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Amid rough seas, celebration
for Minot's Ledge Light

Posted by dinouye  June 5, 2010 07:04 PM

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By Emily Sweeney, Globe Staff

One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, workers completed the painstaking construction of a new lighthouse off the coast of Cohasset and Scituate. Minot’s Ledge Light rose up from the sea, a sturdy tower of interlocking granite blocks built to withstand the relentless pounding of ocean waves.

It still stands stoically today, a lonely monument surrounded by seawater, warning mariners of the hidden rocky ledge that caused so many shipwrecks long ago.

The Scituate Historical Society is marking the 150th anniversary of the lighthouse by hosting a series of events June 26 and 27 to celebrate the history of this iconic beacon whose future, at the moment, is uncertain. Minot’s is one of several historic lighthouses that the federal government has put up for grabs, so it may be acquired by a local municipality or nonprofit in the not-so-distant future. (See a photo gallery of South Shore lighthouses here.)

Lighthouses loom large in American maritime history, and along the coast south of Boston great efforts have been made to protect them.

Over the years, volunteer groups and nonprofits have played key roles in preserving and restoring many beacons in southeastern Massachusetts. The Bird Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in 1994 to advocate for the upkeep of Bird Island Light in Sippican Harbor.

Project Gurnet & Bug Lights, a volunteer group founded in 1983, is trying to raise $250,000 to make some much-needed repairs to Bug Light in Duxbury Bay. The group’s president, Dolly Snow Bicknell, said the Coast Guard maintains the light and foghorn, but ‘‘we pretty much have to do everything else.’’ Hand rails need to be repaired, the paint is peeling, and doors and windows need to be replaced.

‘‘There’s so much that needs to be done,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s still an aid to navigation. We want it to be around for a while.’’

Minot’s Ledge Light first became available last summer through a program created by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which gives municipalities, nonprofits, and educational institutions first crack at acquiring certain federal lighthouses.

In September, the towns of Cohasset and Scituate sent letters of interest to the General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees government real estate. But there are lingering, important questions: What kind of shape is the lighthouse in? How much will it cost to maintain?

‘‘Everyone is concerned with the long-term maintenance and insurance costs that come with ownership,’’ Cohasset Town Manager William R. Griffin said in an e-mail.

Town officials and other interested groups will soon get a close-up look at the lighthouse so they can assess the condition of the structure, said Meta Cushing of the General Services Administration.

The front door to Minot’s is 30 feet above the water, accessible by a bronze ladder that extends down one side of the granite tower. But potential applicants won’t be allowed to go inside; instead, the General Services Administration will provide them with a video of the interior — sort of like a lighthouse version of MTV ‘‘Cribs,’’ sans lightkeeper. (Minot has not had a lightkeeper since 1947.)

Cushing said that after the interested parties receive their copies of the video, they will have 90 days to complete draft applications. The applicants will then work with the National Park Service to make a case for taking ownership of the light at no cost. That process could take up to two years, she said.

Minot’s Ledge Light has been hailed as an engineering marvel. It cost about $300,000 to build, making it one of the most expensive lighthouses of its time. Construction began in 1855, and the final stone was laid on June 29, 1860. The lantern was first lighted on Aug. 22, 1860. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated an American Society of Civil Engineers landmark.

‘‘It’s a very unique lighthouse,’’ said David Ball, president of the Scituate Historical Society. ‘‘It was a tremendous feat of engineering to build it. It’s the most dangerously located lighthouse in the United States.’’

The current structure is actually the second built on the rocky ledge. The original beacon was built in 1850, and had a lantern that was perched atop iron legs, which made it look like a spider. That structure cost $39,000 to build, and it was swept away in 1851 during a storm that also killed the two lightkeepers. .

The gray granite tower that replaced the original light stands 114 feet tall and has secured its place as a local icon. Visible for up to 15 miles, Minot’s was given the nickname Lover’s Light because its 1-4-3 flash sequence contains the same number of letters as the phrase, ‘‘I love you.’’ An image of the lighthouse is on the Cohasset town seal.

The Scituate Historical Society’s Lighthouse Weekend kicks off on June 26 with a boat cruise (tickets are already sold out). On June 27, artist Donna Elias will display her lighthouse artwork from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Minot’s predecessor, Scituate Light (100 Lighthouse Road), which was first lighted in 1811 but was deactivated when Minot’s was built. The Scituate Light tower and keeper’s cottage will be open for guided tours from 1 to 4 p.m.

And at the Maritime & Irish Mossing Museum at 301 Driftway, Robert S. Michelson will be showing his underwater photos of the remains of the original Minot’s Ledge Light from 1 to 4 p.m.

Michelson, a diver and photographer from Braintree, has been working with the Coast Guard and Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources to document the remains of the original lighthouse that was swept away in 1851.

‘‘We found what looks like could be the iron legs to the original lighthouse,’’ said Victor T. Mastone, director of the Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources.

Divers have also found ceramics, glass, and pieces of plates that past lightkeepers may have dumped into the sea.

In 2007 a plaque was placed under water honoring Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson, the two lightkeepers who died in 1851. Efforts are under way to relocate and record the exact location of that memorial, said Mastone.

But visibility isn’t great down below, he said. ‘‘You might be right next to it and not notice it,’’ he said.

The ultimate goal is to document the precise locations of the surviving artifacts and create an informational map for divers — sort of like an educational guide to an under-water trail — for divers to explore and learn more about the history of the site, said Mastone.

‘‘It’s a way to honor the two lightkeepers who died and emphasize their sad but important story,’’ he said. ‘‘They died doing their duty.’’

Click here to see a photo gallery of South Shore lighthouses.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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