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
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
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
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
U.S. Coast Guard photo, circa 1880s
Plum Island Light c. 1900
George Kezer was keeper 1924-33.
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 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.
- A crowd gathers for the transfer
ceremony on May 10, 2003
Two views from the top:
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:
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. 1945)