Its days as a whaling center were long past, but New Bedford was still an important port in the late 1800s. It was the third largest manufacturing city in Massachusetts, and about 500,000 tons of shipping entered the port in 1890 alone. Butler Flats Light, built in 1898 for $34,000, replaced the old Clark's Point Light, which had been active since 1804. The appropriation for the lighthouse was Butler Flats was secured largely through the efforts of Congressman Sturtevant Randall.
Butler Flats Light was designed by F. Hopkinson Smith, also an artist and writer. Smith's place in lighthouse history is secure largely due to his planning of Race Rock Light in Fisher's Island Sound. Smith also built the foundation of the Statue of Liberty.
Built in shallow water with no solid rock for a foundation, Butler Flats Light was a challenge to construct. An iron cylinder 35 feet in diameter was put into place after five feet of mud was dredged. The cylinder was filled with stone and concrete, then the brick lighthouse was built on top. The tower was painted red for a time, but it was changed to white in 1899.
The "sparkplug" style light has four stories. The basement served as a storage area. Above that were office space, living quarters which were 18 feet in diameter, and a watchroom. Butler Flats Light originally had a fifth-order kerosene-fueled Fresnel lens, which has since been replaced.
From its first lighting until 1942, when the Coast Guard took over from the Lighthouse Service, Butler Flats Light had only two keepers, Captain Amos Baker Jr., and his son, Charles A. Baker. Captain Amos Baker Jr., had been in charge at Clark's Point Light for some years earlier, and his father was keeper there before him. In total, the two lights were kept by the Bakers for about 80 years.
A fog bell was sounded by an automatic striking mechanism when needed, producing a double blow every 15 seconds. Amy Baker enjoyed saluting passing vessels with the fog bell. The famous Captain Joshua Slocum gave Amy a copy of a booklet about his sloop Spray with the inscription, "To the little girl who rang the bell each time I passed the light." Amy Baker later wrote of the fog bell:
By 1874 Baker had beome captain of the bark A.R. Tucker. He was appointed lighthouse keeper at Clark's Point after his second voyage as captain, which lasted 29 months. According to Baker's obituary:
For 13 years he lived in Butler Flats Lighthouse. Visitors occasionally came alongside, and Captain Baker's cheery, "Come aboard!" always made them glad to obey and see the old seaman's comfortable house.
Visitors' signatures in the register while Amos Baker was keeper included that of President Grover Cleveland.
Charles A. Baker, who succeeded his father as keeper, was alone at Butler Flats Light during the great hurricane of September 1938, which battered the south facing New England coast. Someone later told Baker that since they could see from shore that the light was on, they knew Baker was all right. Baker responded, "What a foolish remark. As long as I could crawl, I would get the light going." Charles Baker retired in 1941 and the Coast Guard took over the operation of Butler Flats Light.
In 1993 the lighthouse was fitted with a new optic, and it was made more secure by the addition of an exterior lighting system. The tower was also made more difficult to enter, protecting it from vandalism.
In September 1997 inmates from the Bristol County House of Correction went to work at Butler Flats Light. The inmates rewired the electrical system and did work on the tower's walls, ceilings, floors and stairway.
On April 30, 1998, more than 600 people attended a celebration of the lighthouse's 100th birthday. A new, brighter optic, powered by a cable from the shore, was installed by Hugh Murray, the retired New Bedford wire inspector who in recent years has headed up the preservation efforts. "Thank you for truly restoring a guardian of the night," said Rev. David C. Hurtle, chaplain of the Seamen's Bethel.City Councilor Victor Pinheiro said, "It means something extra special to all of us who have lived in this part of the city." Anne Blum Brengle, director of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, read, "Let us hope that Butler Flats may be a guide to sailors for many a long year."
One of the best places to view Butler Flats Light is this pier near Fort Taber in New Bedford.
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