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.
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.
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.
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"
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
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
Its distinctive image has become a Cape Cod icon, gracing
countless calendars, postcards, license plates, and potato chip
- Nauset Light shortly after its move
from Chatham. U.S. Coast Guard photo
|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
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.
- Inside the center tower of the Three
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
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.
- The Three Sisters are accessible
via a 1/3 mile walking trail from the parking area at Nauset
- 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
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.
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.)
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)