Chatham, Massachusetts
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    The Chatham Lighthouse

"Lighthouses, from earliest times, have fascinated and intrigued members of the human race.  There is something about a lighted beacon which suggests hope and trust and appeals to the better instincts of all mankind."

-Edward Rowe Snow,The Lighthouses of New England, 1945

Chatham Lighthouse Photo


It is said that one half of the known wrecks on the entire Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts have occurred off the Outer Beach of Cape Cod.   Lighthouses indeed have a long history here in New England where they were integral to shipping and fishing, and our Chatham Light has a distinguished and colorful history.

On October 7,1808 President Thomas Jefferson appointed Samuel Nye as keeper of not one, but two wooden lard-burning lighthouses to guide ships safely past Chatham.  The first set of lights was constructed on the bluff (then called James' Head) to act as a set of fixed range lights.  In those days lighthouses were identified by the number of beacons , rather than the timing of their blinks, so ships rounding the Cape to Boston would see one light on the tip of Monomoy, two on the bluff in Chatham, and three up at Nauset.

Chatham Cape Cod Twin Lights

The erosion of the bluff in front however, made constant moving and rebuilding of the lighthouses necessary. The current structure was built in 1877, but in 1923 a new rotating lense made a second tower unnecessary and the north tower was dismantled and brought up to Eastham to become Nauset Light, where you can still see her today.

Though radar and satellite technology provide a safer navigational aid the beacon of Chatham light continues its service and will continue to turn over one of the mose impressive views in New England, if nothing else, as reminder of Chatham's unique maritime history here on the elbow of Cape Cod.  The current lantern is modern, installed in 1969 and the original 1-1/2 story wood keeper's house is in current active use as the Chatham Coast Guard Station, whose presence is just as vital to this tempermental area of the Atlantic as ever.  When the Nor'easters, hurricanes, and winter storms swing up the coast tv crews from all over New England flock to this parking lot for their live weather updates.

Chatham Lighthouse History

The original lantern and 4° Fresnel lens has been moved and is on display on the front lawn of the Atwood House Museum on Stage Harbor Road. (The lens is lit whenever the museum is open). There is a small parking lot in front of the Lighthouse with plenty of parking and a 30 minute limit, so there's always a space. Both the Lighthouse and grounds are closed to the public except for special tours and occasional open houses but it's well worth the visit any time of the day or night.

Directions:  Drive east on Main Street, Chatham, to the junction with Shore Road.  Turn right and drive one-half mile.  Lighthouse is opposite overlook parking lot.

Photo of Chatham Lighthouse


Chatham Lighthouse Beach

Chatham Lighthouse Beach Panorama

This is a true Atlantic Ocean beach with cooler waters and sometimes tricky currents, located off Shore Road, a half mile from downtown.  It's the largest beach in Chatham and is also arguably one of the best on the Cape, second only to Wellfleet's Coast Guard Beach, which makes the top five in every year in the Best Beaches of America list.

This amazingly expansive stretch of sandy beach is a place where you can enjoy a warm summer's day watching the seals pass by during their daily migration or stroll down to South Beach towards Monomoy on an afternoon nature hike. Walking from town, hopping on a shuttle bus there, or taking your bike is the only way to spend the day there however, as there is a 30-minute restriction for the parking lot on the beach bluff.  Though this is a an inconvenience for one of the best beaches on the Cape, it's understandable given that the lighthouse above draws a constant crowd of international admirerers.  There are also no bathrooms, lifeguards or food service, so it's not a family oriented beach in the traditional sense.  Still, every family should spend at least one day of their trip here. The views are like none other on the Cape.


Chatham Cape Cod Lighthouse Beach


U.S. Coast Guard Banner

Chatham Coast Guard Station

Chatham, Massachusetts

First described in the Register as being located "two miles north of Chatham Inlet" and later "on Morris Island, south—southwest one and one—quarter miles of Chatham Lights," this station was one of the original nine built on Cape Cod in 1872. A few years after the station was established it was moved across the harbor to where the Old Harbor Station later stood. It remained there a few years when it was again moved back to its original site "on the northern end of Monomoy, near the ‘cut through,’ within easy distance of Chatham village." This station appears in the 1879 record as being located "one and one—quarter miles south of Chatham Light."

In the 1880 Annual Report was the entry that the station "has been removed from its former position south of the town to a point about two miles north of Chatham lights. The removal became necessary on account of the encroachments of the sea, which for some time have been carefully watched by the keeper, and at length reached a point threatening the security of the station. The new site gives at least as great advantages to station operations as the old, and brings the patrol of the station into communication with that of Orleans, formerly barred by the intervening inlet, while it also affords the opportunity for combination of the two crews in case of shipwreck occurring north of Chatham." The site description was changed accordingly. When the station was moved from the Old Harbor site, it was believed that a new station would be built there, but not until after the wreck of the schooner Calvin B. Orcutt on Old Harbor bars was the Old Harbor station erected. It was "extensively improved and repaired" in 1888. The 1915 Annual Report mentions that the station was rebuilt on a new site and in 1916 the launching facilities were extensively improved.

The first keeper was Alpheus Mayo who was appointed at the age of 47, with twenty years experience as a surfman, on December 12, 1872. He was succeeded by Nathaniel E. Gould, who was appointed on April 26, 1880 and was dismissed on August 19, 1893. He was followed by a man who had been a surfman at the station for thirteen years, Hezekia F. Doane (September 9, 1893 until reassigned to the Old Harbor station on November 23, 1897). Then followed a man who had spent eight years at the station as a surfman before being appointed keeper, Herbert E. Eldridge (December 16, 1897 until he was incapacitated and retired on August 15, 1916). He was followed by Edwin B. Tyler (reassigned on August 23, 1916 from the Maddaket station and retired March 2, 1925), Richard E. Ryder (reassigned from the Gloucester station on March 28, 1925 and reassigned to the Monomoy station on September 18, 1931) and Alvin H. Wright (from the Old Harbor station on September 18, 1931, he went to the Orleans station on December 2, 1936). Next came George B. Nickerson from the Old Harbor station on December 1, 1936 and serving until his retirement on March 1, 1939. The station was still active in 1945. The property was turned over to the GSA in 1955 and subsequently turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service. There is still a Chatham station in operation.

A 45-foot fishing vessel from Marshfield sank a mile east of Nauset Beach here last Friday, July 27 [ 1984] , as its crewmembers were hoisted to safety in a Coast Guard helicopter. No one was injured….The helicopter was above the June Allen…pumps dropped by the helicopter were unable to stem the flooding of the June Allen, and the vessel sank at about 1:30 p.m. Capt. Carl Rispettoso and crewmembers William Harvey jr. of Marshfield and George McIntyre of Quincy were hoisted from the waters of the Atlantic into the helicopter and taken to Air Station Cape Cod. Coast Guard Station Chatham was also involved in five other assistance cases during the week, none involving personal injury or property loss.

Click here for a narrative of Surfman Elmer F. Mayo's 17 March 1902 Gold Lifesaving Medal rescue.

Click here for the U.S. Coast Guard's Official Historian's Office.


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