The first Boston Light stood as a beacon in Boston Harbor for 60 years until the British blew it up in 1776. Built in 1716, it was the first lighthouse in the United States.
It’s amazing it lasted 60 years.
One would almost think Boston Light was cursed, given the trouble that befell the people who associated with it and the number of attacks it sustained from fire, lightning and warring armies.
Boston Light Proposed
There had been beacons before, to warn of approaching enemies and to signal the approach of ships.
The first victim of Boston Light was John George, a prominent Boston merchant.
George petitioned the Massachusetts General Court on Jan. 3, 1713, to build a lighthouse ‘for the Direction of Ships & Vessels in the Night Time bound into the said Harbour.’ George died on Nov. 24, 1714, before construction of Boston Light even began. His widow buried him in another man’s tomb and later married Cotton Mather.
Wrote Samuel Sewall,
‘Mr. George laid in my Tomb till Madam George have an opportunity to build one’ and he ‘Was a Well-accomplish’d Merchant and appears to have been a good Christian, desirable usefull Man.’
Within two years Boston Light was built. The Boston News-Letter of Sept. 17, 1716, reported the “Light House has been built; And on Fryday last the 14th Currant the Light was kindled.”
The next victim of Boston Light was George Worthylake, the first lighthouse keeper. He also piloted boats in and out of the harbor.
On Nov. 3, 1718, Worthylake’s boat capsized while he was returning from church to the island. Drowned were he, his wife, his daughter and three men. A 12-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote a ballad about the drownings called The Lighthouse Tragedy, and peddled it on the streets of Boston. The triple headstone of the Worthylake family is in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.
Several days after the Worthylakes died, Robert Saunders was appointed to go to Beacon Island and take care of Boston Light until the General Court should appoint a new lighthouse keeper. Two weeks later, Saunders and another man drowned by the lighthouse.
John Hayes was appointed the next keeper of Boston Light, and he managed to survive the job, though with some difficulty. A fire broke out and Hayes was blamed for negligence. His salary was withheld until he made his case and was reinstated.
Another fire in 1751 nearly destroyed Boston Light, but it was repaired.
Lightning also struck Boston Light several times, and a lightning rod was proposed. Some of Boston’s godly Puritans objected because they ‘thought it vanity and irreligion for the arm of flesh to presume to avert the stroke of Heaven.’ But the lighthouse was struck again and again, and finally ‘the invention of Franklin was employed.’
Robert Ball followed Hayes as lighthouse keeper, and he held the post for 40 years. He died in October 1774, at the age of 75. By then, the British had seized control of Boston Light. The harbor was blocked the next year and Boston Light was useless.
Three days after the Battle of Bunker Hill, a small detachment of American troops burned the wooden parts of the lighthouse. While the British repaired it under guard a month later, Maj. Benjamin Tupper and 300 men took whaleboats to the island and destroyed the repairs. The British pursued the raiding party, a battle ensued and the redcoats scattered after a cannon on Nantasket Head scored a direct hit on one of their boats.
When the British evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776, a fleet remained in the harbor. On June 13, 1776, the Americans opened fire on the British vessels. Before they sailed away, the British sent a boat to the lighthouse and set a time charge that blew it up.
A second Boston Light was built in 1783, and it is now the second oldest lighthouse in the United States.
Fitz-Henry Smith, in The Story of Boston Light: With Some Account of the Beacons in Boston Harbor, wrote:
When it is considered that the first Eddystone lighthouse, which took four years to build, was not begun until 1696, and that the celebrated Tour de Corduan at the mouth of the river Garonne, although a long time in building, was not completed until 1610, it will be realized that in addition to being the first erected in this country, Boston Light is also one of the oldest of the famous lighthouses of the modern world…”
With thanks to The Story of Boston Light, by Fitz-Henry Smith. This story was updated in 2017.