likely that of the center Sister that became the ‘Beacon.’ It was not the first time though that the foundation has been exposed by the elements as it was also exposed in 1999.
The foundation of the center Sister in 1999. National Parks Service

     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.
My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pacific Guano Company

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

No comments: