This summer is the 300th anniversary of Boston Light, America’s first lighthouse. Like the more than 1,000 lighthouses built in the United States, Boston Light has kept countless ships from wrecking, saved untold lives, and contributed mightily to the growth and prosperity of the nation. The entire country should celebrate this impressive milestone.
First lit on Sept. 14, 1716, and located 10 miles from downtown Boston, on Little Brewster Island, the lighthouse has an early history both intriguing and dramatic. Two years after becoming the country’s first lighthouse keeper, George Worthylake, his wife, Ann, and one of his daughters, Ruth, took the lighthouse boat into Boston.
Upon their return, they moored just off Little Brewster Island, and then transferred to the canoe that Worthylake’s slave, Shadwell, paddled out to bring them ashore. But the canoe overturned, pitching them into the chilly waters of Boston Harbor, where they, Shadwell, and two other passengers drowned.
Two of the temporary keepers sent to replace Worthylake also drowned, and in the ensuing decades, the wooden parts of the lighthouse burned on a number of occasions. But the most serious blow ever to befall the lighthouse came during the American Revolution.
Lighthouses do not distinguish between friend and foe. So, soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress recommended that Boston Lighthouse be darkened so it wouldn’t help the British Navy safely navigate the harbor.
To that end, on July 20, 1775, Major Joseph Vose, of the continental army, led a raid on Little Brewster Island. A mini whaleboat armada took off from Nantasket Peninsula and rowed to the island, surprising the British guards, and torching the lighthouse.
Nearby British ships chased the Americans, unleashing a series of broadsides, but Vose’s raiders made it back to Nantasket with only two men sustaining minor wounds. An eyewitness to this entire affair said that he “saw the flames of the lighthouse ascending up to heaven like grateful incense, and the [British] ships wasting their powder.”
Since the lighthouse was critical to British plans to lay siege to Boston, in a little more than a week they had it repaired and shining again. This didn’t sit well with the newly appointed commander of the American forces, George Washington, who ordered another attack on the lighthouse.
It took place on July 30, when Major Benjamin Tupper led 300 soldiers in another mini whaleboat armada to the island. This time, a bloody battle broke out, leaving six British marines dead. Tupper and his men torched the lighthouse again, and, with the British in pursuit, made it back to Hull, sustaining only one fatality.
The damage was far worse than the first raid. And it took the British nearly four months, until the end of November 1775, to repair the lighthouse and have it shining. But that was not the end of the story.
The Siege of Boston finally ended in 1776 when the British retreated and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on March 17 — forever after celebrated by Bostonians as Evacuation Day. A few warships, however, remained in the vicinity of the lighthouse to warn other ships coming from Britain that the army had departed.
The continued British presence infuriated the Americans, and on June 14, Continental Army troops fired cannons and mortars at enemy ships from batteries on Long Island, while other troops fired on them from Nantasket. This barrage forced the remnants of the British fleet to put to sea, but before they left, British marines landed on Little Brewster Island.
Recognizing the lighthouse’s strategic value to the insurgents, the British torched it and left a keg of gunpowder at its base. Then they returned to their ships along with the lighthouse guards. Less than an hour later, at eleven in the morning, the keg’s fuse hit its mark. The Boston Lighthouse blew up, turning it into “a heap of rubbish” in the words of one eyewitness.
The current Boston Lighthouse rose on the same spot as the first lighthouse, in 1783. And to this day, it continues to guide mariners safely along Massachusetts’ treacherous coast, and in and out of the harbor. Few public structures have served us so well.
Eric Jay Dolin is author of “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse.’’