In his book Cape Cod,
Henry David Thoreau described the harbor at Provincetown, at the tip of
The Harbor of Provincetown... is deservedly famous. It
opens to the south, is free of rocks, and is never frozen over... It is
the harbor of the Cape and of the fishermen of Massachusetts generally.
|The first two lighthouses in the vicinity, at Race
Point and Long Point, were established by 1826. By the 1860s, it was
determined that another aid was needed at Wood End, the southernmost
extremity of the curving spit of land that protected the harbor. A
white pyramidal day beacon was first erected at Wood End in 1864, and
Congress appropriated $15,000 for a lighthouse on June 10, 1872.
A 38-foot brick tower -- originally painted brown -- was erected, and
the light went into service on November 20, 1872. A fifth-order Fresnel
lens exhibited a red flash every 15 seconds, 45 feet above the sea. A
keeper's dwelling was built about 50 feet northeast of the lighthouse.
The first keeper, Thomas Lowe, remained at the station for 25 years.
Wood End Light c. 1880
From the collection of Edward
Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
U.S. Coast Guard photo
|In spite of the three lighthouses around Provincetown,
wrecks still occurred with some regularity. Lowe occasionally had to
make hasty trips to town to awaken sleeping citizens to help with the
rescue of shipwreck victims.
A lifesaving station had been established at Race Point in 1872, and
one was finally added at Wood End in 1896, a short distance east of the
In 1896, a new wood-frame keeper's house was built, along with a
storage shed and a small brick oil house for the storage of
|New machinery for the revolving lens was installed in
1900. Two years later, a 1,000-pound fog bell and bell tower were added
near the lighthouse.
Eight days before Christmas in 1927, the Navy submarine S-4 and
the Coast Guard cutter Paulding collided a half mile south of
Wood End Light. 40 men on the S-4 died in the disaster. The S-4
was raised three months later and was used to help
devise greater safety measures for future submarines.
During a stretch of severe cold in February 1935, Keeper
Douglas Shepherd was marooned at the light station for weeks. The Boston
Keeper Shepherd has struggled vainly to break
through the arctic expanse that extends for miles beyond his light.
Several times he has attempted it, using axe and crowbar to attack the
ice blocks in his path, but each time he has been forced to turn back.
Wood End Light Station c. 1900
From the collection of
Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
Ordinarily, Shepherd made a daily trip into town. He had no
worries despite his isolation, according to the newspaper report, as
the Coast Guard kept him in touch with the mainland.
James Hinkley Dobbins served as a relief keeper for a period
in 1937. His wife, Ruby Kelley Dobbins, recalled in her book The Additional Keeper
that her husband gave her explicit instructions to “buy all the
mousetraps in stock” at a local hardware store before she came for her
first visit; the keeper’s house was overrun with mice. The Dobbins
family had some time for sightseeing in Provincetown and especially
enjoyed seeing the traditional town crier, ringing his brass bell and
shouting the news of the day.
The lighthouse was automated in 1961 and all the other
buildings except the oil house were destroyed. The lighthouse's
original lens had been replaced by a fifth-order lens in 1916, and this
was replaced by a modern optic when the light was automated. The light
was converted to solar power in 1981.
The Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation has
been licensed by the Coast Guard to restore and maintain Wood End
Light. Volunteers painted the tower and oil house in the fall of 2000.
At this writing, there are plans for a volunteer work party to repaint
the tower in spring 2007.
You can walk to Wood End Light across the breakwater built in
1911, but breaking waves sometime make the going tricky at high tide.
It's a fairly strenuous walk of 30-45 minutes each way to the
lighthouse. There are limited parking spaces available near the start
of the walk; it's an additional walk of around 20-30 minutes from the
center of town.
The lighthouse, still an active aid to navigation, is also
viewable from some of the excursion boats out of Provincetown.
For more information or to donate to the restoration of Wood
End Light, contact the American
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
Thomas Lowe (1872-1897); Philip R. Smith (1897-?); Douglas H.
Shepherd (c. 1920s-1930s); George H. Fitzpatrick (c. 1940s), George
Grimes (c. 1940s); George Smith (relief keeper 1923-1936)