Seeing the light (houses)

Racepoint Light, Provincetown — Photo by William DeSousa-Mauk

Nobska Light, Woods Hole/Falmouth. Built in 1828, the original lighthouse was replaced in 1879. Nobska Light is unusual: when seen from the perpendicular, its beacon appears white, but when viewed from other angles, it appears reddish. This helps orient sailors to their position relative to the lighthouse. Nobska stands on a rise of land towering over the water and is a beacon for Woods Hole Harbor, guiding mariners traveling between the Cape Cod mainland and Martha’s Vineyard. The 1876 keeper’s house, which has grown and expanded over the years, now serves as housing for the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard at Group Woods Hole.

The light is readily accessible and the view from the grounds across Vineyard Sound to Martha’s Vineyard is breathtaking. At one time, Nobska was painted brown at the turn of the century; today it is painted white and gleams with the late afternoon setting sun.

Nauset Light, Nauset Light Beach, Eastham. Before Nauset Light was moved from Chatham (where it stood next to Chatham Light) in 1923, three lights — “Three Sisters” — stood watch, guiding sailors home. Lighthouses were moved around Cape Cod like chess pieces it seems, and the Three Sisters are now in an Eastham park. In 1940, Nauset Light, the remaining operating beacon in Eastham, was painted a distinctive red and white to match its light characteristic. Threatened by shoreline erosion throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the historic 114-foot tower was in very real danger of being lost. Funds were raised and the lighthouse was successfully moved to a new location just to the west of its former site in late 1996. In October of 1998, the 1875 lighthouse keeper’s home (which is privately owned) was also moved and reunited with the light tower. Both are now on property of the Cape Cod National Seashore. and

Three Sisters Lighthouses, Eastham: Nauset Beach Light Station was first established in 1839 with construction of three small brick towers. Because it comprises three separate structures, the light station has always been known locally as the “Three Sisters of Nauset” and they have been moved a half-mile from shore and are arranged in an attractive parklike setting, standing as a monument to all lighthouses still in existence.

Chatham Light, Chatham. In 1808, the first lighthouse, actually two small wooden towers, was built as beacons for Chatham’s treacherous shoals and as a guide to help locate Chatham Harbor. With erosion and deterioration threatening, the original towers were replaced with two new brick towers in 1841. In 1879, two new cast iron, brick-lined towers were constructed at a location farther from the shoreline — these were known as the Chatham Twin Lights. By 1923, the Lighthouse Service was finding it expensive to maintain light stations with two lights, such as Chatham’s, and eliminated one of the towers, moving the north tower to Eastham, where it became known as Nauset Light. The second original cast iron 1879 “south” tower remains at Chatham Light and is still in use today. The old Fresnel lens in its original 1879 lantern is preserved at the Old Atwood House Museum in Chatham.

Monomoy Point Light, Monomoy Island, off Chatham. Monomoy Island sits at the southern tip of Chatham where it protrudes into Nantucket Sound eight miles offshore. Shifting sands and treacherous shoals have played an ongoing role in Monomoy’s natural history, making this a dangerous passage for mariners. In the late 18th century, it was apparent that a light at Monomoy Point would greatly benefit vessels entering Nantucket Sound and a lighthouse was first established here in 1823. Over the years, Monomoy has changed from a point to an island and back again in a process that is ongoing. There was once even a small village, Whitewash Village, for much of the 19th century. The last tower constructed at Monomoy was built during the 1870s. This tower, although decommissioned as a lighthouse, still stands today. All that remains on Monomoy is the old tower and keeper’s house. Whitewash Village is gone, and all of Monomoy is now a National Wildlife Refuge. Cape Cod Museum of Natural History sometimes schedules tours to the old lighthouse and keeper’s house, primarily for bird watching.

Cape Cod Light, North Truro. In 1797, George Washington ordered construction of this wooden lighthouse, also known as Highland Light, to watch over shoals known as “the ship graveyard.” Cape Cod Light Station, as it was called, was Cape Cod’s first lighthouse. The first lighting apparatus installed in the 1797 tower used 24 sperm whale oil lamps arranged within two tiers of reflectors grouped in a 3/4 circle; it did not flash. When the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1857, a superior Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern (only a few other Fresnel lenses had then been placed in American lighthouses). In 1857, Highland Light was rebuilt with the same 66-foot tower, which is still in place today. A major project during 1996 and part of 1997 moved the brick lighthouse some 600 feet back from the eroding sand cliffs, which are slowly being worn away by the turbulent winter surf. The wooden light keeper’s house was also relocated and rejoined to the lighthouse.

At 620,000 candlepower, Cape Cod Light is New England’s most powerful. Ships from 30 miles at sea can see its welcoming beacon; it is usually the first American lighthouse to be seen by ships crossing the Atlantic, headed for Boston. It has also been one of the most popular with visitors. One of the more famous, and early, visitors at Cape Cod Light was Henry David Thoreau, who devoted a whole chapter called “The Highland Light” in his classic 1864 book, “Cape Cod.” He stayed overnight at the lighthouse and went with the keeper as he tended the light. “It was a neat building with everything in apple pie order,” Thoreau observed. Later he wrote, “The keeper entertained us handsomely in his solitary little ocean house. He was a man of singular patience and intelligence …”

Cape Cod Light now sits between the seventh and eighth fairways of the Highland Links, one of America’s 10 oldest golf courses. It is still very accessible to the visitor (although not quite as accessible as in Thoreau’s day). It is located on Cape Cod National Seashore land.

Race Point Light, Provincetown. The first lighthouse at Race Point was built in 1816 to preside over the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. The shoals off Provincetown were so treacherous that, even after the lighthouse was built, more than 100 shipwrecks occurred within view of its beacon between 1816 and 1946. Today, a newer 1876 tower is painted white and the light runs on solar power, as do the other two Provincetown lighthouses. The keeper’s house, also built in 1876, still stands and a fog horn still operates from Race Point. All three Provincetown lights — Race Point, Wood End, and Long Point Lights — are fairly inaccessible and access to Race Point Light is only by 4-wheel drive vehicles traveling across the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, or on foot.

There and back

Last February, we published a roundup of tips on where to stop on the Cape when you got off (or before you got on) the boat. We received so many ideas from so many people, we thought we’d share more, which might be useful on your way to see lighthouses. Here are a few more.

Woods Hole

Hike to The Knob in Woods Hole: Walk along a wooded path out to a narrow peninsula and look out over Quissett Harbor and Racing Beach – a perfect place to picnic, ponder your place in the world, or maybe propose marriage…There’s even a small swimming beach. Tuck that away for warmer days. –Jamie Stringfellow, Oak Bluffs

Directions: take Quissett Harbor Road to park at the head of Quisset Harbor and near the yacht club; there are about 20 public parking places.


Author/illustrator Edward Gorey’s Yarmouth house is now a museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” (along with “The Insect God” and “The West Wing”). A store on the premises promises some interesting stocking stuffer. – Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

Edward Gorey House, 508-362-3909; 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port.


Whether I’m headed to Boston or returning, my singular don’t-miss pit stop is the Brown Jug in Sandwich Center. Owners Stephen and Michael know what they are doing – with well-chosen wines, a sweet patio cafe, and fancy gourmet picnic fixings. Miss them at your peril. – Kim Grant (author of “Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket: An Explorer’s Guide”).

Brown Jug, 508-888-4669; 155 Main St.


Of course, the JFK Museum in Hyannis, centerpiece for the new Hyannis Cultural District, and the Hyannis Kennedy Legacy Trail. – Nancy Gardella, Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

JFK Museum and start of walking tour, 508-790-3914; 397 Main St., Hyannis.;


Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod has “pioneered the art of maritime grape growing on the Cape.” You can find out what that actually means by visiting (and tasting) at their restored 1830s farmhouse. Also, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium is a real fun place to visit, especially at seal-feeding time. – William DeSousa-Mauk.

Truro Vineyards, 508-487-6200; 11 Shore Rd., North Truro.;

Woods Hole Science Aquarium, 508-495-2001; Water St.;