CHATHAM — Thanks to the volunteers of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, visitors to Chatham Light this summer will get the chance to learn some history while enjoying the best view in town.
The annual public tours of the lighthouse, held most Wednesdays from 1 to 3:30 p.m. during the summer months, start June 6. Special tours will also be held on June 16 and 17 during Chatham’s History Weekend.
Admission is free, and visitors will hear a brief introduction and a history of the lighthouse before climbing the 44 stairs to the lantern deck, and then the short ladder to the top.
“It’s wonderful to see the excitement of the people who climb the lighthouse stairs up to the lantern deck,” flotilla Vice Commander John Geurtsen said. Geurtsen recently conducted an orientation and training session for four new volunteers, bringing the number of trained tour guides to more than 30.
“The fact that we have the lighthouse available to us and the [Coast Guard] Station available to us adds such a dimension to our flotilla,” he said. “I am proud to give tours of the lighthouse, and I just love doing it.”
Visitors will also have the chance to climb aboard the decommissioned CG44301, the historic rescue boat that rests on the front lawn of the Coast Guard station.
In 1808, the government completed twin wooden lighthouses at Chatham. At the time, all lighthouse beacons were fixed white lights, so twin lights were needed to distinguish Chatham Light from the beacon in Truro. By appointment of President Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Nye became the first keeper of the lighthouses, each of which had six feeble oil lamps outfitted with parabolic reflectors.
Thirty-three years later, a government inspector deemed the towers unsafe in high winds, thanks to a lack of maintenance. Two new towers were built to replace the wooden ones, and were made of brick; they were located behind the original ones, farther away from the eroding cliff. But no amount of careful maintenance could save the lighthouses from the advancing sea. After a fierce storm broke through the barrier beach in 1870, erosion accelerated, and by 1877, the ocean was less than 50 feet away. Two years later, the south tower slid into the harbor, followed by the keeper's house and the north tower.
Anticipating the problem, the government built two new lighthouses well back from the earlier ones, using a new design: brick sheathed in curved cast iron plates. By now, the new Chatham twin sisters were equipped with powerful lanterns with Fresnel lenses. The new lighthouses were commissioned in 1877. In 1923, crews dismantled the north tower of the twin lighthouses, moving it to Nauset Beach, where it replaced the old Three Sisters lighthouses. It remains there today as Nauset Light, though it had to be moved away from an eroding cliff in 1996. Aside from its red and white paint job and its smaller, black superstructure, it remains Chatham Light's twin.
Until 1969, Chatham Light and Nauset Light had identical superstructures enclosing their lanterns. But in that year, the top was removed from Chatham Light, and replaced with the larger, metallic superstructure seen on the lighthouse today. The change was necessary to make room for the modern, 2.8 million candlepower aerobeacon it houses. The old superstructure and Fresnel lens can still be seen on the grounds of the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House Museum.
With the advent of LORAN and GPS, visual aids to navigation like lighthouses play a much less important role in keeping vessels safe, but Chatham Light is still a useful landmark for boaters. Particularly since the U.S. Lighthouse Service became part of the Coast Guard in 1939, the need for full-time, dedicated lighthouse keepers has diminished. Chatham Light was without a full-time keeper for around 20 years, until the local flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary "adopted" the lighthouse in 1993. Since that time, auxiliarists have served as keepers, regularly inspecting the tower and the lantern, and calling in the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation Team—affectionately known as ANTs—when major maintenance is needed.
The current keeper, Dori Reiley of West Chatham, oversees the weekly operations and schedules at least seven Auxiliary volunteers to oversee each day’s tour.
Since lighthouse tours began 25 years ago, more than 90,000 people have visited, most climbing to the top to enjoy the sweeping vista.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com