Introduction | Acknowledgements
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
From Chapter VIII: The Highland Light
This light-house, known to mariners as the Cape Cod or Highland Light, is one of our primary sea-coast lights, and is usually the first seen by those approaching the entrance of Massachusetts Bay from Europe. It is forty-three miles from Cape Ann Light, and forty-one from Boston Light. It stands about twenty rods from the edge of the bank, which is here formed of clay. I borrowed the plane and square, level and dividers, of a carpenter who was shingling a barn near by, and using one of those shingles made of a mast, contrived a rude sort of quadrant, with pins for sights and pivots, and got the angle of elevation of the Bank opposite the lighthouse, and with a couple of cod-lines the length of its slope, and so measured its height on the shingle.
It rises one hundred and ten feet above its immediate base, or about one hundred and twenty-three feet above mean low water. Graham, who has carefully surveyed the extremity of the Cape, makes it one hundred and thirty feet. The mixed sand and clay lay at an angle of forty degrees with the horizon, where I measured it, but the clay is generally much steeper. No cow nor hen ever gets down it. Half a mile farther south the bank is fifteen or twenty-five feet higher, and that appeared to be the highest land in North Truro. Even this vast clay bank is fast wearing away. Small streams of water trickling down it at intervals of two or three rods, have left the intermediate clay in the form of steep Gothic roofs fifty feet high or more, the ridges as sharp and rugged-looking as rocks; and in one place the bank is curiously eaten out in the form of a large semicircular crater.
According to the light-house keeper, the Cape is wasting here on both sides, though most on the eastern. 'In some places it had lost many rods within the last year, and, erelong, the light-house must be moved. We calculated, from his data how soon the Cape would be quite worn away at this point, for, said he, I can remember sixty years back. We were even more surprised at this last announcement,--that is, at the slow waste of life and energy in our informant, for we had taken him to be not more than forty,--than at the rapid wasting of the Cape, and we thought that he stood a fair chance to outlive the former.
Between this October  and June  of the next year, I found that the bank had lost about forty feet in one place, opposite the light-house, and it was cracked more than forty feet farther from the edge at the last date, the shore being strewn with the recent rubbish. But I judged that generally it was not wearing away here at the rate of more than six feet annually. Any conclusions drawn from the observations of a few years or one generation only are likely to prove false, and the Cape may balk expectation by its durability. In some places even a wrecker's foot-path down the bank lasts several years. One old inhabitant told us that when the light-house was built, in 1798, it was calculated that it would stand forty-five years, allowing the bank to waste one length of fence each year, but, said he, there it is (or rather another near the same site, about twenty rods from the edge of the bank).
The sea is not gaining on the Cape everywhere, for one man told me of a vessel wrecked long ago on the north of Provincetown whose bones (this was his word) are still visible many rods within the present line of the beach, half buried in sand. Perchance they he alongside the timbers of a whale. The general statement of the inhabitants is, that the Cape is wasting on both sides, but extending itself on particular points on the south and west, as at Chatham and Monomoy Beaches, and at Billingsgate, Long, and Race Points. James Freeman stated in his day that above three miles had been added to Monomoy Beach during the previous fifty years, and it is said to be still extending as fast as ever.
A writer in the Massachusetts Magazine, in the last century, tells us that when the English first settled upon the Cape, there was an island off Chatham, at three leagues' distance, called Webb's Island, containing twenty acres, covered with red-cedar or savin. The inhabitants of Nantucket used to carry wood from it; but he adds that in his day a large rock alone marked the spot, and the water was six fathoms deep there. The entrance to Nauset Harbor, which was once in Eastham, has now traveled south into Orleans. The islands in Wellfleet Harbor once formed a continuous beach, though now small vessels pass between them. And so of many other parts of this coast.
The bars along the coast shift with every storm, and in many places there is occasionally none at all. We ourselves observed the effect of a single storm with a high tide in the night, in July, I 855. It moved the sand on the beach opposite the light-house to the depth of six feet, and three rods in width as far as we could see north and south, and carried it bodily off no one knows exactly where, laying bare in one place a large rock five feet high which was invisible before, and narrowing the beach to that extent.
There is usually, as I have said, no bathing on the back side of the Cape, on account of the undertow, but when we were there last, the sea had, three months before, cast up a bar near this light-house, two miles long and ten rods wide, over which the tide did not flow, leaving a narrow cove, then a quarter of a mile long, between it and the shore, which afforded excellent bathing. This cove had from time to time been closed up as the bar traveled northward, in one instance imprisoning four or five hundred whiting and cod, which died there, and the water as often turned fresh and finally gave place to sand. This bar, the inhabitants assured us, might be wholly removed, and the water six feet deep there in two or three days.
We read that the Clay Pounds were so called, because vessels have had the misfortune to be pounded against it in gales of wind, which we regard as a doubtful derivation. There are small ponds here, upheld by the clay, which were formerly called the Clay Pits. Perhaps this, or Clay Ponds, is the origin of the name. Water is found in the clay quit near the surface; but we heard of one man who had sunk a well in the sand close by, till he could see stars at noonday, without finding any. Over this bare Highland the wind has full sweep. Even in July it blows the wings over the head of the young turkeys, which do not know enough to head against it; and in gales the doors and windows are blown in and you must hold on to the light-house to prevent being blown into the Atlantic.
They who merely keep out on the beach in a storm in the winter are sometimes rewarded by the Humane Society. If you would feel the full force of a tempest, take up your residence on the top of Mount Washington, or at the Highland Light, in Truro.
Truro was settled in the year 1700 as Dangerfield. This was a very appropriate name, for I afterward read on a monument in the graveyard, near Pamet River, the following inscription:-- Sacred to the memory of 57 citizens of Truro, who were lost in seven vessels, which foundered at sea in the memorable gale of Oct. 3d, 1841.
Their names and ages by families were recorded on different sides of the stone. They are said to have been lost on George's Bank, and I was told that only one vessel drifted ashore on the back side of the Cape, with the boys locked into the cabin and drowned. It is said that the homes of all were within a circuit of two miles. Twenty-eight inhabitants of Dennis were lost in the same gale; and I read that in one day, immediately after this storm, nearly or quite one hundred bodies were taken up and buried on Cape Cod. The Truro Insurance Company failed for want of skippers to take charge of its vessels. But the surviving inhabitants went a-fishing again the next year as usual.
I found that it would not do to speak of shipwrecks there, for almost every family has lost some of its members at sea. Who lives in that house?, I inquired. Three widows, was the reply. The stranger and the inhabitant view the shore with very different eyes. The former may have come to see and admire the ocean in a storm; but the latter looks on it as the scene where his nearest relatives were wrecked. When I remarked to an old wrecker partially blind, who was sitting on the edge of the bank smoking a pipe, which he had just lit with a match of dried beach-grass, that I supposed he liked to hear the sound of the surf, he answered: No, I do not like to hear the sound of the surf. He had lost at least one son in the memorable gale, and could tell many a tale of the shipwrecks which he had witnessed there.
In this bank, above the clay, I counted in the summer, two hundred holes of the Bank Swallow within a space six rods long, and there were at least one thousand old birds within three times that distance, twittering over the surf. I had never associated them in my thoughts with the beach before. One little boy who had been a-birds-nesting had got eighty swallows' eggs for his share! Tell it not to the Humane Society. There were many young birds on the clay beneath, which had tumbled out and died. Also there were many Crow-blackbirds hopping about in the dry fields, and the Upland Plover were breeding close by the light-house. The keeper had once cut off one's wing while mowing, as she sat on her eggs there. This is also a favorite resort for gunners in the fall to shoot the Golden Plover.
As around the shores of a pond are seen devil's-needles, butterflies, &c., so here, to my surprise, I saw at the same season great devil's-needles of a size proportionally larger, or nearly as big as my finger, incessantly coasting up and down the edge of the bank, and butterflies also were hovering over it, and I never saw so many Dorr-bugs and beetles of various kinds as strewed the beach. They had apparently flown over the bank in the night, and could not get up again, and some had perhaps fallen into the sea and were washed ashore. They may have been in part attracted by the fight-house lamps.
The Highland Light-house,* where we were staying, is substantial-looking building of brick, painted white, and surmounted by an iron cap. Attached to it is the dwelling of the keeper, one story high, also of brick, and built by government. As we were going to spend the night in a lighthouse, we wished to make the most of so novel an experience, an therefore told our host that we would like to accompany him when he went to light up. At rather early candle-light he lighted a small Japan lamp, allowing it to smoke rather more than we like on ordinary occasions, and told us to follow him.
He led the way first through his bedroom, which was placed nearest to the lighthouse, and then through a long, narrow, covered passage-way, between whitewashed walls like a prison entry, into the lower part of the lighthouse, where many great butts of oil were arranged around; thence we ascended by a winding and open iron stairway, with steadily increasing scent of oil and lamp-smoke, to a trap-door in an iron floor, and through this into the lantern. It was a neat building, with everything in apple-pie order, and no danger of anything rusting there for want of oil. The light consisted of fifteen argand lamps, placed within smooth concave reflectors twenty-one inches in diameter, and arranged in two horizontal circles one above the other, facing every way excepting directly down the Cape.
These were surrounded, at a distance of two or three feet, by large plate-glass windows, which defied the storms, with iron sashes, on which rested the iron cap. All the iron work, except the floor, was painted white. And thus the lighthouse was completed. We walked slowly round in that narrow space as the keeper lighted each lamp in succession, conversing with him at the same moment that many a sailor on the deep witnessed the lighting of the Highland Light. His duty was to fill and time and light his lamps, and keep bright the reflectors. He filled them every morning, and trimmed them commonly once in the course of the night. He complained of the quality of the oil which was furnished. This house consumes about eight hundred gallons in a year, which cost not far from one dollar a gallon; but perhaps a few lives would be saved if better oil were provided.
Another light-house keeper said that the same proportion of winter-strained oil was sent to the southernmost lighthouse in the Union as to the most northern. Formerly, when this lighthouse had windows with small and thin panes, a severe storm would sometimes break the glass, and then they were obliged to put up a wooden shutter in haste to save their lights and reflectors,--and sometimes in tempests, when the mariner stood most in need of their guidance, they had thus nearly converted the light-house into a dark lantern, which emitted only a few feeble rays, and those commonly on the land or lee side.
He spoke of the anxiety and sense of responsibility which he felt in cold and stormy nights in the winter; when he knew that many a poor fellow was depending on him, and his lamps burned dimly, the oil being chilled. Sometimes he was obliged to warm the oil in a kettle in his house at midnight, and fill his lamps over again,--for he could not have a fire in the lighthouse, it produced such a sweat on the windows. His successor told me that he could not keep too hot a fire in such a case. All this because the oil was poor. A government lighting the mariners on its wintry coast with summer-strained oil, to save expense! That were surely a summer-strained mercy.
*The lighthouse has since been rebuilt, and shows a Fresnel light.
The keeper entertained us handsomely in his solitary little ocean house. He was a man of singular patience and intelligence, who, when our queries struck him, rung as clear as a bell in response. The light-house lamps a few feet distant shone full into my chamber, and made it as bright as day, so I knew exactly how the Highland Light bore all that night, and I was in no danger of being wrecked. Unlike the last, this was as still as a summer night. I thought as I lay there half awake and half asleep, looking upward through the window at the lights above my head, how many sleepless eyes from far out on the Ocean stream--mariners of all nations spinning their yarns through the various watches the night--were directed toward my couch.
Introduction | Acknowledgements
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10