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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
The 48-foot, cast-iron tower was painted white until the
early 1940s, when the upper half was painted red to increase its
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
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
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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)