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Highland Light in Truro undergoing major repairs, expected to reopen next summer

Highland Light in Truro, commissioned by George Washington in 1797, is undergoing major renovations until next summer.
Highland Light in Truro, commissioned by George Washington in 1797, is undergoing major renovations until next summer.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

One of the nation’s oldest lighthouses is undergoing major renovations once again.

Since its construction in 1797, Highland Light in Truro has served as a guide for sailors at night, an inspiration for renowned painters, and a destination for tourists along Cape Cod. After decades of corrosion caused by strong coastal winds and other forces of nature, the brick-and-mortar lighthouse is receiving a much-needed makeover.

The $2 million project, funded by the National Park Service, will repair the lighthouse’s corroded metal and repoint the tower’s peak among other exterior finishes, along with replacing the current ventilation system. Construction began in July and is scheduled to be finished next summer.

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“It’s the highest lighthouse on the Cape, one of the oldest in the country, and it’s very significant both nationally and locally,” Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said in a telephone interview. “The views from there are unparalleled in the Cape, but even from ground level it’s spectacular.”

As a picturesque staple on the coast for over two centuries, Highland Light has a rich history. It was commissioned by George Washington and was the 20th one built in the United States. It was originally set 500 feet from a cliff, but over the years crashing waves steadily eroded the coastline until locals were forced to take action.


Highland Light has guided sailors off the coast of Cape Cod to safety for over two centuries and inspired the works of several artists and writers, including Edward Hopper and Henry David Thoreau.
Highland Light has guided sailors off the coast of Cape Cod to safety for over two centuries and inspired the works of several artists and writers, including Edward Hopper and Henry David Thoreau.Raj Das

In the 1990s, when Highland Light was just 100 feet from its certain fate — a 125-foot fall into the ocean — the Truro Historical Society undertook the ambitious project of moving the lighthouse away from its original perch. The society sent out over 30,000 brochures, collected over 140,000 signatures on a petition to preserve the lighthouse, and raised more than $150,000 through selling T-shirts, souvenirs, and gathering donations, according to the group’s website.

A $1.5 million boost in funding from the state and federal governments allowed the project to come to fruition. In 1996, the lighthouse, weighing just shy of 1 million pounds, was moved 450 feet away from its previous position.

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“It’s not everyday a lighthouse gets moved,” Carlstrom said.

Edward Hopper, Highland Light, 1930
Edward Hopper, Highland Light, 1930Edward Hopper/Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund

Moving the massive structure, however, had its drawbacks.

To stabilize the structure, the ventilation system was filled with a concrete-like substance that was never removed, Carlstrom said. Along with the other repairs, the ventilation system will be entirely restored for improved air circulation.

“We’re also fixing the mortar and bricks, putting a coating on it so it will be breathable to stand the test of time,” Carlstrom said.

While under repair, the building is hardly recognizable — scaffolding wraps around the lighthouse, covering any recognizable characteristic other than its towering size. Carlstrom compared Highland Light’s current state to another guiding landmark for sailors, the Statue of Liberty, when it was wrapped in scaffolding while it underwent repairs in 1984.

Renovations to Highland Light in Truro, one of the nation's oldest lighthouses, are expected to be complete by next summer.
Renovations to Highland Light in Truro, one of the nation's oldest lighthouses, are expected to be complete by next summer.National Park Service

“What’s really unique is the aid to navigation is still working,” Carlstrom said of the 66-foot-tall lighthouse, which uses an LED light to guide sailors away from the shoals. “It’s still providing a really important safety aspect for all the mariners out there.”

In an article published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864, Henry David Thoreau visited the lighthouse and wrote of the light:

“The light-house lamp a few feet distant shone full into my chamber, and made it bright as day, so I knew exactly how the Highland Light bore all that night, and I was in no danger of being wrecked.”

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Currently, the lighthouse is maintained by the Coast Guard, Carlstrom said.

Once completed next summer, the lighthouse and keeper’s house will reopen for tours and educational programs. The pandemic hasn’t affected Highland Point much — construction was slightly delayed — but Carlstrom said resuming public activities may take some creative thinking. Even with a new ventilation system, the inside of the lighthouse is a tight space and may be difficult to practice physical distancing.

“The project is moving forward, and I’m looking forward to it being done,” Carlstrom said.

Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.