Sankaty Head Lighthouse

Nantucket, Massachusetts
Perched high above a bluff in the village of ‘Sconset on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, Sankaty Head Lighthouse has stood since 1850.
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Sankaty Head Lighthouse: Guiding the Way on Nantucket Island

Perched high above a picturesque bluff in the village of ‘Sconset on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, Sankaty Head Lighthouse stands as a beautiful and historic navigational beacon. Since its activation in 1850, this lighthouse has been a guiding light for mariners, earning its name from the Indian word “sankoty,” which aptly means highland.

Navigational Necessity

The waters off Nantucket’s eastern coast have a long history of posing a significant navigational hazard. In 1843, civil engineer I.W.P. Lewis highlighted to Congress the urgent need for a lighthouse at Nantucket Island’s southern elbow, deeming it the most worthy location for such a vital structure in the entire United States at the time. Lewis’s report underscored the numerous shipwrecks that occurred as vessels attempted to navigate around this treacherous stretch of shoreline and shoals.

The United States government heeded Lewis’s call, and in the 1840s, it decided to establish a lighthouse of considerable influence to warn mariners of these perilous waters. Congress allocated $12,000 for its construction in 1848, with additional funds totaling $8,000 in the subsequent years. In February 1850, the light at Sankaty Head Lighthouse was first illuminated, marking a significant step in maritime safety. Notably, it was the first lighthouse in the United States to be equipped with an original Fresnel lens. The tower itself stood 60 feet tall, featuring a brick lower section and a granite upper section, and a weight-driven brass clockwork powered the light’s turning mechanism.

Keeper’s Dwelling and Modernization

During the tower’s construction, a brick house was built adjacent to it to accommodate the lightkeeper’s family. However, this dwelling was demolished in 1887 to make way for a new structure. Simultaneously, renovations to the tower saw the installation of a new lantern section, adding an additional 10 feet to its height.

In 1933, the lighthouse underwent a significant modernization effort, as it was electrified and automated. The original lens was removed in 1950 and now resides at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. In 1965, Sankaty Head Lighthouse became fully automated, marking another milestone in its history.

Facing Erosion and Preservation

On October 15, 1987, Sankaty Head Lighthouse was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. This is one of the biggest honors that can be given to a location by the National Park Service. It’s reference number is 87002028.

Over the years, erosion steadily ate away at the bluff in front of the historic lighthouse. By the early 1990s, all buildings on the lighthouse grounds had been removed, leaving only the tower itself. In 1991, the Perfect Storm further exacerbated the situation by eroding significant portions of the bluff.

In response to the impending threat, a group called Save Our Sankaty, composed of six ‘Sconset residents, took on the mission of preserving the endangered tower. The Nantucket Lifesaving Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association initially declined to take on the project. Subsequently, the ‘Sconset Trust purchased the lighthouse, raising the necessary $4 million, and initiated the daunting task of relocating the tower.

A Remarkable Move

The extraordinary relocation took place in September 2007. Diamond-studded chainsaws were used to carve holes in the lighthouse’s foundation, enabling a framework of steel beams to raise the structure. The tower was moved 390 feet to the northwest and 250 feet from the edge of the bluff, culminating in its new location on property donated by the Sankaty Head Golf Club.

A Guiding Light Endures

Sankaty Head Lighthouse remains operational as a crucial navigational aid, flashing white every seven and a half seconds. With its distinctive appearance—a white tower adorned with a wide red band—this 166-foot-high landmark is highly visible from both the land and sea.

The lighthous’s interior is open for tours a few times throughout the year and these events are run by the non-profit organization, ‘Sconset Trust. While the lighthouse’s interior is open only during special events, its grounds welcome the public daily. Limited parking is available at the end of Baxter Road, accommodating 3-4 cars. Many visitors opt to park in downtown ‘Sconset and enjoy a scenic walk to the lighthouse. Additionally, Sankaty Head Light can be viewed from Polpis Road, offering stunning vistas of this enduring symbol of maritime heritage.


Address: Baxter Road, Nantucket, Massachusetts
Place GPS Coordinates: 41.284390, -69.966232
Parking GPS Coordinates: 41.284390, -69.966232
Parking Notes: There is limited parking at the end of Baxter Road. There is space for 3-4 cars. Some visitors will park in downtown Sconset and then walk to the lighthouse. Furthermore, Sankaty Head Light can viewed from Polpis Road.

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