Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Duxbury Pier Light, Massachusetts

This stout, coffeepot-shaped lighthouse is known fondly to locals as “Bug Light,” or simply “The Bug.” Located in Duxbury Bay, in the main channel to Plymouth Harbor, it occupies an important niche in lighthouse history as the first offshore cast-iron caisson lighthouse in the United States. Built in 1871, the lighthouse contained three levels below the lantern, including two levels that served as living quarters. The first keeper was William Atwood, who stayed until 1878.

Like so many offshore lighthouses, “The Bug” was a rough assignment for keepers. In early February 1875 the revenue steamer Gallatin was in the vicinity when the captain noticed a signal of distress flying at the lighthouse. The tower was surrounded by so much ice that it was impossible to reach the keeper by boat. The steamer got close enough so that the crew could converse with Atwood, and they learned that he had not been off the lighthouse since December 22 and his supplies of food and water were gone. The keeper and his wife had been reduced to a pint of water a day for several days. Two of the crewmen from the steamer spent two hours cutting through the ice to get a small boat to the lighthouse, and the Atwoods were furnished with supplies.

Getting to and from the lighthouse was a challenge in itself. Keeper Tolman Spencer was fortunate to escape with his life in a harrowing episode in late December 1920. Spencer had gone ashore to visit with his wife, and he left in the afternoon to row back to the lighthouse to light up for the evening while his wife attended a movie. When evening arrived, Mrs. Spencer knew something was amiss when she saw from shore that the light wasn’t lit. The Coast Guard at the Gurnet section of Plymouth was alerted, and they sent a man to light the light, while other crewmen searched for the missing keeper.

The Coast Guardsmen couldn’t find Spencer, so the keeper’s wife went to the police. She went out in a motorboat with two men, vowing to find her husband. Well out in the harbor, they discovered Spencer, who had been unable to make any progress as he rowed with all his might against the increasing wind and tide. He was pulled into the motorboat and immediately collapsed from exhaustion. The keeper and his wife were taken to the lighthouse, and Spencer eventually recovered.

Harry Salter, a Cape Cod native, became the Coast Guard officer in charge in 1944. Salter was at the station when the damaging hurricane of 1944 hit, battering the isolated station with 30-foot waves. He described the scene: “The gigantic waves were hammering this stout little light station unmercifully. It shook so bad we had trouble keeping the oil lamps lit. . . . The heavy seas on the east side were striking against the light, then crashing up under the catwalk and tearing away at our boat that we had previously lashed high on the davits.”

The station was automated and destaffed in 1964, and some restoration was completed in the 1980s. In 1993, the Coast Guard talked of replacing the lighthouse with a fiberglass pole, or at least removing the lantern. Dr. Don Muirhead of Duxbury, an avid sailor, spearheaded a new preservation effort. In 1994–95, 30 volunteers spent more than 420 man/woman hours cleaning, scraping, sanding, and painting.

Project Bug Light eventually took over responsibility for the care of Plymouth (“Gurnet”) Light as well, and the name of the organization was changed to match its mission. In the fall of 2001, Project Gurnet and Bug Lights hired the Campbell Construction Group of Beverly, Massachusetts, for another major renovation.

I had photographed almost every other lighthouse in Massachusetts before this one. It remained a speck seen from the Plymouth waterfront until I got a boat ride with the Campbell Construction crew in 2001. It’s always an adventure visiting an isolated, offshore lighthouse; I wish more of the public had the opportunity to experience this rare treat.

To read more, visit www.lighthouse.cc/duxbury/history.html or get the book “The Lighthouses of Massachusetts.”

For more on Project Gurnet and Bug Lights, visit www.buglight.org