New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Nauset Light and the Three Sisters of Nauset
Eastham, Massachusetts
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History
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

The name Nauset (or Nawsett) once applied to a large section of Cape Cod, about 15 miles in length, from Namskeket (now Brewster) to the vicinity of the present-day town of Truro. Over the years, the original Nauset area was split into several towns. Eastham remained largely agricultural, but shipbuilding, fishing, and whaling also developed. The entrance to the harbor has shifted many times over the years as storms and tidal forces have changed the contours of the outer beach.

The first Three Sisters of Nauset

In 1836, 21 residents of Eastham wrote to the Boston Marine Society asking for a lighthouse on Nauset Beach on the Atlantic shore of the Cape, halfway between Highland Light in North Truro and the twin lights at Chatham. Countless vessels had been wrecked on the Nauset Bars offshore.

Congress appropriated $10,000 for the new station on March 3, 1837. To distinguish the location from the single light in North Truro and the double lights at Chatham, it was determined that tthere would be three lighthouses at Nauset Beach. Capt. John "Mad Jack" Percival, a Cape Cod native who also commanded the U.S.S. Constitution for a time, selected the site for the station.

Winslow Lewis built the original 15-foot, triplet conical brick towers. The lighthouses, each 15 feet wide at the base and 9 feet wide at the lantern deck, were built in 38 days. A small brick dwelling, with three rooms on the first floor and two in the attic, was also built. The lights were 150 feet apart from each other, arranged in a straight line. Each octagonal iron lantern held 10 lamps with 13 1/2-inch reflectors and exhibited a fixed white light. 

The first keeper was Isaac Dunham, who was born in Plymouth and was formerly keeper at Pemaquid Point Light in Maine. In his lightkeeping career, Dunham served as the first keeper at three different light stations: Pemaquid Point, Nauset, and Minot's Ledge. He was said to be musically inclined, and he was the leader of the church choir in Eastham during his years there. 

Isaac Dunham
Isaac Dunham

During his time at the Nauset station, Dunham also invented a new way of warming the oil in lighthouses. Congress authorized the testing of his method but it isn't clear if it was adopted, and the exact nature of the method isn't clear.

text from congressional record

The trio of towers acquired a famous nickname, the "Three Sisters of Nauset." The name is frequently said to have originated because the towers looked like three demure ladies in white dresses, with and black hats.

Lt. Edward D. Carpender visited the station shortly before the lights went into service. In his 1838 report, Carpender expressed his objection to the presence of three lights:

Nauset beach has always been considered a dangerous place for vessels, and many have been wrecked there. To guard against such disasters seems to be the object of these lights. I cannot, however, think that three lights are at all necessary. Any single distinguishable light that can be seen eight or ten miles will answer every purpose. Such a light is a revolving red light. . . . I cannot believe that the Government will consent to consume 900 gallons of oil, when 300 or 360 will answer every purpose.

In his 1843 report to Congress, the engineer I. W. P. Lewis (nephew of Winslow Lewis) was highly critical of the station's construction. Lewis also echoed Carpender's questioning of the need for three lights. "The necessity of three lights here," he wrote, "instead of one (whose distinctive character should be equally apparent) is hardly comprehended."

By the time of an 1850 inspection, Joshua Crosby was keeper and the number of lamps in each tower had been reduced to six. In 1856, all three towers were fitted with sixth-order Fresnel lenses, replacing the old multiple lamps and reflectors.

Nathan Gill's tenure as keeper (186983) saw several major changes. In 1873, more powerful fourth-order Fresnel lenses were installed. An assistant keeper was authorized, and by 1876 a second wood-frame dwelling was added to the station after an appropriation of $5,000. Stephen Lewis followed Gill as principal keeper, remaining until 1914.

The Three Sisters fought a long battle with the weather and the gradual forces of erosion. By 1890, the towers stood close to the edge of the bluff. If a three-light station was impractical in 1838, it was even more so in 1892. Even so, three shingled wooden towers, 22 feet high, were built 30 feet west of the old towers in 1892. The lenses were transferred from the old towers to the new ones on April 25, 1892. A small brick oil house was added to the station at the same time.

The second set of "Three Sisters"

old postcard
Early 1900s postcard, courtesy of James Crouch

By 1911, the cliff had eroded to within eight feet of the northernmost tower, and the Bureau of Lighthouses belatedly decided to change Nauset to a single light. The Three Sisters were moved back from the edge of the bluff. The center tower was given a white light that flashed three times each 10 seconds (a sort of tribute to the Three Sisters), and attached to the 1876 keeper's house. The original dwelling was removed. The single light went into service on June 1, 1911.

In 1918, the two defunct towers -- after their lanterns had been removed -- were bought for $3.50 by the Cummings family of Attleboro, Massachusetts. About two years later, the lighthouses were incorporated into a summer cottage known as "The Towers" on Cable Road, not far from their original location. The cottage was later used as a dance studio.

Nauset Light Station sometime between 1911 and 1923

By 1923, the remaining Sister was in poor condition. Meanwhile, Chatham Light Station was changed from two lights to a single light. The discontinued twin from Chatham was dismantled, transported to Eastham and installed on a concrete foundation. The new Nauset Light received the fourth-order Fresnel lens from the remaining tower of the Three Sisters. Its flashing light was fueled by kerosene.

The keeper's house was moved farther back from the edge of the bluff and placed near the relocated tower. The last of the wooden Sisters was sold to Albert Hall (reportedly for $10) and was incorporated into a residence.

The center light from the Three Sisters was incorporated into a cottage

The keeper's house was moved back from the edge of the cliff and placed near the new tower. The last of the Sisters passed into private hands and became the cupola of a residence known as "The Beacon."

The 48-foot, cast-iron tower was painted white until the early 1940s, when the upper half was painted red to increase its daytime visibility.

Its distinctive image has become a Cape Cod icon, gracing countless calendars, postcards, license plates, and potato chip bags.

old photo of lighthouse on cliff
Nauset Light shortly after its move from Chatham. U.S. Coast Guard photo
Eugene and Amanda Coleman Eugene L. Coleman, a veteran of 20 years at various lighthouses, arrived as keeper in 1942.

After years at island light stations in Maine, his wife, Amanda Coleman, appreciated life on the mainland at Eastham. "Many's the time, from Christmas to Mother's Day, I haven't seen a woman to speak to," she said. "The hardest part of lighthouse duty is being alone, having no one to talk to."

(Left, Eugene and Amanda Coleman)

The light was automated by the Coast Guard in 1955, and the keeper's house passed into private hands. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was replaced by modern aerobeacons in 1981. The characteristic was changed to alternating red and white flashes every five seconds.

The old Fresnel lens is now on display (left) at the Cape Cod National Seashore's Salt Pond Visitor Center on Route 6 in Eastham.

The two towers sold to the Cummings family in 1918 were purchased by the National Park Service in 1965. Ten years later, the third of the Three Sisters was bought by the National Park Service from the Hall family. The Sisters were reunited on a site on Cable Road about 1,800 feet from the beach.

A restoration of the Three Sisters was completed in 1989, and the site was opened for tours in the following April. The three towers stand in their original configuration, about 150 feet apart from each other. The center tower -- the only one with its lantern still in place -- was fully restored, and the other two towers were partially restored.

stairs trap door
Inside the center tower of the Three Sisters

Erosion continued to plague the still-active Nauset Light. In just three years, from 1991 to 1994, 30 feet of the bluff disappeared just east of the lighthouse. In particular, the "Perfect Storm" of October 1991 washed great chunks from the cliff and destroyed the stairs to the beach below. By 1994, Mary Daubenspeck, owner of the keeper's house, could see -- for the first time -- the ocean from one of her kitchen windows.

After the Coast Guard proposed the decommissioning of the lighthouse in 1993, hundreds of letters poured into the Boston Coast Guard headquarters requesting that the lighthouse be moved inland and saved. The Nauset Light Preservation Society (NLPS) was soon formed, spearheaded by several local residents. At a ceremony on April 17, 1995, the Coast Guard granted the society a five-year lease for the lighthouse.

The base of the lighthouse during the 1996 move.

After much debate, a new site was chosen for the tower in April 1996. By that time, it stood only 43 feet from the edge of the bluff. A contract with International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, New York, was signed in September 1996. The team of International Chimney and Expert House Movers had previously moved Highland Light and Block Island's Southeast Light.

By early November 1996, the new site had been graded and excavated, a temporary access road to the site had been created, and new footings for the tower and oil house were prepared. The foundation of the tower was cut away from its footings. Cribbing was installed around the base of the tower and four steel beams were pushed through the foundation. Six interior and four exterior jacks were put in place to raise the 90-ton tower.

On November 15, workers endured frigid winds and snow as they lifted the tower and transferred its weight to two heavy-duty dollies, hitched to a truck. The tower was moved to the edge of the road before the end of the day.

The move was completed on Saturday, November 16. The truck hauled the lighthouse across the road to its new home, 336 feet from the old site.

The tower's exterior was renovated and painted, and a new exterior railing was installed. A red and white stake was placed in the former position of the lighthouse; by early 2003 the stake was only about three feet from the bluff's edge.

This marker shows the former location of the lighthouse. The picture was taken in spring 2001.

After its relocation, the lighthouse remained dark until May 10, 1997, when it was relighted at a gala event attended by about 2,000 supporters.

After two years of negotiations, Mary Daubenspeck donated the house and the existing site to the National Park Service in early 1998, in exchange for the right to live in the house for another 25 years. On October 27, 1998, the house -- a precarious 23 feet from the edge of the bluff -- was moved to a new foundation near the lighthouse. Sadly, Mary Daubenspeck didn't get to enjoy many more years in the house, as she died in March 2001.

Ownership of the lighthouse passed to the Cape Cod National Seashore. A partnership agreement between the National Park Service and the Nauset Light Preservation Society was signed in May 2004. Under the agreement, the NLPS will continue to operate the lighthouse as a private aid to navigation and will be responsible for all maintenance of the tower and oil house.

The Three Sisters are accessible via a 1/3-mile walking trail from the parking area at Nauset Light Beach.

The National Park site is now open to the public with rangers offering tours from spring to fall.

sign and trail
The Three Sisters are accessible via a 1/3 mile walking trail from the parking area at Nauset Light Beach.
spiral stairway
Inside the tower

The oil house was restored in 2009, and exhibits inside the building are accessible during open houses.

The Nauset Light Preservation Society holds lighthouse open houses from May through October. The tours are free, but donations are gladly accepted. For more information or to help with the ongoing preservation of Nauset Light, contact:

Nauset Light Preservation Society
P.O. Box 941
Eastham, MA 02642

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.


Keepers:  (This 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 nelights@gmail.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.)

Isaac Dunham (1838-1842), Henry Horton (c. 1843), B. H. A. Collins (1843-1849), Joshua Crosby (1849-1851), Henry Y. Hatch (1851-1853), B. H. A. Collins (1853-1861), Michael Collins (1861-1866), Peter Higgins (1866-1869), George W. Eldredge (assistant 1867), John Dunn (assistant 1867), Samuel Snow (assistant 1867-1868), John J. Ryder (assistant 1868-1870), Nathan A. Gill (Jr.?) (1869-1883), Herman Gill (assistant 1870 and 1873), Nathan A. Gill (Sr.?) (assistant 1873-1879), Alfred Gill (assistant 1879-1882), Stephen Lewis (1883-1914), Thomas J. Kelley (1914-1918), James Yates (1918-1919), George I. Herbolt (1919-1932), John Poyner (1932), Allison G. Haskins (1932-1938), Fred S. Vidler (1938-1942), Eugene L. Coleman (1942-1950)
Last update 6/30/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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