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
||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.
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.
U.S. Coast Guard photo, circa 1880s
Island Light c. 1900
George Kezer was keeper
Courtesy of Barbara Kezer
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
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.
A crowd gathers for
the transfer ceremony on May 10, 2003
Two views from the top:
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
For more information, contact:
The Friends of Plum Island Light, Inc.
P.O. Box 381
Newburyport, MA 01950
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.)
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.