- Wellfleet, with most of its
land within the Cape Cod National Seashore and only about 3,500
year-round residents, is a reminder of the older, quieter Cape Cod. The
town's well-protected harbor helped it develop as an important whaling
port in the early 1700s, but that industry was curtailed by the
Revolution. The town's primary business shifted to fishing and
shellfishing, and Wellfleet oysters were eventually shipped all over
the world. The town's name comes from a similar location in England
that was also known for its abundant oysters.
- Wellfleet had a growing fishing fleet of about 100 vessels
by the late 1830s. It was decided that a lighthouse on Mayo's Beach
would aid mariners entering the harbor. There was some disagreement
about this, as a lighthouse inspector felt that Billingsgate Light, at
the entrance to the bay, was all that was needed in the vicinity.
The first Mayo's Beach Lighthouse.
U.S. Coast Guard photo.
- The first lighthouse at the eastern end of Mayo's Beach
consisted of a short wooden tower and octagonal lantern on the roof of
a brick dwelling, with containing three rooms on the first floor and
two rooms on a small second floor. Joseph Holbrook of Wellfleet was
appointed first keeper at a salary of $350 yearly. Ten oil lamps and
accompanying 13-inch parabolic reflectors produced a fixed white light
21 feet above mean high water. Four of the lamps shone over the land
only and were soon removed.
- During Holbrook's first four years at the lighthouse there
were three shipwrecks in the vicinity, including the 270-ton brig Diligence.
In 1839, Holbrook counted over 700 vessels passing the station.
- I. W. P. Lewis's landmark report on the area's lighthouses
in 1843 included a statement by Holbrook, who painted a dire picture.
The keeper complained that "The very wretched manner in which the house
was built renders it almost uninhabitable; the walls always and the
roof continually leaky."
- Holbrook explained that the house, which had no foundation,
was set two feet below the surface of the beach. This caused the cellar
to be continually flooded with seawater. Two of Holbrook's children
died in their first four years at the lighthouse, a tragedy that the
keeper blamed on the unhealthy conditions. Holbrook believed that the
lighthouse had been erected in a "very shameful manner." Despite these
conditions, the lighthouse was not rebuilt for nearly 40 years.
- Stephen Pleasanton, the official in charge of the nation's
lighthouses, recommended the discontinuance of Mayo's Beach Light in
1843, but it remained in operation. In 1857, the lighthouse received a
Fresnel lens. A screen was later erected around the lantern to protect
it from the birds that flew into it and broke the glass with
- In 1865, William Atwood, who had lost an arm in the Civil
War at Fredericksburg, became keeper at $350 per year. When Atwood died
in 1876, his widow, Sarah, became keeper and continued to live at the
station with their four children. Sarah Atwood remained keeper until
The second (1881) Mayo's Beach
Lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo
- A new cast iron tower and brick and clapboard keeper's
house were built in 1881, and the old buildings were removed.
- Charlie Turner, who also had a boat shop in Wellfleet, was
the keeper for approximately the last 30 years of the light's active
life. A dory of his own design was named after Turner, a prominent
character in the town.
- In his book Cape Cod Echoes, Earle Rich described a
visit to Turner's boat shop. "Come in, you don't have to knock around
here," Turner told the young Rich. "This is a boat shop, not a prayer
meeting." A while later, Turner went to a window as the sun was
setting, announcing, "She's getting pretty low. Guess I'll call it a
day and get over there and get ready to light up for the night." He
slipped on his favorite "beach jacket" and headed for the lighthouse
for his nightly duties.
- The kerosene-fueled lighthouse remained in service until it
was discontinued on March 10, 1922. The light station property was sold
at auction on August 1, 1923, to Capt. Harry Capron.
The keeper's house today
The circle next to the
house indicates the former location of the lighthouse tower
For many years, the general belief was that the
lighthouse was destroyed after it was discontinued. Research at the
National Archives by Colleen MacNeney (daughter of The Lighthouse People)
in 2008 has proven that this was not the case.
As it turns out, the tower was dismantled and then
shipped to California, where it replaced an earlier (1912) tower at
Point Montara Light Station. It remains in use today.
The house and the 1907 oil house remain at Mayo's
Beach, kept in pristine condition by the present owners. If you visit,
be sure to respect the privacy of the owners.
The tower after it had been moved to California, before it
went into service at the Point Montara station. Photo
from U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office. Courtesy of
Colleen MacNeney and the Shanklins
- Keepers: Joseph Holbrook (1838-?), John Newcomb
(?-1853), Freeman L. Hickman (1853-?), William Atwood (1865-1876),
Sarah Atwood (1876-1891), James Smith (1891-?), Charles Turner (c.