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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Race Point Light
Provincetown, Massachusetts
Race Point Light main page / History / Bibliography / Photos / Postcards

History
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.
Race Point’s name comes from the strong cross current, known as a “race,” that made navigation around the terminus of Cape Cod a nightmare for mariners. Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, every vessel traveling along the coast between Boston and points south had to negotiate the treacherous bars near here. As early as 1808, the merchants and mariners of Provincetown asked for a lighthouse at Race Point.

Funding for a light station was included in a congressional appropriation of $8,000 on April 27, 1816. The original specifications called for an octagonal wooden tower, 20 feet tall, but the plans were soon altered. 

A lighthouse at Race Point, Cape Cod’s third light station, went into service on November 5, 1816. The rubblestone tower was 25 feet tall and its light was 30 feet above the sea. It was one of the nation’s earliest revolving lights, in the result of an attempt to differentiate it from other lighthouses in the vicinity.

The tower was joined to the small stone dwelling via a covered passageway connected to the kitchen.

old photo of first lighthouse at Race Point

Early photo of the first Race Point Light

Around this time, a sizeable fishing community and a saltworks grew up around nearby Herring Cove. The little community, known as “Helltown,” was even declared a separate school district in the 1830s. The settlement dwindled later in the nineteenth century.

A tremendous storm swept Cape Cod in October 1841. Provincetown's neighbor, Truro, lost seven vessels and 57 men in the storm. Only two crews from Truro survived. Captain Matthias Rich spent 12 hours lashed to the wheel and managed to bring his schooner Water Witch into Herring Cove near Race Point.

I.W.P. Lewis inspected Race Point Light in 1842. He recognized the light's importance, but found reason to be critical:

The light is useful to all vessels leaving Boston, and bound to the eastward, or round the cape, through the South channel; and also as a point of departure for Provincetown harbor, as well as Boston. Its illuminating power is, however, so weak that when a fleet of fishermen are anchored in Herring cove, close by, a stranger would hardly be able to distinguish it from the lights set on board these vessels. A reciprocating light of one good lamp and suitable reflector would be much more efficient than the present apparatus with ten lamps.

The original lighting system had been devised by I.W.P. Lewis' uncle, Winslow Lewis. The younger Lewis also reported that the tower was leaky and had no foundation. The keeper's house, he said, was "in very good repair, and most neatly kept."

A fog bell was installed in 1852. Then, three years later, a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the old multiple lamps and reflectors. In 1873, the bell was replaced by a steam-driven fog signal housed in a new wood-frame building. With the added duties of tending the fog signal equipment, a second dwelling was built for an assistant keeper in 1874. 

It was reported in 1875 that the original lime mortar in the tower had disappeared and the lighthouse had been covered with shingles in an attempt to stop leaks. The shingles and the wooden stairs inside were rotten and the tower needed rebuilding.

The needed funds were appropriated and, in 1876, a 45-foot, brick-lined, cast-iron lighthouse replaced the old stone tower at a cost of $2,800. The Fresnel lens was moved to the new tower and the characteristic was changed from a flash to a fixed light. 

The original keeper’s house was torn down around the same time, and a new dwelling was built. A new rainwater cistern was added in 1877.

old photo

The second Race Point Light, c. 1890s
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

In 1934, the New Bedford Standard-Times published an article on the station and its three keepers. William H. Lowther had been the principal keeper since 1915. Lowther had entered the Lighthouse Service as a crewman on the tender Mayflower in 1906, and before coming to Cape Cod he had been stationed at Thacher Island off Cape Ann and the Narrows Light in Boston Harbor. Lowther lived at the station with his wife and their young son, Gerald. Gerald Lowther later recalled his arduous walk of more than two miles on the beach to school each day.

Lowther and his wife lived in Provincetown after retirement. In a 1936 article, Mrs. Lowther said that she saw many wrecks in her years at lighthouses, but there was one that especially affected her at Race Point. “Two men were drowned,” she recalled. “I saw everything: the appeals of the men and the shouting and the screeching of the men at the light was so terrible it was in my ears for weeks afterward. I had to go away from the light for a week.”

old photo of light station

From A Trip to Cape Cod, 1898

The first assistant keeper at the time of the 1934 article was the Barnstable native James W. Hinckley, who had been at Race Point since 1920. The historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote that Hinckley often carried 15 pounds of groceries from town across the long stretch of soft sand to the light station. He eventually took to riding a horse back and forth to town. In the 1930s, after he succeeded Lowther as principal keeper, Hinckley made the trip much quicker by customizing a Ford into an early dune buggy. The trip that had taken 75 minutes on horseback was shortened to 30 minutes.

Race Point is one of the windiest places on the coast. Snow quoted Hinckley: “The wind often touches a mile a minute. Some of the gusts will blow you several feet, and it’s hard going. The sand is bad enough, cutting into your skin, but a combination of sand and snow is almost unbearable.”

On the occasion of his retirement on Christmas Day, 1937, at the age of 70, Keeper Hinckley expressed the opinion that the government should pay a pension to lighthouse keeper’s wives, who “do just as much as the men.”

In his 1946 book, A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, Edward Rowe Snow described a visit with Keeper Osborne Hallett, who was in charge from 1945 to 1955. Over coffee and crackers, Snow and Hallett discussed the wreck of the Monte Tabor, which had occurred near Race Point on April 9, 1896. The Sicilian bark was carrying a cargo of salt when it ran into a tremendous storm off Cape Cod. 


The captain, intending to enter Provincetown Harbor, made a fatal miscalculation and ran right into the Peaked Hill Bars. Surfmen from the local lifesaving stations tried to go to the crew’s aid, but the vessel broke apart. Six crewmen soon drifted in on the bark’s cabin and were rescued.
The next day, an Italian boy from the crew was found hiding in the bushes near the shore. He told his discoverers that he was afraid he would be killed if discovered; that was what happened to shipwreck victims on Cape Cod, he had heard. 

Osborne Hallett (keeper from 1945 to 1955) with niece Anne and her mother at Race Point Light, circa 1945.
Courtesy of Anne Ames.

Keeper Osborne Hallett and family used this jeep for transportation at Race Point. Courtesy of Anne Ames.
aerial photograph

The captions on this photograph indicate what the Coast Guard planned to do in 1960 (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The light was electrified in 1957. Three years later, the larger Gothic Revival keeper's house was torn down and the other house was modernized.

The Coast Guard's officer in charge in the early 1970s was Thomas Branco, who lived at Race Point with his wife, Charlotte, and their five children. With one child in kindergarten and the others in older grades, it meant three round trips to town every day. Years later, the Brancos' daughter, Tracy, said that a tour operator often brought visitors to see the lighthouse. "He'd drive up and say, 'This is where you'll see the little savages,'" she recalled.

The light was automated in 1972. The Fresnel lens has been removed; there is now a solar powered VRB-25 optic.

In 1995, the surrounding property, including the keeper's house and oil house, was leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation. International Chimney, the same company that has moved three New England lighthouses, repaired the roof of the keeper's house and rebuilt the chimney. Contractor Richard Davidson of Onset did a great deal of work on the interior and exterior.

stairs

The cast-iron spiral stairs inside the tower

A bedroom in the keeper's house

Volunteers renovated the interior, and the five-bedroom keeper's house opened for overnight stays. The building now has heat, hot water, flush toilets, refrigeration, and a stove.

Guests must bring their own bedding and the kitchen is shared with other guests.

Jim Walker reported a mystery in 1996. An American flag appeared on a temporary flag pole, put there by an unknown benefactor.

The volunteers took the flag in for the winter, then put it out again in spring. It was shredded in a storm, but again, a new flag mysteriously took its place.


The oil house has also been restored

The Center for Coastal Studies, a marine mammal research and educational group, leased the fog signal building. After a $45,000 renovation, the building was dedicated as their new field station in June 1999. The fog signal building now contains two bedrooms and is available as a weekly rental in summer.

 fog signal buildng

The fog signal building before renovation
fog signal building and flag

After renovation
The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation raised funds for the installation of a solar electrical system for the keeper's house. Completed in October 2003, the system supplemented a diesel engine electrical generating system. On-site demonstrations show schoolchildren and other visitors how solar power can supply electric energy to the average family home.
solar panels

Solar panels were installed in 2003
 

This replica door in the tower was made and installed in 2002. It was made from wood cut in the same year that the tower was built

You can park at Race Point Beach and walk about 45 minutes (a little over two miles in very soft sand) to the lighthouse.

Sunset at Race Point Beach is one of the Cape's most popular spectacles, and at times humpback whales can be seen from the beach. Race Point Light is still an active aid to navigation maintained by the Coast Guard.

For reservations to stay in the keepers house at Race Point call 1-855-722-3959.

For more information:
 
Race Point Lighthouse
 

A view from the top
 

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.)

Elijah Dyer (c. 1842); Samuel Cook (c. 1850); Waterman Crocker (?); Jesse Smith (assistant, ?); Charles A. Havender (1893-?); Thomas W. Newcomb (second assistant, 1893-?); Elliott Hadley, Jr. (assistant, 1912); William H. Lowther (1915-1935); James W. Hinckley (asst. 1920-1935, then keeper, 1935-1937); Osborne Earle Hallett (1945-1955); Clifton S. Morong (Coast Guard, c. 1940s); Thomas Branco (coast Guard, c. early 1970s).
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.
Last updated 5/28/11


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