How do we explain our fascination with Nantucket lighthouses? Whatever the reason, these historic beacons have been lighting the way for sailors for centuries, guiding their way to safety through dark nights and unknown waters. There are three picturesque Nantucket lighthouses, and each one continues to light the way for those trying to find their way to shore.
Brant Point Light
Easily one of the most photographed and recognizable attractions on the island, Brant Point Light is one of my favorite lighthouses. Every time I round Brant Point on my way to the island, the sight of the lighthouse, the harbor and the village simply take my breath away. No wonder we find it so special.
The first lighthouse on Nantucket and the second lighthouse built in the colonies, the original Brant Point Light was a simple wooden structure erected about 1746.
The structure burned down in 1757 and was replaced with the second Brant Point Light in 1758. The new wooden structure fell prey to a “violent Gust of Wind” (as reported in the Massachuseetts Gazette), which was very probably a tornado. A succession of wooden lighthouses were built and burned or destroyed by storms until 1856 when a new, permanent lighthouse was built 135 feet south of the previous site. Built of brick laid in cement, the new tower was lit on December 10, 1856.
But the new permanent structure would not escape the devastating consequences of erosion. A new lighthouse was constructed in 1901 about 600 feet from the 1856 light. The new tower was a 26-foot wooden tower, the shortest lighthouse in New England. The light was switched from white to red in 1933 to avoid confusion with lights in town. The last civilian light keeper left in 1939 when the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse property.
Today Brant Point houses modern equipment including an automated modern optic. The red light flashes every 4 seconds and is visible for 10 miles. The 1856 tower still stands and is used as an office and radio room for the Brant Point Coast Guard Station.
Brant Point Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Directions: You can’t miss it! From Steamboat Wharf, go
west on Broad, turn right on South Beach Street and then right on Easton
St. You will pass the 1856 Brant Point Light on the way to the present
lighthouse. Continue to the end of the road to the 1901 light. The
tower is not accessible, but the surrounding beach is open to the
Great Point Light
Northernmost tip - near Wauwinet
In 1785, a lighthouse was built to light the way between Nantucket and the mainland. Great Point Light, also known as Nantucket Light, was a wooden structure with no keeper’s house and the first keeper, Captain Paul Pinkham, had to travel seven miles across the barrier beach to and from the tower.
The original tower was destroyed by fire in 1816 and replaced with a 60-foot tall stone tower in early 1818. The lighthouse was whitewashed to increase visibility, but the 14 lamps could be seen from 11 miles away.
The stone tower protected the lighthouse from fire, but it could not protect the lighthouse from the ravages of erosion which washed away the shore. The necessary preservation measures weren’t made in time, and on March 29, 1984, the lighthouse that had guided so many to safety, collapsed during a brutal storm with gale force winds.
To maintain the historic integrity of the island, a replica of the 1818 tower was erected using exterior stones from the original building. The tower was placed three hundred yards west of the previous tower to ensure its safety from future erosion.
The $1 million Great Light was lit on September 6, 1986.
Great Point Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, but removed from the list after the destruction of the lighthouse in 1984.
Directions: Great Point is not accessible by road. A four-wheel vehicle and a permit are required. From Nantucket town, travel east to Polpis Road, and turn north on Wauwinet Road. The lighthouse is seven miles from Wauwinet. Part of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, much of which is off-limits.
The Trustees of Reservations offers tours of the refuge, which include a trip to the top of the lighthouse. For more information: Trustees of Reservations Programs
Sankaty Head Light
Eastern shore - Siasconset
It may have been the last of the lighthouses built on Nantucket, but Sankaty Head Light was the first US lighthouse to receive a Fresnel Lens making it the most powerful light in New England. The “blazing star” as it was called by local fisherman, was visible 20 miles away and considered one of the best in the country. Built in 1849, on a ninety-foot high bluff on the eastern shore, the 60-foot tower was painted white with a wide red stripe and a keeper’s house was built nearby.
The Fresnel lens was replaced by aerobeacons in 1950, but the lens was preserved, and is on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The light was automated in 1965 but the keeper’s residences were occupied until 1992.
Like the other Nantucket lighthouses, the Sankaty Head light would not escape the tragic consequences of erosion. In 2006, the tower stood only 79 feet from the edge of the cliff and the bluff was losing about a foot every year. The tower was moved 400 feet to a new location near the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course and the relighting ceremony took place on Thanksgiving weekend in November 2007. According to an article in the Lighthouse News, "the Coast Guard, in conjunction with the ‘Sconset Trust, allowed the relighting ceremony to be delayed until the full moon was rising in the east and the sun was setting in the west, creating the perfect photo opportunity."
Directions: From Nantucket Center, follow the signs "To Siasconset" or ’Sconset as it is more commonly known and follow Milestone Road at the rotary. When you reach Siasconset, bear left at the rotary onto what becomes Sankaty Avenue. Turn right on Butterfly Lane, then left on Baxter Street. The lighthouse is at the end of Baxter. The tower is not open to the public, but the surrounding grounds are.
Sankaty Head Light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
For More Information on Nantucket Lighthouses
These museums have massive collections of books, archival photographs, maps, historical documents, and other information relating to lighthouses and shipwrecks, and both have old lighthouse memorabilia. Be sure to add these to your list of “must-sees.”
Suggested Reading on Nantucket Lighthouses:
Nantucket Lights, Karen T. Butler
Lighthouses of Cape Cod Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - Their History and Lore, Admont G. Clark
The Lighthouses of New England, Jon Marcus
Massachusetts Lighthouses - A Pictorial Guide, Courtney Thompson
Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations Along the Massachusetts Coast, James Claflin
Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont
Get your copy today!