Plymouth Lighthouse

Plymouth, Massachusetts
Plymouth Lighthouse, also known as Gurnet Light, is a beautiful and historic tower situated on Gurnet Point in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
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About This Location

Introduction:

Perched proudly on Gurnet Point in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Plymouth Lighthouse, also known as Gurnet Light, has played a vital role in guiding mariners through the challenging waters of Plymouth Bay for centuries. With its rich history, notable keepers, and stunning location, this lighthouse remains a significant maritime landmark.

Why was the lighthouse needed, and where was the designated placement?

The need for navigational aid at Gurnet Point stemmed from Plymouth’s growing fishing industry and the increasing maritime trade in the late 18th century. Coastal and foreign trade thrived in Plymouth, making it one of the major ports in colonial America. Gurnet Point was strategically chosen as the location for the lighthouse to guide vessels safely through Plymouth Bay.

Establishment and Other Buildings:

The first lighthouse at Gurnet Point was authorized by an act of the colonial legislature on February 17, 1768. The lighthouse structure, constructed for 660 pounds, was a wooden dwelling with lanterns at each end of its roof. This unique design made it North America’s first “twin lights.” These lights became operational by September 1768. The land on which the lighthouse was built originally belonged to John and Hannah Thomas, and the government paid them five shillings for the right to construct the lighthouse.

Changes to the Lighthouse Tower and Station:

During the American Revolution, John Thomas, the first keeper, recruited a regiment of volunteers from Plymouth County and played a significant role in the conflict. However, he succumbed to smallpox in 1776. Remarkably, his wife, Hannah Thomas, took over the duties of keeping the lights during his absence, becoming America’s first woman lighthouse keeper. Local folklore suggests that the British frigate Niger fired upon the fort at Gurnet Point during the Revolution, with one cannonball piercing the lighthouse building.

The lighthouse’s first twin light structure served until June 30, 1801, when it was destroyed by fire. A temporary structure was paid for by local merchants but was nearly consumed by fire in early 1802. Congress subsequently appropriated $2,500 for the rebuilding of the station in April 1802.

A new pair of 22-foot-high twin towers, placed 30 feet apart, was constructed in 1803. These towers exhibited fixed white lights at 70 feet above sea level. The land at Gurnet Point was finally purchased outright from the Thomases for $120.

An 1842 inspection report highlighted the urgent need to reconstruct the station’s buildings. The twin towers were in such poor condition that even Stephen Pleasanton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury Department, who oversaw the nation’s lighthouses and was known for cost-cutting measures, acknowledged the need for immediate rebuilding in April 1842.

In 1843, new octagonal wooden towers, connected by a covered walkway, were completed. Alongside the towers, a spacious new keeper’s house was also constructed. Despite these changes, the two towers remained so close together that the lights sometimes appeared as one from a distance, leading to confusion with Barnstable’s Sandy Neck Light.

Specifications of the Lighthouse:

  • Height: The lighthouse towers originally stood at 22 feet in height, but their focal height was 70 feet above sea level.
  • Shape: The original twin light structure had two wooden towers, and later, octagonal wooden towers connected by a walkway.
  • Color: The towers were constructed from wood and painted white.
  • Flashing Pattern: The lights initially exhibited fixed white lights but later adopted Fresnel lenses.
  • Beacon: Fresnel lenses were installed in both towers and eventually upgraded to fourth-order lenses. A fog-bell tower with a 1,500-pound bell and automatic striking machinery was added to the station in 1907. A first-class Daboll fog trumpet replaced the bell later.

Listing on the National Register of Historic Places:

The Plymouth Lighthouse, also known as Gurnet Light, achieved a significant milestone on March 8, 1977, by being listed on the National Register of Historic Places under reference number 77000655. This recognition is a profound honor as it signifies the lighthouse’s historical and cultural significance, cementing its place in the annals of American maritime heritage. Being listed on the National Register acknowledges the lighthouse’s enduring role in guiding mariners and its contribution to the rich tapestry of maritime history, ensuring that its legacy continues to be celebrated and preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from.

Ownership and Maintenance Today:

Over the years, the Plymouth Lighthouse has seen various ownership changes and uses. The property was leased by the Coast Guard to the Massachusetts Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society in 1989. However, the lease later reverted to the Coast Guard. In 1994, the light was converted to solar power. Currently, Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, a preservation group, has a lease for the lighthouse and maintains the property, including the 1963 ranch-style keeper’s quarters.

Visiting the Lighthouse Today:

Access to the Gurnet is limited to residents by automobile. However, an open house is held in late May each year by Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, often as part of the Opening of the Bay festival in Duxbury. The former keeper’s house is available for rent by the week or month, offering a unique experience for those wishing to stay in this historic setting.

The Plymouth Lighthouse continues to serve as an active aid to navigation, featuring a sequence of three white flashes every 30 seconds. A red sector warns mariners of dangerous Mary Ann Rocks, and an automated foghorn sounds two blasts every 15 seconds, ensuring the safety of vessels in the region.

Lighthouse Specs

  • Originally Constructed: 1768
  • Current Tower Constructed: 1842
  • First Lit: 1842 (current tower)
  • Construction: Wood
  • Tower Shape: Octagonal pyramidal
  • Height: 34 feet
  • Focal Height: 102 feet
  • Markings: White tower with black lantern and a red roof
  • Characteristic: Flashing white 3 times every 10 seconds with a red sector too
  • Range: White light had a range of 17 nautical miles and red light had a range of 15 nautical miles
  • Status: Active
  • NRHP Number: 77000655

Location

Address: Gurnet Point, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Place GPS Coordinates: 42.003778, -70.600639
Parking GPS Coordinates: 42.003778, -70.600639
Parking Notes: No parking is available at the lighthouse. It is located in a remote private community. That said, visitors seem to be allowed to walk up to the tower, but they must first get their by walking along Duxbury Beach for many miles. Biking is possible too. The lighthouse can also be viewed from boat or plane.

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