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
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
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.
Early photo of the first Race
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."
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
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.
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.
The second Race Point Light, c.
From the collection of Edward
Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
In 1934, the New
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.”
From A Trip to Cape Cod,
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.”
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
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
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
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
Courtesy of Anne Ames.
Keeper Osborne Hallett and
family used this jeep for transportation at Race Point. Courtesy of
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.
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
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.
The fog signal building before
|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
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 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.)
- Elijah Dyer (c. 1842); Samuel
Cook (c. 1850); Waterman Crocker (?); Jesse Smith (assistant, ?);
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
(1945-1955); Clifton S. Morong (Coast Guard, c. 1940s); Thomas Branco
(coast Guard, c. early 1970s).