On the Water

Still lighting up the harbor

As Coast Guard hands over control of lighthouses, more may open for tours

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 6, 2011

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The best summertime stoop in Boston is not the porch of a three-decker in Dorchester or the front steps of a South End brownstone. No, the best stoop for sitting and catching a cool sea breeze on a steamy August night is a set of wooden steps painted the crimson color of a rusty ship.

Fog horns replace the incessant beep of car horns. Rush hour means sailboats and Boston Whalers. And the only traffic signal is 89 feet up and flashes white every 10 seconds.

This is Little Brewster Island, home of Boston Light, the nation’s first lighthouse station, established in 1716. At the outer edge of Boston Harbor, this rocky patch of land is about the size of a city block. The hazy skyline of the Financial District and Back Bay is visible on one side of the horizon. Blue open ocean extends endlessly on the other.

Boston Harbor still has three lighthouses flashing beams of light that can be seen 27 miles out at sea. From the mainland, the brick and granite towers sparkle, winking back at shore every few seconds as a reminder of the region’s maritime roots.

“Technology has changed, but there still is a romance about lighthouses,’’ said Bruce Jacobson, superintendent of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. “When you look at a lighthouse, you understand the challenges of going to sea, and you think about the history of boats coming into the harbor and finding that reassuring beam that guides ships into safe harbor.’’

For Wendy Clayton, a Coast Guard volunteer stationed on Little Brewster last month, the island is as close as this world gets to heaven, especially that three-step stoop up to the lighthouse keeper’s home.

“Just sitting on those steps with a cup of coffee,’’ said Clayton, 58, “watching boat traffic.’’

Boston Light is the only tower in Boston Harbor open regularly for public tours, but that may soon change. With the advance of navigational equipment, the US Coast Guard is relinquishing control of many lighthouses, so more of them are being taken over by groups that will preserve their historic character.

In June, Long Island Head Light, the closest lighthouse to mainland Boston, was given to the National Park Service. The agency and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance hope to facilitate more tours of the tower there, Jacobson said.

The harbor’s most remote lighthouse is Graves Light, a gray granite tower built on a pile of rocks that almost disappear at high tide. First illuminated in 1905, it marked a newly dredged channel. Light from the 113-foot tower could once be seen 37 miles out to sea. A decade ago, the structure was converted to solar power, reducing its visibility to 7 miles.

Graves remains closed to the public because boat landings on the rocks are deemed too treacherous. But the Coast Guard has begun the process of divesting itself of that tower, as well.

Boston Light is the last continuously manned lighthouse in the United States. The others in Boston Harbor and beyond are automated. In 1989, two now-deceased lawmakers, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Representative Gerry E. Studds, ushered a law through Congress mandating the permanent Coast Guard presence on the island, as well as public access.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the three active duty Coast Guardsmen were removed from Little Brewster to help with port security. In their place, the Coast Guard hired a civilian lighthouse keeper in 2003, Sally Snowman, a Plymouth resident who wrote a book about the history of Boston Light and now spends weeks at a time on Little Brewster Island.

“The magic for me is going up to the top of the tower and watching the sun go down,’’ said Snowman, 60. “A lot of times we get this pink hue over the city of Boston with this bright golden yellow sun setting. Then watching the moon rise over the ocean.’’

Snowman oversees a stable of 54 volunteers from the Coast Guard auxiliary who are trained as assistant keepers and work shifts that run from Wednesday to Sunday for much of the year. They scrape and paint, patrol the grounds, take weather readings, lead tours of the island, and paint again.

For her part, Snowman wears a bonnet and dress circa 1783, replicas of the clothing worn by the lighthouse keeper’s wife when the tower was rebuilt. (The original lighthouse was blown up by the British in 1776.)

Tours of Boston Light run for 16 weeks from the third week in June into October. About 1,700 people visited the island in 2010, and the numbers appear to be up slightly this year, said Rebecca Smerling, director of programs for the Boston Harbor Island Alliance.

About half the visitors are out-of-town tourists such as Alexey Sidorov, a 21-year-old student from Siberia who took a tour last month. The other half are local residents, like Samuel Kauffman, a 13-year-old from Hyde Park who made the trip with a summer writing camp.

“From where I live in Hyde Park, you wouldn’t have even known there’s an ocean out there,’’ Kauffman said. “This makes me feel like I understand my city’s history more.’’

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