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Billingsgate Island Light Station


Lighthouse Data

Established: 1822; Rebuilt: Sep 1, 1858;
Deactivated: 1922
Position: N 41° 52' 18", W 70° 04' 08.5"
Nautical Chart; (2)
Billingsgate Island, Cape Cod Bay
Wellfleet, Massachusetts
Characteristic: F W [Fixed White]
Original Optics: 8 Oil Lamps with Reflectors
Refitted Optic: Fourth-order Fresnel Lens -1858
Elevation: 41-feet high Focal Plane
Range: 12 nautical miles visible reach at sea
39-feet high Red Brick Square Tower with
Black Lantern
First Keeper: William Moore
Fog signal: none
Current Use: See Note (2)

(1) Billingsgate Island Lighthouse was built to mark Billingsgate Island and the entrance to Wellfleet Harbor.

      On December 6, 1620, the Pilgrims passed by the 60-acre sandy island in small open boats en route to the harbor of present day Wellfleet.  The harbor and the island were later named Billingsgate for the great fish market in London.  Blackfish or pilot whales were frequently stranded in the bay and Indians chased the whales in canoes from Billingsgate Point.  One of several Cape Cod locations where settlers learned the skills of shore whaling from the Indians.

      In 1644, Pilgrim Nicholas Snow was granted Billingsgate Island.  The island was settled as a fishing outpost by fishermen from the hamlet of Billingsgate (Wellfleet) who lived in shacks from April to November.  By 1750, whales were no longer so plentiful in the bay yet the waters around the Billingsgate Island were concentrated with fish and occasionally the beach was covered with dead fish which were used for fertilizer.

      By 1822, the island provided a livelihood for fisherman from Dennis to Eastham who could easily catch up to 10,000 mackerel in their weirs, a large net supported by poles in shallow water.  A Lighthouse was needed on Billingsgate Island for the developing island fishing village and the fishing fleet entering Wellfleet Harbor.

      On July 9, 1822, the government purchased 4-acres from Elijah Cobb for $100 and a brick Lighthouse and Keeper’s house was built by Winslow Lewis on the southern point of Billingsgate Island.  The Lighthouse exhibited a Fixed White light illuminated by 8 oil lamps with reflectors 40-feet above sea level and visible for 12 miles.  William Moore was appointed as the first Lightkeeper.

      The shifting shoals and coast of sandbars that meander with the sea and the winds of Cod Cod and the Islands are hazardous to ships since locating the shallow waters is difficult.  Many Cape Cod Lighthouses were built to warn ships of these perilous conditions and Billingsgate Island Lighthouse was built on a island spit to aid navigation around the shifting shoals of the island.  Ships leaving Wellfleet Harbor would load Billingsgate sand for ballast.  Over time, sandy Billingsgate Island, referred to as the Atlantis of Cape Cod, would be wind blown and washed away.

      By 1850, Billingsgate Island fishing village was at its peak with 30 homes, a school, and try-works for rendering the oil from pilot whales caught in Cape Cod Bay.  In 1855, storm erosion split the island in half and the encroaching sea threatened the Lighthouse.  A new 39-feet high brick Lighthouse and Keeper’s house was built on higher ground on the north end of the island.  The new Billingsgate Island Light was First Lit on September 1, 1858 exhibiting a Fixed White light illuminated by a Fourth-order Fresnel Lens 41-feet above sea level and visible for 12 miles.

      A Lightkeepers’ log book found in the ruins of the second Lighthouse reveals how important the Light was and how quickly the sea began to threatened the new Lighthouse.  On September 31, 1872, Lightkeeper Herman Dill recorded “One hundred and eight visertors went up the tower the Last Quarter. 928 vessels past the Light House the Last Quarter.”  In 1873, his log noted a high tide flooded the Tower to a depth of two inches and Lightkeeper Dills’ entry for December 21, 1874 noted, “I could stand on the south corner and jump into four feet of water.”

      On March 26, 1876, Lightkeeper Dill wrote “the very worst storm for the winter was Last Night” and was found dead in his lighthouse dinghy at sea on the day after.  Thomas Payne was appointed as the next Lightkeeper and his log entry for February 22, 1882 notes, “The middle of the Island was flooded five feet of water within fifteen feet of Lighthouse . . . the Island lost thirty feet.”

      In 1888, a 1,000-feet sea wall and bulkheads were built to protect the Lighthouse from shore erosion and the forces of high tides.  Unfortunately, the jetty was poorly located resulting in a increased rate of erosion.

      By 1905, most of the population left Billingsgate Island due to the rising waters.  Homes were floated intact on a barge across the bay and the remaining structures were washed away.  In 1915, the last Lightkeeper removed the Lamp and Lens before abandoning the Lighthouse and the Tower was destroyed by a severe storm on December 26, 1915.

      A skeleton tower Light was erected to mark the remains of the island and a watchman lived on Billingsgate Island to guard the oyster beds of the Seal Ship Oyster Company until 1920.  In 1922, the Light was decommissioned and the island became completely submerged by 1942.  Today, Billingsgate Shoal only appears briefly as an island at low tide.

(2) The Lighthouse built on a low sandy island was damaged by tidal erosion, rising seas, and ocean storms.  In 1855, storm erosion split the island in half and a new Lighthouse was built on higher ground and was First Lit on September 1, 1858.  By 1889, only six families lived on the island.  The second Lighthouse tower was destroyed by the storm of December 26, 1915.

      A Light on a skeleton tower marked Billingsgate until 1922 and Billingsgate Island disappeared completely by 1942.  Today, Billingsgate Shoal is a sandbar that appears only at low tide and is marked by by a Lighted Buoy Fl G 2.5s, Lighted Buoy Fl R 2.5s, Lighted Horn Buoy Fl G 4s, Lighted Bell Buoy Fl G 4s, and a Red nun Buoy.

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Public Access

No Access (See Note 2)

Billingsgate Island

Billingsgate Shoal appears
briefly as an island at low
tide only, see Note (2)

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Document Updated: Sat 02 Oct 2010, 8:20:00pm EDT (GMT-4)

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