Sunday, April 11, 2021

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket

    It is one of the most recognizable lighthouses. It is located on one of the most popular vacation destinations in America. It is the second oldest light station in the United States. Shifting sands necessitated its move. Despite last nearly three centuries this light station's story has been far from stable. It is Brant Point Lighthouse located on Nantucket island and here is some of its history.

Brant Point Lighthouse

    Nantucket in the 18th century was one of the busiest whaling ports in the world. The amount of vessels in and around the harbor entering the 1740's eventually led to talk of a light station being constructed. Light stations were a new concept in the mid-18th century. In fact the only American light station at that time was Boston Light in Boston Harbor. The responsibility of raising the appropriate funds for such an endeavor fell to the same sea captains for whom the light station would protect. After approval at a town meeting on January 24, 1746 several captains raised 200 pounds ($274 in 1746 or $15,000 in 2021) for the materials and the hiring of three men to do the work.

    The spot chosen for the light station was Brant Point. It had gotten the name for the Arctic shorebird that had set up nests there, although the numbers of birds at the point had dwindled since the whaling industry began flourishing. It was a natural location also due to the fact that several shipbuilding yards were in that vicinity.

    A diminutive wooden lighthouse, resembling a tripod, was first lit in 1746. The lantern at the top was lit using the plentiful whale-oil on the island. This oil though, along with the crude lantern construction, likely was the cause of the fire that burned down the lighthouse in 1758. The lighthouse had proven to be very helpful and a second tower, also made of wood, was built in the same location immediately after the first's demise.

    Brant Point's second lighthouse stood until March 9, 1774. It was during a terrible storm that the wooden beacon was completely destroyed. A third tower was erected immediately after at great cost to Nantucket. This was remedied by a tax levied against any vessel larger than 15 tons. Approved by the Massachusetts General Court on August 1, 1774 this was a 6 shilling (Approx. $35 in 2021) tax against any such vessel entering or leaving but only for the first time each year. This tax solved the problem, and although the tax was paid to the Massachusetts colony the control of the lighthouse stayed in the hands of the locals on Nantucket.

Brant Point Light with the old one behind it showing the changing shoreline.

    During the time of the American Revolution Brant Point lighthouse was barely ever lighted and fell into great disrepair. In 1783 Massachusetts appointed Stephen Hussey to a committee to restore the lighthouse, the cheaper the better. 1786 saw the third tower burn to the ground. The replacement, and fourth on the site, was the most basic yet, a lantern affixed atop a pair of spars. The light was so dim that sailors called it 'bug light' since it reminded them of a firefly. This lasted barely two years and was blown down some time in 1788.

    Undeterred a fifth lighthouse was constructed, this time by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was ceded to the Federal Government in 1795. During the War of 1812 Brant Point Light was dimmed. Another whaling boom in the 1820's coupled with the deterioration of the fifth tower made it necessary for yet another lighthouse to be constructed. In 1825 the lighthouse was condemned, torn down, and replaced by a new lantern atop of the keeper's house.

    Lighthouse five was no without its problems. The lantern was reported to rarely be cleaned, leading to it smoking at times. In 1843 reports said the keeper's house cellar routinely flooded, this was troublesome as the oil was stored there. Water damaged the lantern as well causing it to become rusty. Despite its dilapidated condition the fifth Brant Point Lighthouse lasted until 1856.

    The sixth-time was the charm. A 47-foot tall brick tower and a brick keeper's house were built and the tower first lit on December 10, 1856. Ironically it was nothing to do with the lighthouse itself that necessitated a new tower being built. It was the shifting sands of the harbor itself which accreted over time. In 1900 a red lantern beacon was affixed to the current end of Brant Point. This lantern was 600-feet from the actual Brant Point Lighthouse.

The former Brant Point Light built in 1856.

    Lighthouse seven, the current beacon standing today, was first lit January 31, 1901. At 26-feet tall it is the lowest lantern focal point of any lighthouse in New England. The former lighthouse had its lantern removed and still stands to this day. Brant Point Lighthouse has since become one of the most recognizable and photographed beacons in the world. Anyone who has entered Nantucket Harbor via boat in the last century-plus has gazed upon it. A replica was built in Mystic, Connecticut in the summer of 1966.

The Mystic, CT replica

    Despite lasting for 120 years currently there have been troubles at Brant Point, mainly dealing with the unpredictable weather that New England is prone to. Soon after being built 500 tons of stone was laid around the lighthouse to create a barrier from the sea. The lantern's white light was changed to red in 1933 to help avoid confusion with surrounding house lights. In 1983 the entire Brant Point complex was renovated by the Coast Guard. The Perfect Storm of 1991 caused some damage necessitating repairs and occasionally extreme high tides can surround the lighthouse with water. However the rather diminutive beacon still stands strong welcoming visitors and locals home to Nantucket.

    The second-oldest light station in America, with seven beacons to its name, Brant Point finally has seen stability over the last century. If traveling to Nantucket from Hyannis via ferry one can have a nice bit of symmetry. Inside Hyannis Harbor sits Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse, a nearly identical twin of Brant Point. In a bit of irony though Hyannis Harbor Light is actually older than the current Brant Point having been built in 1849 despite being far less well known.


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