Monday, January 7, 2019

1716 Boston Lighthouse's 1st Keeper, his Wife, & Daughter met a Tragic End

Engraving of original Boston Lighthose situate at the Entrance of Boston Harbour

As early at 1675, settlers lit bonfires on a hill overlooking Boston Harbor as an aid to navigation, but it wasn’t until 1715 that the Colony of Massachusetts Bay spent almost 2,400 pounds to construct a light tower, the first in the New World. When on September 14, 1716, the beacon from Little Brewster Island pierced the night sky overlooking Boston Harbor for the first time, there were only 70 lighthouses in existence in the whole world.

However, both the tower & its first 2 keepers met violent ends. The first keeper, George Worthylake, lived on Little Brewster Island with his wife & two daughters, Ruth & Ann, & their slave Shadwell. On Nov. 3, 1718, Worthylake & his wife & daughter Ruth were returning from an excursion to Boston. Accompanied by a friend, John Edge, they anchored their sloop near Little Brewster, & Shadwell paddled out in a canoe to bring the party to shore.

Worthylake’s younger daughter, Ana, & her friend were watching their progress from the island, when suddenly the overloaded canoe capsized & the members of the party were left struggling in the water. The 2 girls watched, horrified, as one by one each person sank beneath the water & drowned. The tragedy shook the people of Boston. A young Benjamin Franklin wrote a poem about it entitled “The Lighthouse Tragedy” & sold copies of it on the streets. Soon a new keeper, Robert Sanders, took over, but he also drowned only a few days after accepting the position.

Fortunately the next keeper, John Hayes, survived long enough to make significant improvements: he requested a gallery be built around the tower’s lantern room so he could keep the glass free of ice & snow, & he requested some sort of a gun “to answer Ships in a Fogg”.  In 1719, America’s first fog signal— a cannon—was installed.

By the 1770’s, Boston Light had successfully guided thousands of ships into the Boston wharves. The prosperity that resulted from the trade was part of the prosperity the British felt should be funneled to the Mother Country via taxation. The penny-a-pound tax on tea was the final straw for the colonial businessmen, who responded by hosting an invitation-only costume party at the harbor.

On December 16, 1773, members of the Sons of Liberty, dressed rather unconvincingly as Mohawk Indians, boarded the vessels of the East Indian Company & dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. The British responded by blockading the harbor. Boston Light, which had previously been maintained by taxes levied on British ships, now was being maintained by British troops.

Not about to take the blockade lying down, early in July 1775 the Minutemen dispatched a small group to Little Brewster Island, where they removed the lantern & oil & set fire to the wooden parts of the tower. An observer on the mainland described “flames of the lighthouse ascending up to Heaven, like grateful incense.” Confused & distracted by the flames, the British gunners tried to blast the Minuteman out of the water but ended up wasting their powder.

The damage to the lighthouse, though a grand gesture, was not a permanent or even very severe one, & the British soon sent repairmen. General Washington knew that the colonials could not allow the British to relight the tower, so he sent a 2nd raiding party, this time 300 soldiers under the command of Major Benjamin Tupper. Arriving in the middle of the night on July 31, the Americans had the element of surprise & the aid of darkness. They quickly defeated the unprepared redcoats, destroyed all the work that had been completed by British carpenters, & set fire to everything that would burn.

The raid would have been an unqualified success except that by then the tide had gone out, leaving the whaleboats they had used for transportation stranded on the beach. Major Tupper knew they had no time to waste before British reinforcements arrived, & ordered his men to push the boats with all their might back into the water. By the time they were again afloat, the British fleet had descended & would have defeated them had not an American artillery piece on nearby Nantasket Head opened fire. The Minutemen lost only one member of their company, while the British suffered heavy casualties. General Washington praised the men as “gallant & soldier-like.”
Although the colonials had removed the light from the harbor, they had not removed the British. Enraged by the continued British occupation of the harbor, Samuel Adams devised a scheme to drive away the blockaders. On June 13, 1776, American troops armed with cannons headed for Nantasket Head & other strategic islands in the harbor. The next morning the British fleet awoke to a fiery assault that soon drove them back to the high seas.

However, before abandoning Boston Harbor, one of the ships put a small party ashore on Little Brewster Island, where they attached a slow-burning fuse to a keg of gunpowder. The blast destroyed the remains of the lighthouse.

In 1780, Massachusetts Governor John Hancock asked the legislature to fund a new tower. By 1783 the new 75-foot tower, designed “to be nearly of the same dimensions of the former lighthouse” was lit, & Little Brewster Island once again served as an aid to the many ships entering & leaving the harbor.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts ceded the lighthouse to the newly formed federal government in 1789. The tower remains virtually unchanged in appearance, but the changes in illumination mirror the development of lighting devices over the years. Initially the tower housed oil lamps; sixteen lamps were in place in 1789 when the Federal Government took possession. In 1811, the more effective Argand lamps, mounted on a rotating case, replaced the old oil lamps.

See Lighthouse Friends here for more intriguing lighthouse tales.