Monday, June 24, 2013

1776 America's first female lighthouse keeper


The Gurnet, a 27 acre peninsula forming the northern boundary of Plymouth Bay, is located a few miles northeast of Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims knew the land as “the gurnett’s nose,” apparently naming the area for similar headlands in the English Channel, where the gurnet fish flourished along Devonshire’s shores. When Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1606 to map the Gurnet and Clark’s Island, he found thick pine forests & Native Americans fishing for cod using lines made of tree bark with wooden fish hooks to which a spear-shaped bone was attached.

Lighthouse at Plymouth (Gurnet), now Saquish Beach, MA

The Gurnet became part of Plymouth on January 7, 1638. By the 1770s, 75 fishing vessels were based in the area, and at one point, Duxbury was one of the world’s leading shipbuilding centers.

Under the direction of the Massachusetts Legislature, the first Plymouth Lighthouse, a wooden keeper’s dwelling measuring 15 by 30 feet, equipped with a lantern at each end of its roof, was completed in September 1768 at a cost of £660. The twin lights, exhibited at a height of 86 feet above the sea, distinguished the station from the single light used at Boston.

The lighthouse was built on land rented for 5 shillings a year from John & Hannah Thomas. John, a surgeon, was hired as the 1st keeper serving until he joined the Continental Army. He recruited a regiment of volunteers from Plymouth County to help repel the British in the Siege of Boston, & then served as a major general led troops in Quebec, where he died of small pox on June 2, 1776. Along with raising their 3 children, Hannah took over John’s lighthouse post, making her the first woman lighthouse keeper in America.

It is said that in 1776, after Fort Andrew was erected at Gurnet Point, the H.M.S. Niger reportedly sailed around the Gurnet toward Plymouth Harbor, exchanging fire with the fort’s six-cannon battery and, many believe, destroying one of the lighthouse beacons in the process.

Plymouth’s worst shipwreck occurred in 1778, when the American privateer General Arnold was trapped in a blizzard less than a mile from Plymouth Light. Choosing to forego the risk of entering Plymouth’s inner harbor without a pilot, the captain dropped anchor hoping to ride out the storm. As the gale rose to hurricane force, the vessel drug anchor running aground on White Flats. Before residents of the Gurnet could construct a causeway over the ice to reach the stranded vessel, 72 of the its crew of just over 100 froze to death in view of the light.

After the war, the lighthouse was refurbished & put back in service with Hannah Thomas as keeper. Hannah hired Nathaniel Burgess (or Burges) to serve as keeper in 1786, and that same year a coasting sloop traveling from Boston to Plymouth struck a sand bar near the Gurnet. Two of the seamen from the vessel trudged 7 miles through a bitter snowstorm to reach Gurnet Lighthouse. Keeper Burgess fed & warmed them beside the fire, dispatching his assistant, possibly Hannah’s son John, to bring in the rest of the crew.

In 1790, the light was ceded to the U.S. government, & John Thomas took over as keeper. His salary of $200 per annum was lower than at other lighthouses, because the Gurnet was deemed an acceptable place to live with ample fishing & land with good soil to garden. Keepers at less hospitable locations, such as Thatcher Island or Boston Light, earned $266.67.

1843 photo of the twin Plymouth Lights. Photo from US Navy
 
After the lighthouse was completely destroyed in a fire on July 2, 1801, the merchants of Plymouth and Duxbury funded the construction of a temporary beacon. On April 6, 1802, Congress voted to repay them $270 and appropriated $2,500 to rebuild the lighthouse on the Gurnet. The Thomas family was paid $120 for the land on which twin, 22' tall lighthouses, spaced 30 feet apart, were built in 1803.

See Lighthouse Friends here for more intriguing stories.