Cape Cod Light – Chatham Light
Cape Cod Highland Light is the oldest, tallest and the strongest light on the Cape. Originally built in 1797 and replaced in 1853, the current structure was completed in 1857, 510 feet from the cliff. By the early 1990’s it stood 128 feet from the edge of the cliff. In July 1996, Cape Cod Light was moved back 453 from the eroding cliff where it will be safe for another few hundred years.
Chatham, nestled at Cape Cod’s southeast corner, was named for an English seaport and incorporated in 1712. Maritime traffic passing the Cape was heavy by the nineteenth century. The waters off Chatham were a menace, with strong currents and dangerous shoals. Mariners talked of a ghostly rider on a white horse who appeared on stormy nights, swinging a lantern that lured mariners to their doom.
In April 1806, nine years after the establishment of the Cape’s first lighthouse at North Truro, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a second station at Chatham. A second appropriation of $2,000 was made in 1808. In order to distinguish Chatham from Highland Light, it was decided that the new station would have two fixed white lights. Two octagonal wooden towers, each 40 feet tall and about 70 feet apart from each other, were erected on moveable wooden skids about 70 feet apart. A small dwelling house was also built, with only one bedroom. Samuel Nye was approved as the first keeper by President Thomas Jefferson.
The house had such a poor foundation that rats had burrowed in and infested the cellar. A storm in October 1841 broke 17 panes of glass in the lanterns, which Keeper Howe (the second lighthouse keeper) blamed on poor construction.
A tremendous storm hit Cape Cod in November 1870. Before the storm, the Chatham lights were 228 feet from the edge of the 50-foot bluff. The storm had broken through the outer beaches, and the erosion accelerated. By 1877 the light towers stood only 48 feet from the brink.
On September 30, 1879, the old south tower teetered 27 inches from oblivion. Another two months passed, and a third of the foundation hung over the edge. Around this time some local boys found ancient coins, rumored to be pirate treasure, under the lighthouse.
By the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began phasing out twin light stations as an unnecessary expense. The north light was moved up the coast to Eastham to replace the survivor of the “Three Sisters” in 1923, ending 115 years of twin lights at Chatham.
A new rotating lens was placed in the remaining tower, along with an incandescent oil-vapor lamp. In 1939, the Coast Guard electrified the light — which had been fueled by kerosene since 1882 — and increased its intensity from 30,000 to 800,000 candlepower.