Sankaty Head Light, 1849/50





In 1848, the U. S. Congress approved the construction of one of the most recognizable icons of 'Sconset: Sankaty Head Light. The tower was constructed in 1849, and topped in 1850 by a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens that reflected the light of a single-wick whale-oil lamp. First illuminated on February 1, 1850, the light could be seen more than twenty miles out at sea, warning mariners of dangerous shoals.

The supplies needed by the lighthouse to maintain the light (aside from the fuel and food for the keepers) were many and varied. First, of course, was the whale oil for the lantern. Then came wicks for the lamps, chimneys, buff skins, linen towels, brushes, spirits of wine, straight and curved scissors, paint, linseed oil and turpentine, "coachmaker's" oil, solder, paint brushes, whitewash, plated glass, sash took, limes, corn and hickory brooms, spare burners, and hand lanterns.

The light's first keeper, Capt. Samuel Bunker, wrote to Collector Eben Allen, on May 31, 1854: "Sir I shall be obliged to you if you will send me a copy of the inventory of the lamps and their appurtenances, as I am unacquainted with the names of many of them, and because I wish the tenor & tally in my receipt book to agree with the receipts already given. If sent to Capt. Baxters, or to Mr. Winslow's, I will get them in time; or perhaps you intend going to Sankaty Head yourself to see the things & can bring the copy of the original."

Capt Bunker, leaving to take command of the South Shoals Lightship in 1854, was succeeded by his assistant keeper, Samuel G. Swain, who held the post until July 1861, when assistant keeper Capt. Henry Winslow was appointed keeper.


A History

As an island landmark, the lighthouse on Sankaty Head, on the eastern shore of Nantucket, has stood for over a century and a half, with its red band on its white tower presenting a familiar sight to islanders since its erection in February 1850, on the headland called by the Nantucket Indians Sankoty—"highland."

The bluff at Sankaty rises a hundred feet above the surface of the sea. Some historians believe that Bartholomew Gosnold was the first discoverer of Nantucket, having sighted Sankaty as he steered some distance from the land in 1602. Capt. George Waymouth, in 1608, has the best claim for discovering Nantucket. Finding himself in latitude 41° 20' north, and in shoal water, he "sent one man to the top who thence described a whitish, sandy cliffe."
To the east of Sankaty are many shoals, especially dangerous being Rose and Crown, some fifteen miles off-shore; Great Rip, Fishing Rip, and Bass Rip, as well as Old Man and Pochick to the southeast of the village of Siasconset and Low Beach also present hazards to mariners.

It was early in the summer of 1849 that the government began the work of constructing the tower at Sankaty. Schooners brought the bricks, granite blocks, and other building materials to the town wharves, and they were carted out to the bluff. The original tower was only sixty feet high, compared with the seventy-foot height of the present tower. The lighthouse bore south by east nine miles from Great Point Light, and twenty-three miles south by west from Pollock Rip.

The keepers' dwelling was constructed entirely of brick, a story and a half high. Here the keeper and his assistant lived, with an ell connecting the dwelling and the tower, serving as an entrance to the tower during storms and gales. A barn was built to the south of the house. Around the property on three sides was a wooden fence.

Work on the tower was completed in December 1849, leaving the delicate task of installing the new lens in the lantern. The second-order Fresnel lens, with it bull's-eyes and prisms, bronze and brass frames, platform, and turning mechanism, was purchased in France by Engineer Isherwood, commissioned for the trip by the government, and the man who installed the entire assembly in the new tower. The lens cost $10,000. A clock-like apparatus in a glass case, operated by means of heavy weights that descended into the tower on a wire cable, turned the lens. This was in constant use for eighty-eight years, being replaced in 1938 by a smaller electric motor. The lens remained at Sankaty for a hundred years, and in May 1950 was removed, together with the entire assembly, and re-erected in the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

The windows of the lantern were large sheets of glass, half an inch thick, a protection to the lens when seabirds, driven by storms, crashed head-on against the tower. Sometimes, a bird would strike against the glass with such force as to break through into the tower. In the center of the lens-platform was placed a single-wick whale-oil lamp, afterwards replaced by a lamp with several tubes and finally with a kerosene vapor light. In 1938, the light was electrified, increasing its candlepower to 720,000.

It was at first planned to have alternate red flashes to show at a distance of six miles, and occasional white flashes at a distance of more than six miles. In the Feb. 4,1850, issue of The inquirer, it was reported: "The new lighthouse at Sankaty Head was lighted for the first time on Friday evening (Feb. 1.) The flashes of light are very brilliant and must be visible at a distance of twenty-five miles."

Moving Sankaty Lighthouse in 2007

The beam from the original Fresnel lens in Sankaty Lighthouse guided passing mariners from the heights of ’Sconset’s north bluff beginning with the light’s beginning operation in 1850. In 2007, the entire community of ’Sconset and Nantucket witnessed a remarkable event: the 450-ton lighthouse structure was moved 390 feet to its new site at the fifth hole of Sankaty Head Golf Club, 250 feet away from the eroding bluff ’s edge.


Read more about Sankaty Lighthouse in "The Saga of Sankaty," by Edouard A. Stackpole, from the Proceedings of the Nantucket Historical Association

or "Sankaty Light: '“I see Sankaty, the mariner’s friend!' The future of Nantucket's 'blazing star'," by Robert D. Felch, from the Historic Nantucket



Sankaty Light, c. 1870s
J. Freeman, Photographer

Sankaty Head, Nantucket, c. 1890s


View from Sankaty Lighthouse, 1930s


A digital exhibition by the Nantucket Historical Association