Two-hundred-ten-acre Deer Island
in Boston Harbor, south of the town of Winthrop, served as an
internment camp for Indians in 1675 during King Philip's War.
Later, it was the site of a quarantine station where many immigrants
died, a hospital, an almshouse, a fort, and a state prison. Today,
the island is home to a massive sewage treatment plant for the
Boston area. Deer Island ceased being an island in the 1930s,
when Shirley Gut, which previously separated it from Winthrop,
was filled in.
In 1832, the Boston Marine Society petitioned Congress for
$3,000 for the placement of an unlighted stone beacon at Deer
Island Point, at the north side of the entrance to Boston's inner
harbor and about 500 yards south of the island's southeasterly
point. This marker served as a navigational aid for almost 60
- From Stebbins' Illustrated Coast
In the annual reports for 1884 and 1885, the Lighthouse Board
stated the following:
The steamers plying between Boston and the northern ports
make use of the Broad Sound channels, and a light and fog-signal
at this point are particularly desirable, because of the narrow
and devious passages.
Congress appropriated $35,000 for the lighthouse on August
4, 1886. During the design process, it was realized that the
initial appropriation was not sufficient, and an additional $6,000
A cylindrical caisson base for the lighthouse, 33 feet in
diameter and 30 feet high, was sunk four feet into the gravel
and clay of the spit, in about six feet of water. The caisson
was filled with concrete, with some space being left for a basement
The cast-iron superstructure built on top of the caisson had
four levels between the lantern and basement, including living
quarters. The lighthouse was painted brown except for the lantern,
which was painted black.
The new light went into service on January 26, 1890, with
a fixed white light interrupted by a red flash every 30 seconds,
57 feet above mean high water. The lens revolved by means of
a clockwork mechanism that had to be periodically wound by hand.
A fog bell was mounted on the lower gallery deck, with striking
machinery that produced a single blow every 10 seconds.
The station was assigned a principal keeper and an assistant.
Wesley A. Pingree arrived as an assistant in 1893 and became
principal keeper in 1895. His stay of six years was one of the
longer stints in the station's history. Pingree was keeper during
the famous Portland Gale of November 1898. Many vessels were
wrecked in the storm, including the steamer Portland,
which was carrying nearly 200 people from Boston to Portland,
Maine. Keeper Pingree later described his experience of the storm
to historian Edward Rowe Snow:
At two o'clock in the afternoon the ocean was as smooth
as glass. At five p.m. it had started snowing and the wind was
coming up. A little later the Bangor boat went by but returned
to the harbor, as the sea was rapidly getting worse. At 7 p.m.
the Portland came down the channel, and the other boat, anchored
in President Road, whistled a warning to her. At this time the
waves were hitting so high that I was lashing my dory fast to
- From the collection of Edward Rowe
Pingree rode out the storm inside the lighthouse, keeping
watch all night. All told, 141 vessels were wrecked and 456 lives
were lost in the Portland Gale, one of the worst storms in recorded
New England history.
Joseph McCabe arrived as assistant keeper in June 1908. He
made the pages of the Boston Globe in March 1913,
when he purchased a piano and had it delivered to the lighthouse
to "break the monotony of the lonely life in the isolated
tower." Less than three years later, McCabe, who rented
a room in East Boston when he wasn't at the lighthouse, became
engaged to Gertrude Walter, a resident of that community. The
couple planned a wedding on Easter Sunday, but it wasn't to be.
- The climbing cat of Deer Island Light.
- From the collection of Edward Rowe
Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
On Saturday, February 19, 1916, McCabe left the lighthouse
to meet his fiancée on Deer Island, where they filled
wrote out wedding invitations together. When he was ready to
return, McCabe found that ice around the island had trapped his
boat. He decided to borrow a pair of rubber boots and walk across
the spit to the lighthouse. He was followed by his friend, Wesley
Pingree, who was by then an employee of the pumping station on
Deer Island, and Pingree's 15-year-old son, Philip. As he jumped
forward to make it past a gap in the spit, McCabe lost his footing
and disappeared into the turbulent waters of the harbor. Employees
from Deer Island rushed to the scene in a dory, but it was too
late. The body of Joseph McCabe, who was 28 years old, was never
Judson Small, one of three lighthouse keeping brothers, was
keeper at Deer Island Light in the 1920s. His brother, Tom Small,
who was keeper at the Narrows Light when it burned down in 1929,
became keeper at Deer Island in 1931.
|While he was keeper, Tom Small had a pet that gained fame
as "the climbing cat of Deer Island Light." Edward
Rowe Snow reported that Small's cat would leap into the water,
emerge with a fish in its mouth, climb the ladder, and eat the
The caisson base of the lighthouse was battered repeatedly
in storms. It was patched and banded for reinforcement around
1902, but by 1937 it was in such rough shape that a circular
protective wall was built around the lower part of the structure.
Keeper Fred Bohm (L) of Deer Island Light visiting with Keeper Maurice
Babcock at Boston Light on September 14, 1941. Courtesy of Dorothy
Fred Bohm became the last civilian keeper in the 1940s after
leaving the Spectacle Island Range Lights, about two miles to
the southwest in the harbor.
During the first year and a half of World War II, Keeper Bohm
not only had to tend the light, but was also was required to
patrol the area and watch for German submarines. After Bohm left,
Coast Guard crews looked after the lighthouse.
In spite of the protective wall around the base, the lighthouse
continued to deteriorate. The roof over the lower gallery had
to be removed in 1965. The keepers did their best with makeshift
repairs, but the lighthouse's days as a staffed station were
numbered by the early 1970s.
- Deer Island Light circa 1930s; photo
taken from west side of lighthouse
- Above: Deer
Island Light with anti-submarine netting during WWII
- Courtesy of Al Schroeder
- Left: From the Boston Evening American,
April 4, 1940 --
- Census taker George Kelley is asking
questions through a megaphone from a police boat, and Keeper
Tom Small is answering the questions from the lighthouse using
According to the last Coast Guard keeper, Pedro Marticio,
Deer Island Light was abandoned on February 19,1972, at 1830
(6:30 p.m.). He later recalled:
At the time the press was calling it the worst nor'easter
in 40 years. We had lost all power at 1000 and flooded out the
engine room, when a wave broke in the plate glass windows and
frames and washed down into the engine room. There were three
of us on board during the storm, the CGC Pendant was dispatched
to shoot us a line and pass us a pump.
When BMC John Butler, Officer in Charge of the Pendant,
saw the tower starting to tip he informed Boston, and in turn
they told me to abandon station. The Pendant rammed its
bow into the tower and my crew and I jumped on board. When he
backed into deep water he got broadsided by a wave that almost
capsized the 65-foot tug. The storm was knocking three-story
houses off their foundations on Winthrop Shore Drive.
- Courtesy of Pedro Marticio
- This photo is courtesy of Pedro Martico,
the last Coast Guard Officer in Charge at Deer Island Light
It was apparent that the lighthouse had deteriorated to the
point that it was unsafe. The Coast Guard estimated that repair
and restoration would cost up to $400,000. The Massachusetts
Historic Commission decided that the lighthouse was not eligible
for the National Register, so the way was cleared to destroy
the old lighthouse.
- The white tower erected in 1982,
U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Beginning on June 14, 1982, the old lighthouse was removed.
The change took about six weeks in all. During this period a
lighted buoy served as a temporary aid to navigation. The familiar
old landmark was replaced by a white fiberglass tower, set on
the original foundation.
The tower was believed to be the first fiberglass light in
the country. It was built in England and was designed to withstand
winds of 110 mph. The new light cost $100,000.
There were complaints that the white tower blended in with
the background of Deer Island. Meanwhile, in March of 1983, Great
Point Lighthouse on Nantucket was destroyed in a storm. The Coast
Guard decided to replace it with a fiberglass tower, so they
moved the Deer Island tower to Nantucket. The fiberglass tower
was never actually put into use on Nantucket; a wooden structure
was used instead.
A 33-foot brown fiberglass tower replaced the white one at
Deer Island Light. The temporary tower at Great Point was later
replaced by a $1 million replica of the original lighthouse,
but there has been no such luck for Deer Island Light.
The present structure can be seen from the public
walking trail around the perimeter of Deer Island, accessible
from the town of Winthrop.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses
of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- Behind the light tower in this photo is the Deer
Island Water Treatment Plant.
Click here to see film of Deer Island
Light taken by historian Edward Rowe Snow, circa 1960s (courtesy
of Dorothy Bicknell).
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Keepers: John Farley (1890); Michael J. Curran
(assistant 1890); Ethan Allen (1890-1891); Everett F. Boyd (assistant
1890-1891, head keeper 1891-1892); Nathaniel F. Hooper (assistant
1891); Samuel Liscom (assistant 1891-1892, head keeper 1892-1893)
Herbert N. Ranlett (assistant 1892); Alfred Williams (assistant
1892 and 1895); Wesley A. Pingree (assistant 1893-1894, head
keeper 1895-1899); William Jamieson (assistant 1896-1899); Frank
E. Lowe (assistant 1899-1900); George W. Jaques (1899); Michael
Campbell (1899-1900); Howard Parker (1900-1906); George W. Bailey
(assistant, 1900-1901); William C. Daggett (assistant, 1901);
Reuben D. Weatherbee (assistant, 1901-1902); Frederick W. Freeman
(assistant 1902-1905); Murdock Ross Trevoy (assistant 1905-1906);
Charles Jordon (1906-1911?); George M. Reamy (assistant, 1906-1907);
Charles B. Hill (assistant, 1907); Robert J. Sweeney (assistant
1907-1908); W. F. Morris (assistant 1908-?); Joseph McCabe (assistant
1908-1916, died in service); Elliott C. Hadley (1919-1922); Judson
Small (c. 1920s); Tom Small (1931-?); Edmond Louis Arruda (c.
early 1940s); Fred Bohm (c. 1940s); Paul Baptiste (Coast Guard,
1952); John Baxter (Coast Guard, c. 1970); Pedro Marticio (Coast