Place

Boston Light

A tall white lighthouse with smaller white buildings at its foot along a rocky coastline.
Boston Light is recognized as the oldest lighthouse in the United States.

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

First Erected: 1716
Destroyed in 1776 by British, re-erected in 1783 as first U.S. lighthouse
Height: 75 feet
First Keeper:  George Worthylake
Current Keeper: Sally Snowman
Automated in: 1998
Light: Second order Fresnel Lens
10 second interval/White light
Distance: 27 nautical miles (31mi)1

"Whereas the want of a lighthouse erected at the entrance to the harbor of Boston hath been a great discouragement to navigation by the loss of the lives and estates of several of his majesty’s subjects; for prevention thereof — Be it enacted…that there be a lighthouse erected at the charge of the Province, on the southernmost part of the Great Brewster, called Beacon Island, to be kept lighted from sun setting to sun rising."2

In the 1700s, Boston served as Britain’s busiest North American port, trading in goods from all over the world. However, the natural geography of the harbor proved difficult to navigate, with shifting tides alternately revealing and hiding deadly rocks and shoals. This resulted in the loss of many a fortune and sailors to its waters. Finally, in 1715, fed up with continued loss of lives and property, townspeople petitioned the colonial government of Massachusetts to construct a lighthouse at the edge of the harbor, paid for with money raised by a tax on all ships that entered and left the port. One penny per ton were paid by larger vessels and an annual tax of five shillings for smaller and local vessels. This funded the initial construction and continued upkeep and operational costs of the lighthouse. 

Located on Little Brewster Island at the entrance to the harbor, the stone tower lighthouse was completed in 1716 and stood roughly 60 feet tall, most likely lit by a combination of candle and oil lamps. Boston Light first illuminated the harbor on September 16, 1716. Harbor resident George Worthylake served as its first lighthouse keeper. He lived on Little Brewster with his wife, two of his children, two enslaved people, and a hired servant. 

Unfortunately, tragedy befell the first two keepers. In November of 1718, while returning from the mainland, Worthylake and five other people drowned off the edge of Little Brewster Island. The other victims included Worthylake's wife Anne, daughter Ruth, servant George Cutler, an enslaved man called Shadwell, and a friend named John Edge.3 The event inspired a poem titled, The Lighthouse Tragedy, written by a 12-year-old aspiring printer named Benjamin Franklin. The second lighthouse keeper, Robert Saunders, also drowned only a few days into his appointment while on his way back to Little Brewster Island. John Hays served as the third lighthouse keeper for Boston Light in as many years and had more luck than the first two. He requested that a fog cannon be placed on the island and, in 1719, acquired one as such, which stayed on the island in service for the next 132 years.

Boston Light became a point of conflict between British and colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War. Occupying the lighthouse in 1774, British forces maintained control until July 1775, when a small colonial force arrived on Brewster island via whale-boats and set fire to the lighthouse. An eyewitness account recorded: "I ascended an eminence at a distance, and saw the flames of the lighthouse ascending up to heave like grateful incense."4 Although British marines started to rebuild the lighthouse, another outfit of 300 colonial troops stopped their progress a few weeks later. British troops destroyed the original Boston Light by setting off a series of timed explosives as its last act of retribution upon leaving Boston in June of 1776.5 So while Boston Light was the first lighthouse station to be built in the territory that eventually became the United States, the original structure's destruction during the Siege of Boston means it cannot lay claim to the oldest standing lighthouse in the country.

Boston Light remained ruined until 1783, when the new commonwealth of Massachusetts rebuilt Boston Light. Keeping a similar style and dimensions as the previous structure, it now stood at 75 feet, its current height today. 

In 1790, ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the federal government. After serving faithfully for 215 years, Boston Light was the last lighthouse in the country to be automated in 1998. The current keeper of Boston Light is civilian Sally Snowman, the light’s first female keeper. Appointed in 2003, Snowman continues the time-honored tradition in one of the country’s most iconic lighthouses.


Footnotes

  1. This entry on Boston Light comes from a Boston Harbor Islands newsletter feature of Boston Harbor lighthouses. For more information, please visit the post on the Boston Harbor Islands partnership website.
  2. Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court (of Massachusetts) 1715-1716, Vol. 2, Ch. 4. (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1874). 
  3. “From Colonial Burying Ground to Victorian Park,” The Historical Marker Database, February 17, 2022. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=192057.
  4. Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston (Boston: C. C. Little and J. Borwn, 1851), 227.
  5. Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation, Cultural Landscape Report: Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park, Volume 1: Historical Overview (Boston: National Park Service, 2017), 60-61.

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

Last updated: June 16, 2022