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Minot's Ledge Lighthouse

David Wadsworth

From David Wadsworth, "A Brief History of Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, Cohasset, Mass.," Cohasset Historical society pamphlet Reprinted by permission of the author.

In the late 1840s, [after] many disastrous shipwrecks off Cohasset's shore, the U.S. Government's Lighthouse Establishment determined to build a lighthouse on the offshore ledges to warn mariners away from the danger presented by the rocks and small islands [known as] Cohasset Rocks. Captain Daniel T. Lothrop had made a list of some fifty large vessels lost or severely damaged within recent years in the immediate offshore waters. The total of lives lost or cargo destroyed was little short of appalling.

The first Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, on Outer Minot's Ledge, some two and a half miles off Cohasset's shore, was a seventy foot high "iron pile" structure; that is, it sat upon eight circumferential legs and a central leg of iron set into the top of the granite ledge . . . its lantern first was lit in early 1850. . . Not long after, during a fierce storm on April 16/17, 1851, the first Minot's Ledge Lighthouse fell into the sea, and assistant keepers Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, on the light at the time, perished in icy seas.

Within just a few years, the newly reorganized U.S. Board of Lighthouse Engineers determined to replace the fallen light with a new structure made of almost solid granite. The designer of the second Minot's Ledge Lighthouse was General Joseph Totten of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the superintending engineer was Captain Barton S. Alexander, also of the Corps of Engineers.

This Minot's was to be 114 feet high, made of Quincy granite, and would be located at the same site as the first, ill fated lighthouse. Preparation for constructing the granite tower began in 1855, and by 1857 the top of the ledge was ready to have the first blocks put in place. Each of the more than one thousand blocks would be specially cut to dovetail to those next to it, assuring the strength of the tower. During the summers of 1858, 1859, and 1860 work went ahead in calm weather as the blocks were brought from Government island at the Cohasset shore, raised up by steam engine, and locked in place to form the structure of the lighthouse.

The owner of the "stone sloop" taking the finished blocks to the offshore ledge was Captain Nichols Tower of Cohasset, and the chief safety officer at the site was Captain Michael Neptune Brennock, also of Cohasset. The coppersmith for the domed roof and other fittings was Erastus Beethoven Badger, founder of the E.B. Badger Company of Boston, [whose descendants became Cohasset summer residents]. The expert stonecutters who completed the fitting of the granite blocks were from Quincy, and final stonecutting was done at Government Island.

The lantern of the second Minot's Ledge Lighthouse was first lit in September 1860. The total cost of the project had been about $300,000. [The first Minot's cost $39,000.] The head keeper was Joshua Wilder, Jr., of Hingham, who remained at the light for only about a year. He was succeeded by keeper James J. Tower, of an old Cohasset family, who remained at Minot's for about ten years. There were a succession of assistant keepers who also served at Minot's Ledge, and at least two men would be on duty at the lighthouse at all times. During off duty time the keepers would reside ashore with their families at the U.S. Lighthouse Shore Station, Government Island, Cohasset, in homes provided by the Lighthouse Service.

In 1867 changes were made to the deck and lantern house of the tower, and Minot's assumed the appearance it has today. At that time metal deck plates were installed on the walkway outside the lantern house, and the wind braces holding the domed roof were redesigned.

Minot's Ledge Lighthouse is located at one of the most dangerous offshore sites found anywhere. During fierce winter storms waves often break over the top of the I 14 foot high pinnacle of the light, and access to the tower is limited to times when the ocean is nearly calm. In the 1890s Minot's was given the characteristic 1 4 3 flash pattern it retains today. Conversion from oil lanterns to electric lantern followed, and in 1947 the beacon was automated. The last resident head keeper of Minot's Ledge Light was George Fitzpatrick, who served until operation of the light was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Scituate Harbor in the 1940s. The lighthouse remained active during the years of World War II.

[When the beacon of Minot's Ledge was automated in 19471, the resident keepers left Cohasset permanently. For some time an underwater electric cable from land delivered power for the lantern, then a generator was placed on the deck to supply the power needed. Meantime, the intricate Fresnel lens that had focused the light of the lantern was removed. Today Minot's is solar powered, having a small solar panel on the deck at the east side of the tower that supplies a storage battery powering a standard light bulb in a Coast Guard lantern. In the 1980s the topmost stone room, called the Watch Room, was found to have developed extensive cracks and was replaced with new and nearly duplicate cut granite blocks.

Gone are the days when Minot's beacon was that of a second order seacoast light, of some 110,000 candlepower, focused through a giant second order Fresnel lens, throwing a brilliant beam across the water for mariners miles away to see and heed.