The seven-mile long, 27-acre
peninsula known as the Gurnet is at the northern border of Plymouth
Bay. The name "Gurnet" apparently came from similar
areas in England, which were named for the abundant fish of the
same name. Plymouth developed a significant fishing industry,
with 75 fishing vessels by the 1770s. Coastal and foreign trade
based in Plymouth helped make it one of the major ports of colonial
America, and nearby Duxbury and Kingston also became important
centers for trade and shipbuilding. The local maritime traffic
necessitated a navigational aid at the Gurnet.
The first lighthouse on the high bluff at the eastern end
of the Gurnet was authorized by an act of the colonial legislature
on February 17, 1768.
The structure, built for 660 pounds, took the form of a wooden
dwelling with a lantern at each end of its roof, which made this
the site of North America's first "twin lights."
The lights were in operation by September 1768. The station
was built on land owned by John and Hannah Thomas. The government
didn't initially buy the land. Instead, they paid the Thomases
five shillings for the right to build the lighthouse, and John
Thomas became the first keeper of the lights.
In the days leading up to the American Revolution, John Thomas
recruited a regiment of volunteers from Plymouth County. In March
1775, Thomas and his men fortified Dorchester Heights at Boston,
leading which led to the withdrawal of the British. Thomas became
a major general and led troops at Quebec. Smallpox spread through
his troops, and Thomas died of the disease on June 2, 1776.
Thomas's wife, Hannah, had taken over the duties of keeping
the lights at the Gurnet when her husband went to war, along
with the responsibilities of raising three children. She was
America's first woman lighthouse keeper.
During the Revolution, the towns of Plymouth, Duxbury and
Kingston built a fort on the Gurnet. Local folklore has it that
the British frigate Niger fired on the fort and one of
the cannonballs pierced the lighthouse building.
One of the most famous New England shipwrecks happened near
the Gurnet in December 1778, when the American brigantine General
Arnold tried to anchor about a mile from the point and struck
White Flats. Seventy-two men on the ship perished in the freezing
water. The keeper at the Gurnet was unable to reach the vessel
because of the ice floes that filled the harbor. Local residents
eventually built a causeway to the ship to rescue the survivors.
In 1786, Hannah Thomas hired a local man named Nathaniel Burgess
(or Burges) to serve as lightkeeper. John Thomas, son of Hannah
and John, had done much of the work at the station for years
by the time he received the official appointment as keeper in
1790. The lighthouse was ceded to the federal government in the
same year. John Thomas remained keeper until 1812. The next keeper,
Joseph Burgess -- son of Nathaniel Burgess -- had a long 39-year
The original twin light structure served until June 30, 1801,
when it was destroyed by fire. The merchants of Duxbury and Plymouth
paid for a temporary structure, which itself was nearly consumed
by fire in early 1802. Congress appropriated $2,500 for the rebuilding
of the station in April 1802. The local merchants were repaid
$270 for their expenses. A new pair of 22-foot- high twin towers
was built in 1803, 30 feet apart, exhibiting fixed white lights
70 feet above sea level. The land at the Gurnet was finally bought
outright, as the Thomases were paid $120.
|An 1842 inspection report recommended the immediate
rebuilding reconstruction of the station's buildings. The towers
were in such poor condition that even Stephen Pleasanton, the
fifth auditor of the Treasury Department, who was in charge of
the nation's lighthouses and a notorious penny- pincher, corroborated
the urgent need to rebuild in April 1842. "I am afraid they
will fall to the ground in the course of the summer," he
wrote. There were also many complaints that the two lights blended
into one from a distance and were easily confused with Barnstable's
Sandy Neck Light.
A view of the Gurnet circa 1901,
courtesy of Paul Christian
- Courtesy of Paul Christian
New octagonal wooden towers, joined by a covered walkway,
were completed during 1843. A spacious new keeper's house was
built at the same time.
The towers were so close together that the problem of the
lights merging when seen from sea remained.
The 1843 twin lights would remain jointly in service at their
original locations until 1924.
Along the way, the old multiple
lamps and reflectors were replaced by sixth-order Fresnel lenses,
which were later upgraded to fourth-order lenses.
- A 1904 article by Arthur Hewitt described a visit with the
keeper at that time, Willis Higgins:
- This photo of neighboring property
at the Gurnet is courtesy of Paul Christian, who says it is from
a glass negative that probably dates from 1880-1900. He says
it "was taken from the farmhouse looking towards the lighthouses.
The building on the left is the farmhouse barn which burned down
- I pictured Higgins, the keeper, cleaning one of his lanterns,
made friends with the patrolmen of the coast, caught more fish
in the channel in an hour than one generally gets in a month,
watched the porgy seiners and lobstermen, and thoroughly enjoyed
this almost deserted spot.
- Higgins and I often chatted. We disagreed on only one
subject. I wanted Higgins to be photographed in the knockabout
clothes he usually wore -- he called them his undress uniform
-- but he vetoed this each time, and immediately donned the full
regalia of the United States Lighthouse Establishment. . . .
He was a representative of the United States Government, and
wished to be treated as such.
The 1843 Plymouth Lights
- From the collection of Edward Rowe
Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
Arthur Hewitt's picture of Keeper
Higgins cleaning the lantern
- From the collection of Edward Rowe
Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
A fog- bell tower, with a 1,500-pound bell and automatic striking
machinery, was added to the station in 1907. A first-class Daboll
fog trumpet eventually replaced the bell, with and a new building
was erected for the related equipment.
The importance of the station decreased as maritime commerce
fell off in Plymouth, but it later grew in importance again after
the 1914 opening of the Cape Cod Canal led to more shipping traffic
in the vicinity. By the 1920s, the twin light stations established
on the East Coast were being phased out.
In 1924, as part of this effort, the northeast light at the
Gurnet was discontinued and torn down, ending 156 years of twin
lights on the site.
The single light was given a new characteristic, with a single
flash alternating with a double flash every 20 seconds. The surviving
39-foot shingled tower is the nation's oldest freestanding lighthouse
tower built only of wood.
- Another early photo of the twin lights
at the Gurnet, courtesy of Paul Christian
- This photo, taken before 1924, is
courtesy of Paul Christian. The boy on the fence near the lighthouse
is Bill Jacobs, who was Paul's uncle and a local lobsterman who
fished until he was 69.
Frank Allen Davis, previously in charge at Tarpaulin Cove
Light, became keeper in 1925.
The Davis family hunted ducks and geese on the Gurnet, and
the keeper's son, Frank Arthur Davis, became a licensed lobsterman
at the age of nine. By the time he was 10, Frank was sailing
his own boat and hauling his own lobster traps. He loved growing
up at the Gurnet, later comparing his early life to those of
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer:
From the time I could walk, I had boats, fishing, hunting
and the run of the entire area. In the summer, I could play in
the clumps of bushes and scrub cedar trees on the beach; the
sand dunes were my mountains. I was king of the marshland and
beach-creeks were my great rivers of the world.
- This ranch-style house became the
keeper's quarters in 1962; the old house was destroyed.
- Al Readdy, a Coast Guard heeper of
Plymouth Lighthouse in 1951, polishes the fourth order Fresnel
lens. Courtesy of Al Readdy.
The old dwelling was destroyed and a new four-bedroom ranch
house was built to house the Coast Guard crew in 1962. The Coast
Guard announced plans to automate and destaff the light in the
mid-1980s, and many local residents objected.
Boatswain's Mate First Class Joseph Robicheau, the officer
in charge, was an emergency medical technician, and the only
mobile firefighting equipment on the Gurnet was at the station.
The light was officially automated on October 1, 1986, when a
modern optic replaced the fourth-order Fresnel lens.
In 1989, the station was leased by the Coast Guard to the
Massachusetts Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Volunteers
lived in the 1963 ranch keeper's house, and the property was
open to overnight visitors.
Caretakers Bill and Debbi Ricci were married at the lighthouse
and made many improvements to the property during their stay
- U.S. Coast Guard photo, c. 1970s
- The lighthouse being moved in December
1998. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The lease later reverted to the Coast Guard. In 1994, Plymouth
Light was converted to solar power. There were plans to move
the lighthouse back from the eroding cliff in 1997, but neighbors
complained that trucks would damage the fragile dirt roads on
the Gurnet and that the lighthouse would be too close to their
After discussion between residents and the Coast Guard, the
lighthouse was moved by the Northern Construction Service, LLC,
of Hingham, Massachusetts, in December 1998. The tower was moved
approximately 140 feet.
Project Gurnet and Bug
Lights, a group responsible for the restoration of Duxbury
Pier ("Bug") Light near Plymouth, acquired a lease
for the lighthouse in May 1999. The group also now maintains
the 1963 ranch-style keepers' quarters.
Volunteers have painted the lighthouse in recent years, and
a window was replaced in 2001. In addition, rugosa roses and
bayberry bushes have been planted to guard against erosion.
Dolly Bicknell, president of Project
Gurnet & Bug Lights. Dolly's father was Edward Rowe Snow,
famous historian and "Flying Santa" to lighthouses.
The light remains an active aid to navigation, with a sequence
of three white flashes every 30 seconds. It was converted to
solar power in 1994. A red sector warns mariner of dangerous
Mary Ann Rocks, and there's an automated foghorn sounding two
blasts every 15 seconds. Automobile access to the Gurnet is limited
to residents, but an open house is held in late May each year
by Project Gurnet and Bug
Lights as part of the Opening of the Bay festival in
- For more information:
- Project Gurnet
and Bug Lights
- P. O. Box 2167
- Duxbury, MA 02331
- The former keepers' house can be rented by the week or by
the month. Rents vary depending upon the month and season. For
more information, see www.buglight.org
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book
of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- A view from the top in May 2001
- Plymouth Light's old fourth order
Fresnel lens is now at the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hull, MA
- 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 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.)
- John Thomas (1769-1776); Hannah Thomas (1776-c.1790);
John Thomas (son, 1790-1812); Joseph Burges [Burgess ?] (1812-1851);
Thomas Treble (1851-); William Sears, Milton Reamy, Edward S.
Gorham, Henry L. Pingree (1893-?); Higgins (c. 1904); Frank Allen Davis
(1929-1946); BM1 William Miller (Coast Guard officer in charge
c. 1957); BMC Earle B. Ashby (c. 1951); Al Readdy (Coast Guard,
1951); Lorne Bair (Coast Guard, 1979-1980); Joseph Robicheau
(Coast Guard, December 1984 to March 1987).