The Pilgrim Fathers discovered just the treacherous the waters off Cape Cod could be when they tried to continue their voyage on to Virginia. They were forced to turn back and settle in Massachusetts. Lighthouses help mariners to navigate through dangerous waters, so it is not surprising that Cape Cod has several of them. The east coast of Cape Cod is ideal for lighthouses as there is a high bluff overlooking the beach along most of its length, so a lighthouse built on the bluff can be seen from a long distance without the need for a particularly high tower. The downside is that the bluffs are susceptible to coastal erosion as a result of which all of these lighthouses have needed to be moved.
Chatham sits on the southern corner of Cape Cod. The first permanent settlers arrived here in 1664 and they named their settlement Monomoit, the Indian name for the area. The town was incorporated in 1712 and renamed Chatham after the seaport on the Thames Estuary in England. The waters off Chatham were particularly dangerous, even by Cape Cod standards. In 1806 Congress allocated $5,000 to build the second lighthouse on Cape Cod. A further $2,000 was allocated in 1808. To distinguish the Chatham Light from the Highland Lighthouse further up Cape Cod, it was decided that the station would have two lights. The original lightstation comprised two octagonal wooden towers. By 1841 the wooden towers had become unfit for purpose and they were replaced by two brick towers each 9 metres (30 feet) high. The towers were originally around 70 metres (230 feet) from the edge of the bluff but a huge storm in 1877 left the towers just 14 metres (48 feet) from the edge. Two 14.6 metre (48 foot) high cast iron towers were hastily erected further inland. Little more than 3 years later the old towers and keepers house had gone over the edge. The second tower was removed tin 1923 to become the Nauset light then in 1982 the remaining light was automated. For most of the 20th century, coastal erosion was very slow but storms in 1987 and 1991 seem to have restarted the process and it is anticipated that the time will come when the Chatham Light has to move again. Tours of the tower are available in season.
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Also on the east coast, about halfway between the Highland Lighthouse and Chatham, is the Nauset Lighthouse. The original lighthouse completed in 1838 comprised three low brick towers some 150 metres (500 feet) east of the current location. The towers were threatened by coastal erosion, so in 1892 they were replaced by three wooden lighthouse towers built 15 metres (50 feet) inland from the original towers. In 1911 coastal erosion forced the light to be moved back yet again. Only one of the wooden towers was rebuilt, this time on a brick foundation. In 1923 the wooden lighthouse was retired and the the present 14.6 metre (48 foot) high cast iron tower replaced it. It was a second hand tower built in 1877; it originally stood in Chatham as the twin of the lighthouse in the picture below. In 1996 the edge of the bluff had again crept dangerously close to the lighthouse, so it was moved 91 metres (300 feet) west to the other side of the road. This has given it another 30 years before it is likely that it will have to be moved again.
Cape Cod Highland Lighthouse, North Truro
The original lighthouse here was commissioned in 1797 by George Washington, the 20th lighthouse in the USA and the first on Cape Cod. It was built on a high coastal bluff on the east coast just south of Provincetown. The original lighthouse had a wooden tower but this was replaced by a brick tower in 1831. The current 20 metre (66 foot) high tower of Cape Cod Highland Lighthouse was built in 1857. In 1996 it was realised that coastal erosion was threatening the high bluff on which the lighthouse stood and there was a risk of losing both a historic building and a navigational aid. To save it the lighthouse was moved 137 metres (450 feet) inland using hydraulic jacks. The rock at the bottom right of the picture marks the original site. The lighthouse is open to the public in summer. The eastern coast of the north-south part of the peninsula with its many beaches, dunes, salt marshes and freshwater kettle ponds has been designated the Cape Cod National Seashore.
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