top of page

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket, Massachusetts

Sankaty Head Light in 2016, Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

Beautiful Nantucket lies about 30 miles offshore from Cape Cod, just southeast of Martha's Vineyard. The glacial island is about 15 miles long and varies between 3 and 6 miles wide. The island was originally home to the Wampanoag Native Americans, who sold a portion of the island to Puritan Thomas Mayhew in 1659. Mayhew, in turn, sold the island to 9 English settlers for the price of 30 pounds sterling and 2 beaver hats. These original families became known as the original proprietors. Over time other settlers arrived, namely the Quakers beginning in the 1690s, and the townships grew. By 1775, the island was home to more than 125 whaling ships, which is considered the height of Nantucket's dominance in the whaling industry. By 1885 there were 2 lighthouses on the island to assist with navigation: Brant Point (1746) and Great Point (1784).

Map of Nantucket 1782, Brant Point Light can be seen near #2. Great Point Light would be built 2 years later at the tip of the area noted as #7. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Our story actually begins in 1849. The federal government had allocated $12,000 to construct a lighthouse on the southeastern bow of Nantucket Island in the town of Siasconset. The project was overseen by Benjamin F. Isherwood (who later served as chief engineer for the US Navy in the Civil War) and the contractor was Cabet King. Materials were shipped in via schooner and carried up the hill in carts. When construction finished later that year, the actual cost was $10,330. A rare example of a construction project coming in under budget!

Sankaty Head Light as it appeared in Adolph Wittemann's illustrated guide to Nantucket, 1888; Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The completed lighthouse was given the name "Sankaty," which is said to be a Wampanoag word for a highland -- a fitting name for the near 100-foot high sandy bluffs where the lighthouse was situated. The conical tower was 53-feet tall and stood at 158 feet above sea level. The lower portion of the tower was constructed with brick and the top 6 feet in granite block. A 9-foot cast-iron lantern perched at the top.

Sankaty Head Light began its service on February 1, 1850 and was lit by a Second Order French Fresnel lens illuminated by a single-wick whale oil lamp. (Reportedly this lamp required more than 400 gallons of whale oil every year!) Sankaty was the first lighthouse in the US with a Fresnel lens as part of its original equipment and it was the most powerful light in New England at the time. The light flashed white and was maintained in a 4-hour shift, alternating between the keeper and assistant. The first keeper was Alexander D. Bunker and he lived in the keeper's house constructed alongside the tower. Early on, the light adopted its now trademark look of being painted white with a broad red band at the center.

1880s photograph by Henry Platt; Public Domain

After the whaling industry on the island began to wane due to a rise in kerosene, tourism became the economic force on Nantucket. Even today, summer tourism is what the island is most known for. Nantucket's 3 lighthouses became obvious attractions, with Brant Point and Sankaty Head as the most accessible.

Picnic on the bluff c.1900: Courtesy of Nantucket Museum

In 1888, the original keeper's dwelling was torn down and replaced with a double wood-frame house. Later that year, the top of the tower, deck, and lantern were also replaced and the lighthouse went from being 53-feet tall to 70-feet tall.

Image of Sankaty in J. H. Robinson's Guide to Nantucket, 1918, Public Domain

In 1912, an incandescent oil-vapor lamp replaced the old wick lamp. Sankaty Light was electrified in 1933 and semi-automated in 1944. At this time, management was assumed by the US Coast Guard. The original Fresnel lens was replaced with aerobeacons in 1950, and can now be seen at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. In 1953, the second generation keeper's house was demolished and replaced with ranch-style dwellings. The light was fully automated in 1965. It rotates at a rate of 7.5 seconds per rotation and the light is visible for 25 miles at sea.

The original Second Order Fresnel lens on display at Nantucket Historical Association, Courtesy of NHA

Due to how the island was formed by glaciers, the landmass is very sandy and subject to erosion. Between 1894 when the lighthouse was constructed and 1999, 195 feet of the bluff was claimed by erosion and storms. Since 1999, the bluff has lost around 3 feet with each passing year. The Coast Guard conducted a site study in 1990 to determine how severe the erosion issue was, and a few years later demolished all buildings on site except the lighthouse. By 2007, the situation had become dire and the lighthouse was only 68 feet from the bluff's edge. The 'Sconset Trust took ownership of the light and made the necessary decision to relocate the 405-ton lighthouse about 400 feet northwest of its original location. The lighthouse now sits safely about 265 feet from the bluff's edge.

The relocation of the light in 2007; Courtesy of 'Sconset Trust

Today, the Sankaty is accessible to the public on a 7-acre site maintained by the 'Sconset Trust. It is still actively used for navigation and the lighthouse interior is occasionally open for visitors. It is unclear what will happen with the lighthouse as the bluff continues to erode--especially if the rate of erosion increases from 3 feet per year. The lighthouse is protected under a National Historic Landmark District (1966), Local Historic District (1970), and as a National Register Individual Property (1987). Since both of the original lighthouses at Grant Point and Great Point are no longer standing, Sankaty Head Light is the most historic lighthouse on the island despite being the last constructed.


Alexander D. Bunker (1850-1854)

Samuel G. Swain (1854-1861)

Henry Winslow (1861-1867)

Uriah C. Clark (1867-1873)

George Franklin (1873-1882)

Calvin Hamblin (1882-1891)

Ethan Allen (1891-1892)

Joseph Remsen (1892-1919)

Charles Vanderhoop (1919-1920)

Eugene Larsen (1920-1944)

Ted Haskins (1944-1947)


Nantucket Historical Association

'Sconset Trust

New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide

US Coast Guard

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page