Minots Ledge Light, the most romantic lighthouse in America, is also the site of the most tragic event in the history of the American lighthouse.
Minots Ledge Light rises dramatically from a tiny outcropping of ledge one mile off the coast of Cohasset and Scituate, Mass. Its beacon flashes in a 1-4-3 cycle, the same number of letters in ‘I love you.’ Hence the nickname ‘Lover’s Light.’
Author Edward Rowe Snow called it “the most dangerous beacon in America.” On April 17, 1851, a hurricane swept the original Minots Ledge Light was swept to sea.
It had been built over two years and lighted for the first time on Jan. 1, 1850. The need for a lighthouse on the ledge was clear. Many ships wrecked on the rocks and the reefs nearby. The first of many shipwrecks was recorded in 1695; by the 1750s, 80 ships and 400 lives were lost in the surrounding waters. After Boston merchant George Minot lost a ship on the rocks in 1754, people called it Minots Ledge.
In 1843, lighthouse inspector I. W. P. Lewis reported there was a great need for a lighthouse on Minots Ledge, as more than 40 vessels were wrecked on the ledge in the past 10 years. He wrote the area was “annually the scene of the most heart-rending disasters.”
Capt. William H. Swift, of the United States Topographical Bureau, agreed. The question was whether a granite cylinder anchored to such a tiny speck of ledge could withstand the wind and the waves.
Swift proposed a radical new approach: cement nine iron pilings into the rock and build the lantern and the keeper’s house on top of them. He reasoned the waves would break harmlessly through the uprights.
It took two years to build the lighthouse, as people could only work on it in calm weather.
Henry David Thoreau passed by it in 1849, describing it thus:
Here was the new iron light-house, then unfinished, in the shape of an egg-shell painted red, and placed high on iron pillars, like the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves…When I passed it the next summer it was finished and two men lived in it, and a lighthouse keeper said that in a recent gale it had rocked so as to shake the plates off the table. Think of making your bed thus in the crest of a breaker!
The first keeper’s pet cat jumped to its death, so panicked by the dramatic swaying of the tower during a storm. The keeper, Isaac Dunham, wrote that a storm in March “makes the light reel like a Drunken man.” He asked the government to strengthen the tower, but the government ignored him. Dunham quit on Oct. 7, 1851.
John Bennett took Dunham’s place, confident in the safety of the tower. Then he changed his mind. On April 16, a fierce nor’easter pounded the tower. During a lull at the beginning of the storm, Bennett had rowed across to the mainland. His two assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, remained. Though terrified by the reeling lighthouse, they heroically kept the lantern lit and the bell ringing.
Message in a Bottle
Sometime around midnight the surging waves snapped off the central support to the tower. At 1 a.m., the residents on shore heard the furious sound of the keepers pounding the lighthouse bell. The lighthouse probably toppled into the sea about then.
Two days later a Gloucester fisherman found a message from the keepers in a bottle: “The beacon cannot last any longer. She is shaking a good three feet each way as I write. God bless you all.”
Joseph Antoine’s body washed ashore at Nantasket. Joseph Wilson died of exhaustion and exposure on Gull Rock.
For the next nine years, a lightship was stationed near Minots Ledge. In 1855, workers started building a new stone tower under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. It took five years to finish because another storm swept it away, unfinished, in 1852. Keepers finally lit the light on Aug. 2, 1860.
Minots Ledge Light now belongs on the National Register of Historic Places. Memorial plaques honoring Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine were lowered to the ocean floor in 2007. Some fishermen claim they can hear their ghosts crying for help.
This story updated in 2022.