With Nantucket Sound to the west, and the frigid Atlantic Ocean to the east, dangerous “rips” where the two bodies of water come together over shallow shoals and bars have led to a number of shipwrecks, and earned Monomoy the ancient French name of Cape Malabar—the “Cape of Evil Bars.” “There is no other part of the world, perhaps,” wrote, the director of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1869, “where tides of such very small rise and fall are accompanied by such strong currents running far out to sea.”
Whitewash Village, a fishing community, thrived on Monomoy in the early nineteenth century. Fishermen caught cod and mackerel, as well as lobsters (sold for two cents each to mainlanders). The resultant swell in marine traffic demanded a lighthouse, but before Monomoy Lighthouse was built, lightships were posted in the area.
There were residents of Whitewash Village known as wreckers, who enjoyed another bounty from the sea. Wreckers prayed for (and some even tried to cause) shipwrecks, which they would quickly strip. Although the incidence of wrecks was high, the loss of life was low.
On March 3, 1823, the U.S. government approved $3,000 of which $2782.72 was spent for Cape Cod’s fifth lighthouse, located on Monomoy Point—also known as Sandy Point. The light was in the Cape Cod style with a wooden tower and iron lantern room atop the roof of the brick keeper’s dwelling. The lantern room contained eight lamps with thirteen-inch reflectors that shone a fixed light a mere twenty-five feet above the sea, beginning on November 1, 1823.
But even the building of the light did not put the wreckers out of business. The ever-shifting sands and changing shoals continued to fool even the most experienced captains. Big Hugh, a look-out, would cry, ‘Wreck ashore!,’ and Monomoy House would clear out without even a “By-r leave.”
An 1838 inspection by the critical Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender found the light station to be “perfectly satisfactory and good,” which from Carpender was high praise.
Solomon Doane became keeper with an annual salary of $400 in 1841, and provided the following report on the station to I.W.P. Lewis in 1842:
The foundations of the light-house have settled, and the walls are cracked in several places particularly on the northeast end, causing very bad leaks through the walls. The roof leaks about the chimney, and very much about the tower where it joins the roof, covering the walls and stairs with water. The whole of the house is out of repair. The lantern has been so much racked by storms that it shakes so as to break the glass continually; there are twelve panes wanting now. The lantern leaks very badly in all wet weather, and is entirely out of repair. The vane is rusted off, and the ventilator is out of gear, and will not traverse without a very strong breeze. The coasters complain of the feebleness of this light. Formerly, the beach was but sixty yards from the light; now it is two hundred and sixty-one yards. The reflectors are worn out. The well of water has been spoiled by the drain &c., breaking into it. I am allowed a boat, but there is not boat-house. My oil was good last year, but poor this year. The kitchen chimney leaks and smoke, and the oven has fallen to pieces, and is useless. Owing to the loss of my well, I am dependent upon my neighbors for water, as there is no rain-water cistern on the premises.Doane’s complaints were finally addressed seven years later, in 1849, when the station received a new keeper’s house and a cylindrical, cast-iron, tower about forty feet tall. A contract shows that Cyrus Alger erected the tower, while Pelham Bonney built the two-story, wood-frame keeper’s house. While the new structures were an improvement, they weren’t without fault, as an inspector in 1850 noted that the lighthouse wasn’t “stiff enough,” as he could shake the lantern room using just one hand to such a degree that the glass chimneys in the lamps broke into pieces. Wooden braces were added to stiffen the tower, and then in 1892, six iron trusses were installed to reduce vibrations.
By the 1860s, a hurricane and the sudden departure of fish helped bring an end to Whitewash Village and its wreckers.
Monomoy’s isolated location led to keepers staying five-and-a-half years on average, and records indicate there was one woman among Monomoy’s keepers.
From 1865 to 1875, John B. Tuttle, a resident of Harwich who had been wounded in the Civil War, served as keeper of Monomoy Light. Tuttle received $700 per year, and after ten years, passed the position to his stepson, Asa L. Jones, who had also been wounded in the Civil War.
A telephone line was built in 1898 to connect Monomoy Light with the nearby Monomoy Life-Saving Service station, under a national defense appropriation. In 1899, $2,600 was requested to rebuild the keeper’s house due to deterioration and a “useless hall” that separated the rooms and made it difficult to heat them with “cold winds blowing off the fields of ice.” The following year, the lower story of the dwelling was renewed and rearranged.
Also in 1899, James P. Smith, a native of Copenhagen and a former assistant keeper at Boston Light, took over as keeper. In May 1900, Keeper Smith pulled a pistol on Valentine Nickerson, a surfman stationed at the nearby lifesaving station. Other surfmen intervened to defuse the situation, but later that day a deputy sheriff arrived and arrested Smith. Keeper Smith’s only explanation for his action was that the Nickerson had “enticed Smith’s son away from home,” supposedly to work on his farm. This son must have been George, who would have been twenty-one at the time. Keeper Smith was fined twenty-five dollars and allowed to return to the lighthouse.
After Keeper Smith’s wife died in October 1900, three of his daughters proved a great help.
Following the wreck of the Elsie M. Smith in February 1902, Smith had to be assisted by his daughters Annie and Emma to pull the dead body of a Nova Scotia fisherman from the surf. Emma estimated that with his oil clothes full of sand, the fisherman must have weighed 300 pounds.
At the time of a 1904 article, Smith’s girls still at home were Annie, Emma, and Carrie – a fourth daughter, Louisa, was married and lived in Provincetown. The reporter, venturing “on so delicate a subject as feminine age, guessed the daughters were 24, 17, and 13, when in reality they were 29, 19, and 16. Annie, the oldest daughter, took over household duties and tended the light during Keeper Smith’s absence.
When asked by a reporter if it was lonely at the light, Annie replied, “Oh, no! We don’t have time to be lonesome. There is always something to do, with the housekeeping and the light.” The reporter noted, “Even the stove shines like a new dollar.” When Keeper Smith died of heart in March 1910 while descending the tower’s stairs after extinguishing the light, Annie took charge of the station for a month, before Edward Brewer was made keeper.
In 1911, Charles Jennings of Provincetown became keeper earning $660 per year. His son Harold wrote about life at Monomoy Light in his book, A Lighthouse Family. The Jennings kept a cow, horse, and chickens. When taking their horse-drawn buggy across the mudflats to Chatham, they would have to get out to lead the horse around places where it could become mired.
On one of those trips in 1914, the keeper’s wedding ring slipped off becoming hopelessly lost in the mud. Every time thereafter he would take the same route searching for his ring. His wife told him that with the waves washing the area, it would never be found. On the day before Jennings’ transfer to Boston Light, he informed his wife he was going out to find his ring. What a shock for all when that day, find it he did!
To make the trip to Chatham easier, Douglas H. Shepherd, the last keeper of the light, designed special tires with ten-inch-wide treads for his Model-T Ford to create one of the first dune buggies. This vehicle was able to travel nine-and-a-half miles over soft beach in just twenty minutes, while two-and-a-half hours were needed to traverse the same route using a horse and buggy.
After Cape Cod Canal opened in 1914, and the intensity of Chatham Light was increased, the need for Monomoy Point Light diminished. The light’s usefulness was further decreased when the United States Engineers dredged Pollock Rip Channel to provide a straight channel through the shoals off Cape Cod. This move allowed Pollock Rip light vessel and Monomoy Lighthouse to both be discontinued on February 17, 1923, providing an annual saving of $26,269. The tower’s fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed, and the light station was sold to George Dunbar of Chatham for $500.
Later, the property passed to George Smith Bearse, a Chatham car dealer whose great-grandfather David Bearse had been an early keeper at Monomoy. Upon visiting the property he was surprised to find that Navy planes had been using it for machine-gun target practice.
In 1964, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who had purchased the buildings from the last private owners, restored the lighthouse and keeper’s house, but then sold the property to the federal government in 1977. Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped secure a federal grant in 1988 for a major overhaul of the lighthouse and the keeper’s dwelling spearheaded by the Lighthouse Preservation Society.
In late October 2009, the U.S. Department of Interior announced that $1.5 million in 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money would be used to shore up Monomoy Point Lighthouse and its keeper’s dwelling. Oak Point Associates of Maine and New Hampshire was hired to assess needed repairs, and the project went out for bid in early 2010.
Campbell Construction Group of Peabody bid $2.1 million for the project, more than the money available, so the work had to be scaled back. The tower was restored and received new glass panes in the lantern room, while the keeper’s dwelling got a new roof, siding, windows, and a well for potable water. Wind and solar generators allowed the dwelling to be wired for electricity so that radiant heat can be used to prevent mold.
Since a storm in 1978, Monomoy has been accessible only by boat. South Monomoy has no human residents, no electricity, no paved roads, and no vehicles on the entire island. The only reminder of Monomoy’s inhabited past is Monomoy Point Lighthouse, with its wooden keeper’s quarters, cast iron light tower, and brick oil house. Monomoy Lighthouse’s remoteness makes it one of the least visited light stations in Massachusetts, which is all the better for the over ten species of birds that call the area, not to mention the 285 species that stop during migration.
Head Keepers: David Bearse (at least 1825 – at least 1839), Solomon Doane (1841 – 1846), Asa Nye (1846 – 1849), Solomon Doane (1849 – 1853), Asa Nye (1853 – 1857), Asa Nye, Jr. (1857 – 1861), Nathaniel Small (1861 – 1865), John B. Tuttle (1865 – 1875), Asa L. Jones (1875 – 1886), Stephen Howes (1886 – 1890), Charles H. Hammond (1890 – 1899), James P. Smith (1899 – 1910), Anna M. Smith (1910), Edward Eveleth Brewer, Sr. (1910 – 1911), Charles H. Jennings (1911 – 1916), Douglas H. Shepherd (1916 – 1923).
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