John Whelan: Cape Cod Lightships

Ground Control to Major Tom

Ground Control to Major Tom

Your circuit’s dead

there’s something wrong

Can you hear me Major Tom


David Bowie was a English singer and actor well known for his creativity. Bowie created a full-blown character for Major Tom, a fictional astronaut complete with space suit and helmet. Ground Control orders Major Tom to exit the spaceship for a walk outside and, of course, Major Tom follows the order and then his communication circuit dies and he is lost floating far above the moon. The performance was startling, not only because of the content of the song, but also because of the strong visual effect. Bowie died back in January 2016 at 69, but his music is still popular and is still influencing many young performers.

I can’t explain why the existence of lighthouses on the shore and lightships in the waters around Chatham and Nantucket connects my brain with Major Tom. Perhaps a mental health professional could provide some insight into this connection. In the past two weeks, I have read two books about marine navigation on the Cape in the past two centuries. The first book was by Admont C. Clark and was entitled “Lighthouses, Their History and Lore.” It is well known that Cape Cod, with its many sandbars and shoals, was the graveyard for so many ships. The U.S. Government recognized the need to provide aid to mariners. It was a major step forward for those involved in passenger transport and commercial shipping. The Ninth Act of our First Congress in 1789 proposed that funds for “support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers” be provided. The Act stated that those funds “shall be defrayed out of the Treasury of the United States.” Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, was the person responsible for all aids to navigation.

No area of the United States needed aids for navigation more than the eastern seaboard of Cape Cod. It was the main highway for shipping between Boston and New York. Over 1,000 wrecks occurred prior to 1903, according to a study done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prevailing winds pushed ships to the treacherous shore and seagoing men were at the mercy of the elements. The Lifesaving Service was organized in 1872 and performed many heroic rescues, but seamen continued to be lost at an alarming rate.

The Highland Light in Truro was built in 1797. President Washington named the keeper, who was awarded an annual pay of $300. The light was a marvel, and it was quickly followed by lighthouses up and down our coast. The Chatham Twin Lights became Cape Cod’s second lighthouse in 1808. We all know the Twin Lights are no more and that they had to be rebuilt in 1841 and again in 1881 due to the advancing sea. Race Point Light followed in 1818, then Monomoy Point Light in 1823, and Nauset Beach Light [The Three Sisters] in 1837. There were also lighthouses built at the entrance to Provincetown harbor and along Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound. They all served their purpose and saved many a ship, and yet the need for more aids to safe navigation continued to exist.

This led me to the second book “ The Lightships of Cape Cod” by Frederic L. Thompson, published in 1983. Recently, I was having dinner with Hank Holden and he told me a story about the Pollock Rip Lightship and a fishing trip in 1956 with his father, Bill, and his brother, Peter. I’m not sure exactly how it happened but Peter Holden suffered a very bad cut and they could not stop the bleeding. They were fishing east of Monomoy not far from the Pollock Rip Lightship. The situation was a medical emergency and Bill Holden brought their small boat alongside the lightship and explained their problem. The resourceful crew of the lightship transported Peter onto the lightship by use of a “breeches buoy.” For those of you unfamiliar with the device, it is a rope-based mechanism for transporting people from ship to shore, or in this case, from ship to ship. The Cape Cod National Seashore conducts breeches buoy demonstrations on Thursday evenings at the Old Harbor Life Saving Station in Provincetown. How many of us remember the day the Old Harbor Station was floated to Provincetown by barge from its location on North Beach?

The outcome of the story was that someone in the crew of the Pollock Rip Lightship had been medically trained and was able to stop the bleeding. Peter was transported back to his father’s boat and the Holdens enjoyed a happy ending. I felt it was quite a story and I went to the Eldredge Public Library for the lightship book. Great reading and I would recommend it to those of you interested in Cape Cod history. The Pollock Rip Lightship was deployed east of Monomoy from 1849 to 1969. There were a long series of Pollock Rip Lightships and each was subjected to dense fog and terrible bad weather. The lightship was anchored in a position intended to be the greatest help to shipping, and the keepers tried to survive the fog, ice and storms as well as the boredom. Considering the danger, the pay was modest and, at times, it was difficult to find willing keepers. Pollock Rip was nicknamed “the happy wanderer” because it was forced off its station so many times. In 1887, it was forced 60 miles out to sea and finally sailed back home two weeks later. She was often run into by passing vessels in the fog. The brave keepers were sitting ducks with little control over their destiny.

Cape Cod and Nantucket had other lightships of note: Stonehorse, near the end of Monomoy, Handkerchief Shoals and Cross Rip between Chatham and Nantucket, and the famed Nantucket Lightship which first served in 1853. The Nantucket Lightship blew off its anchor in 1855 and came ashore on Montauk Point on Long Island. Quite a history.

I now believe it was the similar helpless position of the men on the lightships and Major Tom that caused my connection. I encourage you to learn more about the lightships of Cape Cod. I think you will enjoy the process. I thank Hank Holden for his story which led me to this article. Happy boating!