Plum Island Light
Plum Island Quick Facts
Year Station Established: 1788
Is the Light operational? Yes
Year Light First Lit: 1898
Year Automated: 1951
Tower Height: 45 ft.
Original Optic: 4th Order, Fresnel
Present Optic: 4th Order, Fresnel
Existing Keepers Quarters? Yes
Year Constructed: 1872
Number of Stories: 2
Architectural Style: Victorian
Construction Materials: Wood
Plum Island Lighthouse
(Newburyport Harbor Light)
(6 photos, 174KB total download)
Last Visited: August, 2000
The Plum Island River (technically a tidal estuary) separates the island from the mainland; a bridge first reached it when a small hotel was built on the island in 1806. During its nineteenth-century heyday as a resort, steamships and a trolley line serviced Plum Island.
Newburyport, on the Merrimack River, was an important port by the late 1700s, but the entrance to the harbor was dangerous with shifting channels at the mouth of the Merrimack River, near the northern end of Plum Island. To aid shipping entering the river, local mariners at first built fires on the beach and erected poles holding torches. This proved inadequate, and the General Court of Massachusetts authorized the building of "two small wooden lighthouses on the north end of Plumb Island" in 1787. They were finished the following year.
The original two towers were built on movable foundations so their positions could be changed easily as the sandbars around Plum Island shifted. The two towers served as range lights; mariners knew if they lined up the lights that they were following the best channel into the harbor.
A signal tower was also erected, used by the lightkeeper to signal with flags that a pilot was needed or a vessel was in trouble. A cannon was placed at the station to help the keeper summon aid in an emergency. Keepers at Plum Island frequently were involved in the rescue of shipwreck victims.
The lights on Plum Island were originally fueled by whale oil. Keeper Lewis Lowell, the son of Abner Lowell, lit a charcoal fire under the lantern one bitterly cold night in December 1823 to keep the oil from congealing.
In May 1808, a violent tornado did much damage in Newburyport and knocked both lighthouses to the ground. Congress appropriated $10,000 in February 1809 and the towers were soon rebuilt.
Congress appropriated $4,000 for the "rebuilding" of the lighthouses in July 1838, but it isn't clear if the towers were rebuilt or simply altered or repaired. Since only $950.44 of the appropriation was actually spent, it seems doubtful that they were completely rebuilt.
In 1855, a strange looking small tower called the "Bug Light" was added, and the following year one of the lighthouses was destroyed by fire. It was decided not to rebuild, and the surviving lighthouse received a fourth order Fresnel lens.
A U.S. Life Saving Station was built on Plum Island in 1871, about a mile below Plum Island Center. In 1881, the station was moved near the lighthouse, and a second station was added at Knobbs Beach in 1891.
The shifting sands left the remaining tower and the "Bug" too far inland; they were moved several times between 1870 and 1882. In 1898 a new wooden lighthouse was built next to the old one. The lens was transferred to the new lighthouse.
Kerosene, used since 1878, was replaced by electricity in 1927. In 1951, the light was automated; the light was changed to flashing green in 1981.
New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Nearest Address: 299 Northern Blvd, Newburyport, MA
- From Interstate 95 take Route 113 towards Newburyport.
- As soon as you cross over Route 1, Route 113 turns into Route 1A. Continue on Route 1A.
- About 1.5 miles after crossing over Route 1, take a left onto Rolfe Lane.
- Take Rolfe Lane to the end then turn right onto Plum Island Turnpike.
- Follow Plum Island Turnpike 1.9 miles to the end and take a left onto Northern Blvd.
- Go to the end of Northern Blvd. The lighthouse will be on your left.
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