New Bedford, Massachusetts

Palmer's Island Lighthouse, standing proudly in New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts, serves as a timeless symbol of maritime history and navigational safety.

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About This Location

Palmer's Island Lighthouse, standing proudly in New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts, serves as a timeless symbol of maritime history and navigational safety. This historic lighthouse, though no longer an active beacon, remains an iconic feature of New Bedford's coastal landscape, adored by both locals and visitors. It has a rich history, and its picturesque charm continues to captivate the imagination of all who encounter it.

Advocating for a Beacon:

The story of Palmer's Island Lighthouse begins in the early 1800s when New Bedford was hailed as the nation's whaling capital. The city's shipowners and sea captains ardently lobbied for the construction of a lighthouse to mark their harbor's entrance. Their efforts bore fruit when, on March 3, 1837, Congress approved $2,000 for the building of a beacon light at the harbor's mouth. Yet, as Inspector I.W.P. Lewis noted in a 1842 survey, another lighthouse on Palmer Island would be an essential addition to enhance safety for incoming vessels.

It took several years of determined advocacy, but in 1848, the U.S. government finally allocated $3,500 for the establishment of Palmer's Island Lighthouse. An acre of land on Palmer Island, named after one of Dartmouth's original settlers, William Palmer, was acquired in the following year.

Architectural Vision Becomes Reality:

Architect Charles M. Pierce was entrusted with designing and constructing Palmer Island Lighthouse. The outcome was a unique and elegant structure featuring a conical stone tower, reaching a height of twenty-four feet. At its zenith, a birdcage-style lantern adorned the tower, offering a visible signal to mariners. The lighthouse was constructed using rubblestone, wooden doors, and floors. A connecting walkway extended from the tower to the keeper's dwelling located on the higher ground of the island. Impressively, the entire project came in under budget by $173. On August 30, 1849, Keeper William Sherman kindled the tower's lamps for the first time.

Maintaining Navigational Safety:

To shield the lighthouse from the elements, a substantial ninety-nine-foot-long seawall was built on the island's eastern side in 1852. This seawall not only fortified the structure but also preserved its operational integrity. The importance of Palmer's Island Light was emphasized when, in 1853, New Bedford incorporated an image of the lighthouse into its city seal.

As New Bedford reached its peak prosperity in 1857 and became the world's richest city per capita, Palmer's Island Lighthouse played a vital role in supplying whale oil for the nation's lighthouse system. It was an emblem of the city's maritime heritage and wealth.

Technological Evolution and Hurricane Barrier:

Over the years, Palmer's Island Lighthouse witnessed technological advances, receiving upgrades such as a fifth-order Fresnel lens in 1856, which enhanced its visibility. In 1863, a new lantern was installed, casting a steady green light that was visible for miles.

The fate of the lighthouse took an unexpected turn with the construction of the New Bedford Hurricane Barrier in 1962. While the barrier was designed to protect the city from storms and surges, it inadvertently rendered Palmer's Island Lighthouse obsolete. Its location, immediately north of the barrier, was no longer critical for navigational safety, leading to its discontinuation.

Resilience and Restoration:

The proximity of Palmer Island to the hurricane barrier exposed the lighthouse to greater accessibility and, unfortunately, to vandalism. In 1966, a devastating arson fire caused significant damage to the tower and its lantern room. Local residents, recognizing the historical and cultural significance of the lighthouse, embarked on restoration efforts that culminated in 1989.

However, the lighthouse faced further challenges as vandals struck again, leaving it dark and abandoned for most of the 1990s. New restoration endeavors, including painting and repairs carried out by inmates in the Bristol County Sheriff Department's Pre-Release Program, culminated in a grand ceremony in 1999. This event marked Palmer Island Light's 150-year anniversary, featuring the rekindling of its light. New Bedford Mayor Fred Kalisz led the ceremony, symbolizing the lighthouse's enduring spirit.

A Beloved Landmark:

Today, Palmer's Island Lighthouse stands as a cherished and historically significant landmark in New Bedford. Although it no longer serves as a navigational aid, it continues to enchant visitors with its timeless charm and historical importance. The lighthouse, with its distinguished architecture and rich maritime heritage, evokes the nostalgia of a bygone era.

Visitors are welcome to explore the lighthouse's surroundings, walking around its historic tower and enjoying views from the nearby hurricane barrier. Palmer's Island Lighthouse is a testament to the enduring allure of lighthouses and their role in shaping the history of coastal communities.

National Recognition:

In honor of its historical and architectural significance, Palmer's Island Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 1980. This prestigious designation acknowledges the lighthouse's role in preserving maritime history and the cultural heritage of the United States. Its reference number, 80000433, underscores its importance as a cherished historical landmark.

Location Features

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Gifford Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts

GPS Coordinates:
41.626944, -70.909139
Directions to location:
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Directions to parking area:
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Parking Notes:
There are about two dozen parking spots located at the end of Gifford Street in New Bedford. Parking spots allow visitors to access the New Bedford Harborwalk and walk over to the lighthouse.


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