Plymouth Light

Oct. 1, 2019

Plymouth Light (Gurnet Light), Gurnet Point at the entrance to Plymouth Bay, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Originally built in 1768, and rebuilt in 1801 as a pair of twin lighthouses, twin lights rebuilt again in 1842, current single tower built in 1910, the second tower, the northeast tower, torn down.


Station Established: 1768 
Year Current/Last Tower(s) First Lit: 1843 
Operational? YES 
Automated? YES 1986 
Deactivated: n/a 
Foundation Materials: GRANITE 
Construction Materials: CEDAR SHINGLE 
Relationship to Other Structure: SEPARATE 
Original Lens: TWO FOURTH ORDER, FRESNEL 1871 

Historical Information:

* One of Massachusetts’ two minor peninsulas, extending north and south into the sea between Scituate and Plymouth, extends far south along a great stretch of sand dunes which end at the Gurnet.  In 1606 Champlain landed here and watched the Indians fishing for cod with fishhooks made of wood, on which a spear-shaped bone was fastened. The lines were made of tree bark. The Pilgrims called the land "the gurnett’s nose." The place was apparently named after several similar headlands in the English channel, many of them being called for the fish of that name which is caught along the coast of Devonshire.
* The Plymouth (Gurnet) Lighthouse was first established in 1768 by the Massachusetts Legislature. The first keeper was John Thomas on whose land the original lighthouse was built, and for which rent of 5 shillings per year was paid him by the colony. Later Hannah, his widow, was keeper. Both had received $200 per annum for their services. The lighthouse cost £660 to erect, was 30 feet long, 20 feet high, and 15 feet wide with a "lanthorn" at each end of the building, holding two lamps each.  During the Revolution, the three towns of Plymouth, Duxbury, and Kingston had erected a fort on the Gurnet. In the midst of an engagement between the fort and the British frigate Niger, which had gone aground on Brown’s Bank, a wild shot from the ship pierced the lighthouse. Later the vessel got off and escaped. The Gurnet Light, however, is thus the only United States lighthouse known to have ever been hit by a cannon ball.
* In 1778 the armed brigantine General Arnold was caught in a blizzard while less than a mile from the light and the captain anchored his vessel rather than risk the treacherous waters of Plymouth’s inner harbor without a pilot. The vessel dragged anchor and hit on White Flats. Seventy two of the crew died most of them freezing to death in the below-zero temperature before they could be rescued. The keeper of Gurnet Light was unable to go to their aid because the harbor was blocked with ice. A causeway had to be built over the ice to rescue the survivors.
* In 1783 the damage done to the lighthouse during the Revolution was repaired. In a terrible December snowstorm in 1786, a coasting sloop from Boston to Plymouth was caught off Gurnet. Only one man was hurt when the ship struck a sand bar and all landed safely. Several miles from any habitation two men finally reached Gurnet Lighthouse and Thomas Burgess, the keeper, dispatched his assistant to help the others reach the lighthouse safely.
* Under the act of August 7, 1789, the United States accepted cession of the lighthouse by Massachusetts on June 10, 1790, including "the interest of the Commonwealth in the lighthouse land, etc., on the Gurnet Head, west of Plymouth."  On July 2, 1801, the lighthouse was completely destroyed by fire. The merchants of Plymouth and Duxbury erected a temporary beacon at their own expense. On April 6, 1802, Congress appropriated $270 to reimburse them. At the same time Congress also appropriated $2,500 "for rebuilding the lighthouse on Gurnet." Twin lights were built and the Thomas family was paid $120 for the land on which the new lighthouses were constructed.
* Joseph Burgess succeeded his father as keeper on October 16, 1812, and remained in charge of the light until 1851.  Congress appropriated $5,000 in 1836 "for preserving the point of land leading to the fort and lighthouse at the Gurnet, in Duxbury, by hurdles or double ranges of piles."   Lt. Edward W. Carpender, USN, reported on November 1, 1838, that the Gurnet light beams were horizontal rather than perpendicular as other lighthouse beams were. "They require to be double to distinguish them from the single light at Barnstable. They are in separate towers, 22 feet high and 30 feet apart. They consist of a single series of six lamps each, with old 8 1/2-inch reflectors, arranged in a circular form, so as to suit the harbor as well as sea navigation. Their elevation is 70 feet above the level of the sea, enabling them to be seen 19 miles."
* Carpender pointed out that the lights were too close together, causing them to blend and appear as a single light at a short distance. Also being horizontal they "were likely to come into a range with each other, by which .they also appear single." Carpender’s remedy for this was to convert them from horizontal to perpendicular beams, but his suggestion was never carried out.
* In 1842 the Gurnet lighthouses were rebuilt and the new structures, while still of wood, each had a distinctive design. In 1871 the lights were of the sixth order and were declared by the Lighthouse Board to be "entirely too small" and "readily mistaken for the lights in a dwelling house, when they can be seen at all." Their distance apart was also too short to afford an efficient range. Nothing ever came of the recommendation that they be replaced with fourth-order lights "separated by a proper distance for an effective range.
* After 1851, Thomas Treble followed Joseph Burgess as keeper. His successors were William Sears, Milton Reamy, Edward S. Gorham, Henry L. Pingree, and A. S. Eisener.  Keeper Reed rescued the crew of the mine sweeper U. S. S. Swan stranded on Gurnet Beach on November 28, 1920 and Keeper Davis in 1929 had a long list of rescues to his credit.
* Gurnet Light had lost its importance as a light as Plymouth Harbor lost its shipping traffic over the years. Not until Cape Cod Canal was opened in 1914 did the lighthouse again become an important coastal beacon.  In 1924 the northeast tower was discontinued and the station is now described as a white, octagonal, pyramidal tower, with white dwelling, 39 feet above ground and 102 feet above water. Its 700,000 candlepower, fourth-order electric light shows group flashing white every 20 seconds and is visible for 16 miles. An air diaphragm horn blasts for 3 seconds every 15 seconds during fog.