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Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket, Massachusetts

small lighthouse with wooden walkway
Brant Point, 2022; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

If you've ever been to Nantucket, then you've also seen Brant Point Light. The ferry route takes you right around the small peninsula home to the adorable lighthouse.


Standing at less than 30 feet high, Brant Point Light has quite an exciting history for so small a thing. The current tower is more than a century old, but it is actually the 10th (or the 7th depending on who you ask) light station to stand on Brant Point.


But let's start at the beginning. Nantucket is located about 30 miles south of Cape Cod. It is roughly 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. The small island was historically the home of the Wampanoag Native Americans before European settlement. Nantucket was first spotted by the English colonists in 1602, but it wasn't formally settled until almost 1660.

hand drawn early map of nantucket island
Early map of Nantucket, 1782; Courtesy Library of Congress

Shortly after settling, the colonists realized the abundance of whale activity surrounding the island. Whaling was a booming industry at the time because whale oil burned much cleaner than coal as a light source and other portions of the whale were made into candles. By the end of the 17th century, the whaling industry began to take hold on Nantucket and from 1750 to 1840 it was largely considered to be the whaling capital of the world.

By 1880, Nantucket had begun its economic transition from whaling to tourism. Tourism effectively saved Nantucket. Many had left the island and moved back to the mainland after the whaling industry began to decline. The economy on the island stagnated. Tourism slowly filled the void that whaling left behind.

small boat with whale tale behind it rising out of the water
Nantucket whaling scene, undated; Public Domain

In a lot of ways, summer is what allowed Nantucket to have a resurgence. The push towards tourism began in earnest around 1870. Although winters on the island can be brutal, the summer is relatively mild and there is an abundance of beautiful bluffs and sandy beaches around the island with its interesting shape and barrier reef on Coatue. Land developers began to advertise Nantucket as a summer destination for the leisure or wealthy class of New England and New York. They lured in the wealthy by promoting sea bathing and relaxation. Nantucket advertised "two boats a day" and used the slogan "Nantucket Island, An Ideal Health and Vacation Resort." This legacy, of course, remains to this day.

horse drawn buggies in a row on a dirt road
Line of taxis waiting near the ferry dock, c. 1900; Public Domain, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association

But back to the lighthouse. Shortly before the whaling boom began in Nantucket, it was determined that a lighthouse was needed on Brant Point. This small miniature sandy peninsula had to be circumnavigated to enter Nantucket harbor. A lighthouse would mark the entrance to the harbor as well as warn passing ships of the shallow waters there. The first light was established on the point in 1746, making it the second lighthouse to be established in colonial America - the first being Boston Harbor Light.

I've already mentioned how many versions of Brant Point Light there have been. It holds the record for the most moved and rebuilt lighthouse in North America. The original wooden structure was destroyed in 1757. The second light was destroyed by a storm in 1774, and the third and fourth burned in 1783 and 1786. Another storm took out the fifth light in 1788. It's also important to note that the the fourth and fifth lights were essentially just beacons atop a basic frame, not a fully-realized tower.

black and white sketch of lighthouse with ships
One of the early generations of Brant Point Lights, undated; Courtesy USCG

The sixth light had better luck and was operational from 1788 to 1825, until a new station replaced it. The seventh light consisted of a tower built on the keeper's house and was used until 1856, when the Lighthouse Board built the eighth light.

illustration showing lighthouse with ships in the background
"Nantucket: The Celebrated Whaling Port in 1835" with the 7th Brant Point to the right; Courtesy Syracuse University

The eighth light was a much more permanent structure than previous generation lighthouses. By all accounts, all the previous lighthouses had been shoddily constructed and they finally decided to put considerable effort into a more durable structure. Congress appropriated $15,000 for the new light station in 1854.

The new light was a 47-foot high brick tower with an attached keeper's house. It was lit by a Fourth Order Fresnel lens. This structure succeeded where the others could not and it is actually still standing. However, our story doesn't end here. It was discontinued in 1900 when the channel geography shifted. The structure is now used by the Coast Guard.

hand drawn birds eye map view of nantucket
Bird's Eye Map of Nantucket, 1881,8th Brant Point visible on the top right; Courtesy Library of Congress

Most historic images of Brant Point Lighthouse are of this 8th-generation lighthouse. The tower and keeper's house were originally unpainted brown brick, however both were painted white in 1895.

After the lighthouse was decommissioned, the lantern was removed. However, much like today, locals and tourists had to drive or cycle past the light along Easton Steet on their way to the beach and 9th Light.

black and white photo of bicyclists on road
Cyclists heading back from Brant Point, 1893; Public Domain

I highly recommend cycling to visit Brant Point if you plan to visit. It's the way generations of visitors have toured the island and it gives you time to soak up your surroundings. Nantucket drivers are also very cyclist-friendly. Despite not having a lantern the 8th light is still a beautiful building.

lighthouse with a cloudy sky
8th Brant Point, 2022; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

We've finally made it to the 9th Brant Point Light, which is still the structure in use today. It was built in 1901, almost 600 feet east of its predecessor. A lantern was placed at this new location until the new tower could be built and some consider that to be the 9th lighthouse and the current light to be the 10th. Details, details.


Nonetheless, the 1901 tower is more than 20 feet shorter than its previous version and stands at just 26 feet tall. The cylindrical wooden tower is topped by Fifth Order Fresnel lens and is accessed by an elevated wooden walkway above the sand.

old technicolor postcard showing lighthouse
1930-1945 postcard showing boardwalk; Courtesy Boston Public Library

Surprisingly, despite being built of wood, the 9th Brant Point has not burned down like its previous iterations and was automated in 1965. It is still an active aid to navigation owned and operated by the Coast Guard. It was individually added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. It had been part of the National Historic Landmark district since 1975.


The light has a characteristic of a fixed red beam at 26 feet above the water, visible for 10 miles. This is in fact the lowest lighthouse in New England.

black and white postcard of sea planes and people on a beach
Seaplanes landing off Brant Point, 1918; Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association

As you may have guessed the distinction of the current Brant Point lighthouse being the 7th or the 10th depends on is you count the beacons or just the towers. The light station has been comprised of 7 different towers and 3 different beacons. Regardless of if you count the beacons or not, 7 is still a remarkable number of different light stations!

lighthouse at the end of a wooden walkway
Brant Point, 2022; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron


Lighthouse Timeline:

  • 1st Light (1746-1757) - tower - burned

  • 2nd Light (1757-1774) - tower - destroyed by storm

  • 3rd Light (1774-1783) - tower - burned

  • 4th Light (1783-1786) - beacon - burned

  • 5th Light (1786-1788) - beacon - destroyed by storm

  • 6th Light (1788-1825) - tower - decommissioned, demolished

  • 7th Light (1825-1856) - tower - decommissioned, demolished

  • 8th Light (1856-1900) - tower - decommissioned, still standing but lantern removed

  • 9th Light (1900-1901) - beacon - red beacon used temporarily at new location

  • 9th Light (1901-present) - tower - located further out in the channel


Sources:


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