Non-extant Navigational Aids

Postcard of Narrows "Bug" Light
Postcard of Narrows "Bug" Light
Narrows (Bug) Light
The Narrows, or Bug, Light no longer exists, but when it did it was certainly part of the lore and therefore the historical context of navigational aids in Boston Harbor.

The Narrows Light was located at the end of the spit that extends southwest from Great Brewster toward Lovells, ending at the entrance to the Narrows, once the main channel into the inner harbor. In 1854, under the U. S. Lighthouse Board, Congress appropriated funds for a lighthouse in that location. Built by Harrison Loring, a South Boston shipbuilder, it was a hexagonal wooden dwelling on seven iron screwpile stilts. The dwelling was surmounted by a lantern with a sixth-order Fresnel lens, and a fog bell with striking mechanism was attached to the side of the house. The structure was about 35 feet high and the overall impression was of a long-legged water bug, hence its nickname. The lighthouse went into operation in 1856. A wider gallery, or porch, and new outer stairs, which appear in many historical photographs, were added in 1891 (D’Entremont 2007l).

The demise of Bug Light occurred on June 7, 1929. The keeper was removing paint from the dwelling with a blow torch when the entire structure caught fire and was completely destroyed. A gas-operated lighted bell buoy was immediately placed at the site, replaced with an automatic light and fog bell on the remaining base of the lighthouse, and finally with the automatic light on small steel skeleton tower that exists today (D’Entremont 2007l).

Lovells Buoy Station
In 1874 the U. S. Lighthouse Board established a buoy station on the west side of Lovells. Although not a navigational aid itself, the station stocked replacements for the bell, whistle, and other types of buoys used in the harbor (Sweetser 1988 [1888]:188). The station closed in 1912, and remains of the wharf associated with the station still exist (Department of Conservation and Recreation 2005).
Original Deer Island Light caisson structure
Original Deer Island caisson structure
Deer Island Light
The next lighthouse constructed in Boston Harbor—Deer Island Light—like many others no longer exists. The site is 500 yards south of Deer Island Point on the north side of the entrance to the inner harbor. Ships using the Broad Sound Channel pass the site, which is probably why in 1832 the Boston Marine Society petitioned Congress for an unlighted stone beacon there. One was duly constructed and remained for almost 60 years (D’Entremont 2007e).

In 1886, at the request of the U. S. Lighthouse Board, Congress appropriated funds for a lighthouse to replace the daybeacon. A cylindrical 33-foot-diameter 30-foot-high caisson was sunk into the spit in about six feet of water. It was filled with concrete, leaving space for a basement and cisterns, and on top of it was built a cast iron superstructure with four levels, including living quarters that were encircled by a roofed gallery. The lighthouse also included a fog bell with striking machinery, and the 57-foot-high light went into operation in 1890 (D’Entremont 2007e).

Over the years Deer Island Light deteriorated significantly. As early as 1902 the caisson base was patched and banded for reinforcement. Deterioration still continued until finally, in 1937, a protective wall of sheet piling was built around the base. In 1965 the roof over the gallery had to be removed. In a severe storm in February 1972 the tower began to tip and the entire lighthouse was abandoned. At that point the tower was deemed unsafe, the Coast Guard said repairs would be expensive, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission deemed the lighthouse not eligible for the National Register. As a result, the lighthouse was demolished in 1982 and replaced with a white fiberglass tower set on the old foundation. Complaints were soon made that the white tower could not be seen against the background of Deer Island. It was thus moved to Nantucket to replace Great Point Lighthouse, which had been destroyed in a storm (though ultimately the Deer Island tower was not used), and a 33-foot brown fiberglass tower was installed on the Deer Island foundation (D’Entremont 2007e).
Boston Auxiliary Light
In 1890, the same year the Deer Island Light was completed, the first range light on a Harbor Island went into operation. Range lights are usually lights installed on two towers that, if kept lined up, insure that a ship is in the center of a channel. This first range light, the Boston Auxiliary Light, however, was just one light—a central clear white light with red lights on either side. The object was to steer a course for the white light, avoiding the red sectors. The purpose of the Boston Auxiliary Light was to guide ships leaving Boston through Nantasket Roads, helping them avoid Toddy Rocks and Hunts Ledge. It was installed in a small frame building on Little Brewster just south of the Boston Light tower. The Boston Auxiliary Light remained in service until 1960 when a buoy change in Nantasket Roads made it superfluous; the building on Little Brewster was demolished in 1962 (Snowman and Thomson 1999:40, 126).
Boston Lightship
The next major navigational aid to be installed—Boston Lightship—is another that, like Deer Island Light, has been replaced by a buoy and, like Minots Ledge Light, was not actually in Boston Harbor. But, again, the lightship is part of the historical lore of navigational aids in the harbor and is thus part of their historical context.

Unlike many lightships, Boston Lightship did not mark a navigational hazard but rather the approach to Boston Harbor. The ship, placed in 1894, was anchored in 84 feet of water six-and-a-quarter miles east southeast of Boston Light. Despite this relatively open location, the ship was next to the shipping lanes and thus exposed to other hazards. On September 27, 1915, for example, an outbound steamer smashed a hole in the lightship, and on December 20, 1935, a British freighter rammed and almost sank it (New York Times 1915, 1935). Like many other lightships, Boston Lightship was replaced with a large navigational buoy (LNB) in the 1970s, in this case, in 1975 (U. S. Coast Guard 2008).
Spectacle Island Range Lights, c 1900
Spectacle Island Range Lights, c 1900
Spectacle Island Range Lights
The next significant navigational aid installed in the harbor, the Spectacle Island Range Lights in 1897, again no longer exists. In 1892 the U. S. Lighthouse Board argued that range lights were needed on Spectacle to mark the turning point in the channel entering the harbor from Nixes Mate and the center of the channel that passed the South Boston Flats. Money for the lights was appropriated in 1895, and in 1897 two tapered octagonal wooden towers were completed on the northeast part of Spectacle, the front one 13.3 feet high and the rear 23 feet. A keeper’s house was also built as part of the installation. In 1904 both towers were moved about 15 feet south and placed on new foundations. But, about 1900, the main shipping channel into Boston Harbor was changed from the Narrows to Broad Sound. This move made the 1897 range lights on Spectacle obsolete and they were discontinued in 1913. Both the towers and the keeper’s house were demolished sometime thereafter (D’Entremont 2007p).
Broad Sound Channel Inner Range Lights
The opening of the Broad Sound Channel necessitated new range lights to guide ships through it, so in 1902 two pairs were authorized, one set on Spectacle and one on Lovells. The ones on Spectacle, called the Broad Sound Channel Inner Range Lights, went into operation in 1903. They were two tapered circular wooden towers, each surmounted by a lantern encircled by an iron-railed gallery. Like the 1897 range lights, these towers were also built on the northeast part of Spectacle, one of them very close to the taller rear 1897 tower. Fourth-order Fresnel lenses were installed in both new towers, an oil house was built in 1904, and a second frame six-room keeper’s house was added for the tender of the new range lights. The Broad Sound Channel range lights on Spectacle were deactivated in the 1940s and presumably demolished shortly thereafter (D’Entremont 2007d). During the intensive archaeological survey of Spectacle in 1987–88 that preceded the island’s use by the Big Dig, remains of 1903 range lights were found: the brick foundation, iron gallery railing, and roof fragments of the rear light; bricks from the oil house; and foundation of the keeper’s house (Jones 1989:45–47, Figs. 40–42, 44–45).
Lovells Island Range Lights, c 1905
Lovells Island Range Lights, c 1905
Lovells Island Range Lights
The second set of range lights for the Broad Sound Channel were built on the north part of Lovells and also completed in 1903. They were very similar in design to those on Spectacle—slightly tapered wooden cones surmounted by an iron lantern with gallery rail and rounded finial at roof peak. The front tower, on the east side of the island, was 31 feet tall; the rear, to the west, 40 feet tall, and fourth-order Fresnel lenses were installed in both. The towers were 400 feet apart, connected by a seven-foot-high wooden walkway across the intervening marsh along which lay a brick oil house. Walkways also connected the rear (western) tower with the six-room frame keeper’s house and the latter with a woodshed. The Lovells range lights operated until 1939 when, to make room for an expansion of Fort Standish, they were discontinued and demolished (D’Entremont 2007i). The oil house is still standing, however, as are some of the posts that supported the raised walkway, but an archaeological survey in 2007 found that Lovells has eroded so much that remains of both towers have disappeared and the house foundation is at the water’s edge and rapidly being washed away (Seasholes and Binzen 2008:167).

Prepared by Nancy S. Seasholes, 2009


Last updated: February 26, 2015

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