New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Plum Island Light
(Newburyport Harbor Light)
Newburyport, Massachusetts
Plum Island Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

Plum Island, a nine-mile long barrier island off the northern coast of Massachusetts, is divided among four communities: Newbury, Newburyport, Ipswich, and Rowley. 


The Plum Island River (technically a tidal estuary) separates the island from the mainland; a bridge first reached it when a small hotel was built on the island in 1806. 


During its nineteenth-century heyday as a resort, steamships and a trolley line serviced Plum Island.



Plum Island Light c. 1900
appointment document Newburyport, on the Merrimack River, was an important port by the late 1700s, but the entrance to the harbor was dangerous with shifting channels at the mouth of the Merrimack River, near the northern end of Plum Island. To aid shipping entering the river, local mariners at first built fires on the beach and erected poles holding torches. This proved inadequate, and the General Court of Massachusetts authorized the building of "two small wooden lighthouses on the north end of Plumb Island" in 1787. They were finished the following year.

The building of the lighthouses was paid for by local merchants, but in 1790 they were ceded to the federal government. President George Washington appointed Abner Lowell keeper, and three generations of the Lowell family would eventually serve as keepers.

The original two towers were built on movable foundations so their positions could be changed easily as the sandbars around Plum Island shifted. The two towers served as range lights; mariners knew if they lined up the lights that they were following the best channel into the harbor. A signal tower was also erected, used by the lightkeeper to signal with flags that a pilot was needed or a vessel was in trouble. A cannon was placed at the station to help the keeper summon aid in an emergency. Keepers at Plum Island frequently were involved in the rescue of shipwreck victims.

The lights on Plum Island were originally fueled by whale oil. Keeper Lewis Lowell, the son of Abner Lowell, lit a charcoal fire under the lantern one bitterly cold night in December 1823 to keep the oil from congealing. Lowell was overcome and died at his post of asphyxiation.

In May 1808, a violent tornado did much damage in Newburyport and knocked both lighthouses to the ground. Congress appropriated $10,000 in February 1809 and the towers were soon rebuilt.

Congress appropriated $4,000 for the "rebuilding" of the lighthouses in July 1838, but it isn't clear if the towers were rebuilt or simply altered or repaired. Since only $950.44 of the appropriation was actually spent, it seems doubtful that they were completely rebuilt.
1809 newspaper clipping

One of the more prominent disasters in the vicinity was the December 1839 wreck of the Pocahontas, coming to Newburyport from Cadiz. Celia Thaxter, daughter of the lighthouse keeper at the Isles of Shoals, saw the ship pass during a terrible storm. Celia saw that the ship was in obvious distress and learned later that the Pocahontas and all aboard were lost on a sandbar near Plum Island. Celia Thaxter would go on to become one of New England's most celebrated poets, and one of her best known poems was The Wreck of the Pocahontas.

Also in 1839, the brig Richmond Packet, carrying a cargo of flour and corn into Newburyport, was driven by a gale into the rocks. The captain of the ship managed to leap to the rocks and secure a line holding the ship. His wife attempted to cross to the rocks on the line, but the rope snapped. The crew then tried to lower her down on a spar, but the heavy seas washed her away. The crew was saved; the captain's wife was the only casualty.

Phineas George, who became keeper in 1838, complained in 1842 that the towers and lanterns were leaky, and that the house was a "cold, leaky, and uncomfortable dwelling." In his 1843 report, I.W.P. Lewis in 1843 called both towers "dilapidated, decayed, leaky, and out of position, as to the bar channel, twelve months past." Lewis stressed the value of the lights, saying the "importance of ranging lights here to give the true direction of the channel can only be estimated by those acquainted with the hazardous nature of the navigation, which the many fatal shipwrecks on Plum Island sufficiently testify."

Lewis suggested an ingenious system of moveable lanterns hanging from iron rails that could be moved easily as needed by the keeper. This system was never adopted.

In 1855, a strange looking small tower called the "Bug Light" was added, and the following year one of the lighthouses was destroyed by fire. It was decided not to rebuild, and the surviving lighthouse received a fourth order Fresnel lens.

A U.S. Life Saving Station was built on Plum Island in 1871, about a mile below Plum Island Center. In 1881, the station was moved near the lighthouse, and a second station was added at Knobbs Beach in 1891.

The shifting sands left the remaining tower and the "Bug" too far inland; they were moved several times between 1870 and 1882. In 1898 a new wooden lighthouse was built next to the old one. The lens was transferred to the new lighthouse.

Some believe that elements of one of the 1809 towers were incorporated into the 1898 tower.

The present Plum Island Lighthouse was first lighted on September 20, 1898.

old photo of lighthouse

U.S. Coast Guard photo, circa 1880s



Plum Island Light c. 1900
George Kezer

George Kezer was keeper 1924-33.
Courtesy of Barbara Kezer

lens
Inside the lantern room

Kerosene, used since 1878, was replaced by electricity in 1927. In 1951, the light was automated; the light was changed to flashing green in 1981.

The Coast Guard did a great deal of work on the lighthouse in 1994. Among other improvements, they replaced all the lantern glass, repainted the tower, dug a drain around the lighthouse and created a new oak door and exterior storm door. All of this work was a team effort using active duty, Coast Guard reserve and Auxiliary personnel.

After completing this work the Coast Guard opened the lighthouse to the public for the first time in 20 years during Newburyport's Yankee Homecoming week. Over 700 visitors toured the lighthouse that week. Dave Waldrip, Officer in Charge of the Aids to Navigation Team Boston at the time, says it was a "wonderful feeling to hear folks say they lived on the island for three decades and this was their first opportunity to actually get inside the lantern and see the fourth order lens."

The lighthouse is now cared for by the Friends of Plum Island Light. The Coast Guard paid for the reshingling of the tower and the placement of new roofing tar on the catwalk in 1997. The Friends of Plum Island Light have taken over the maintenance of the lighthouse and are planning to restore the tower's interior. They also hope to restore the 1898 keeper's house to the turn-of-the-century period.

On May 10, 2003, ownership of the lighthouse was turned over to the City of Newburyport. The Friends of Plum Island Light will continue to care for it under a lease agreement with the city. The keeper's house is used as housing for an official of the Parker River National Wildlife Reguge.

Plum Island Light is easily reachable by car, and the lighthouse is sometimes open to the public on summer weekends.

crowd around lighthouse
A crowd gathers for the transfer ceremony on May 10, 2003

Two views from the top:
view of keeper's house
view of houses and water

The Friends of Plum Island Light are selling commemorative bricks that are being incorporated into the landscape design as a walkway in front of the lighthouse. Bricks are available for $50.00 each.

For more information, contact:

The Friends of Plum Island Light, Inc.
P.O. Box 381
Newburyport, MA 01950


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.)

Abner Lowell (1789-1815); Lewis Lowell (1815-1823); Joseph Lowell (1823-1825); Captain Chandler (1825-1833?); Phineas George (1833-1839, 1849-1857); T. S. Greenwood (circa 1840s); Abner Lowell (temporary, 1849); Franklin Carleton (1857-1861); Solomon Parks (1861-1864); John Putnam (1864-1866); Joseph Lowell (1866-1870); Henry Hunt (1870-1882); Phelix Doyle (1882-1889); Matthew Barrett (1889-1893); Edwin F. Hunt (1893-1896); Elliot C. Hadley (1896-1905); Arthur W. Woods (1905-1923); Captain Howard (1923-1924); George E. Kezer (1924-1933); Harry Dobbins USCG (c. 1939); Edgar Wallace USCG (c. 1945)

Last updated 12/24/10
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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