To the Lighthouse

Edward Hopper: Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1929
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Bridgeman Images
Edward Hopper: Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1929

The history of the American lighthouse is a history of calamity, insanity, and, in at least one case, cannibalism.

The Boon Island Lighthouse stands six miles off the coast of York, Maine, on a modest granite outcropping barely above sea level. For decades ships crossed the Atlantic only to founder here, nearly in sight of land. None had it worse than an English merchant ship called the Nottingham Galley, which ran aground during a nor’easter on December 11, 1710. The fourteen crew members hauled themselves from the wreck as their provisions, apart from three small rounds of cheese and a few old beef bones, sank into the ocean. After a week of starvation and sub-freezing temperatures, the resourceful men managed to construct a skiff from the ship’s debris. The captain and a crew member set off for the mainland in hope of salvation. Within minutes, however, a giant wave flung them back onto the island, demolishing the boat. “The horrors of such a situation,” the captain later said, were “impossible to describe.”

Those crew members who were not yet too weak to move now assembled a crude raft from the remaining scraps of wood. It departed safely from the island with two men on board. The raft even managed to reach the mainland a few days later. But the men did not.

The first fatality on the island was the ship carpenter, a “fat man, and naturally of a dull, heavy, phlegmatic disposition.” After what the captain later described as a period of “mature consideration”—not, it would appear, an especially long period—the men made the carpenter’s raw flesh into sandwiches, using seaweed for bread. They ate so ravenously that the captain had to ration the meat.

When the castaways were finally rescued on January 4 their story inspired calls to build the continent’s first lighthouse. But one was not built on Boon Island for almost a hundred years. As Eric Jay Dolin describes in Brilliant Beacons, his survey of American lighthouse history, this was a common pattern. Lighthouses may have come to be seen as brilliant beacons but they are also cenotaphs, marking deathtraps that for centuries devoured mariners along the continent’s coasts.

Only after enough maritime disasters occurred in a treacherous location was a lighthouse built. The nation’s first was completed in Boston Harbor in 1716, after the Massachusetts legislature found that the absence of a lighthouse “has been a great discouragement to navigation, by the loss of lives and estates of several of his majesty’s subjects.” A petition to build a lighthouse at Portland Head, at the edge of Casco Bay, was ignored until 1787, when a sloop crashed into it, killing two. “A long list of shipwrecks” led to the construction in 1761 of the first…

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