Historic beacons still beckon on a cruise of the Mass. shoreline

By Michael Kenney, Globe Staff, 8/5/2000

A tour with Doug Bingham

SCITUATE - It takes a stretch of the imagination, in these days of radar, Loran, and global positioning systems, to remember that not so long ago it was lighthouses which warned of offshore dangers and marked the entrance to harbors. Yet many still stand, luring people like Douglas Bingham with their evocation of a vanished era - and their testimony to the ever-present perils of the sea.

''There's something almost mystical about them,'' says Bingham. ''They either say `welcome' or `stay away.''' Bingham, Randolph resident and corresponding secretary of the American Lighthouse Foundation, will lead two cruises to view lighthouses along the Massachusetts coast - one tomorrow and a second on Sept. 2.

Depending on the weather, passengers on the Boston Harbor Explorers cruises will see 12 to 16 lighthouses, from the twin lights on Thacher Island off Rockport to the ''I Love You'' light on Minots Ledge off Cohasset.

''Lighthouses were very special for the sailor who had been at sea for days or weeks without the sight of a light at night,'' Bingham says. The lighthouses on Bingham's tour, many now privately maintained, are all still lit.

All are also visible from shore - and the landbound can approach many on foot, including those at Eastern Point in Gloucester, on Marblehead Neck, and in Scituate.

The history of many of the lights will color the tales Bingham relates during the cruises.

Heading out from Boston Harbor one encounters Boston Light, the nation's first lighthouse, originally erected in 1716. Befitting that status, it is the only lighthouse in the nation still manned by the Coast Guard.

It was a favorite of the late Edward Rowe Snow, who for many years in the '50s and '60s conducted lighthouse tours. In his book, ''Famous New England Lighthouses,'' Snow told of the drowning of its first keeper and his family after a day ashore in 1718. The tragedy, Snow wrote, so interested then 13-year-old Benjamin Franklin that he wrote a ballad, ''The Lighthouse Tragedy,'' which he hawked on the streets of Boston.

To the north, off Rockport, is the light on Thacher Island. The island got its name from the first recorded shipwreck along the Massachusetts coast, according to Sarah C. Gleason in ''Kindly Lights,'' her history of southern New England lighthouses. In 1635, pastor Anthony Thacher was on his way from Ipswich to Marblehead, where he was to establish a new congregation, when his vessel broke up in a storm and his five children were drowned.

The first lighthouse on the island was established in 1771 and replaced a century later by the 124-foot twin granite towers so easily disinguished by fishermen heading out of Gloucester for Georges Bank and the farther fishing grounds.

To the south, Minots Ledge Light off Cohasset is located on what was long considered one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire Massachusetts coast. Its disarming ''I Love You'' nickname reflects its distinctive one-four-three series of flashes.

Set amid a bristling trap of submerged rocks that had claimed many ships - including the Irish immigrant ship St. John in 1849 - the first light was erected in 1850 on nine wrought-iron stilts drilled into the ledge. But during a storm in April of the following year, two lighthouse keepers were killed when waves toppled the new structure and washed it away.

Its replacement, a 97-foot granite tower, was built slowly because work was possible only at low tide with calm seas. It was finally completed in 1860.

Even today, Bingham says, ''to get in close to the light with the seas breaking on the rocks is an awesome experience.''

The Scituate Light, built in 1811 but discontinued when the Minots Ledge Light was established a half-century later, is not officially on the cruise but is typical of many lighthouses today that are maintained by Bingham's foundation or local historical groups.

Bingham says he got ''hooked'' on lighthouses a dozen years ago ''quite by accident'' when he received a postcard notice seeking volunteers to clean up Little Brewster Island, the site of Boston Light.

''What struck me was the need to preserve this important piece of our history,'' he recalls. And that, Bingham soon realized, meant ''establishing support organizations,'' including his own, that could work with the Coast Guard and historical societies to raise funds to restore and maintain lighthouses.

Current preservation efforts, Bingham says, are directed at the Little River Light, which marks a harbor of refuge at Cutler, Maine. The lighthouse foundation is now seeking to raise $250,000 to rehabilitate the keeper's house and have the light relit.

When that work is completed, Bingham says, there are plans to operate the keeper's house as a overnight hostel, similar to one the foundation operates at the Race Point Light on Cape Cod.

The lighthouse cruises are conducted by Boston Harbor Explorers tomorrow and Sept. 2. Cruises leave from Rowes Wharf, boarding at 9:30 a.m., departing at 10 a.m., returning at 4 p.m. Tickets: adults $35; seniors $30; children $12. Tickets for tomorrow may be sold out by the time of the cruise. For information call 617-479-1871.

This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.