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Plymouth Light Station


Lighthouse Data (AKA Gurnet Light)

Established: 1768; Rebuilt: 1843
Light List: Aid No. 12545/J0366
Position: N 42° 0' 14", W 70° 36' 02"
Nautical Chart
Gurnet Point / Plymouth Bay,
Plymouth, Massachusetts
Characteristic: Fl (3) W 30s (R sector) (2)
[Three White flashes every 30 sec
with a
red sector]
Original Optics: Two Fourth order Fresnel Lens-1871
Present optic: 190mm Lens -1986
Elevation: 104-feet high Focal Plane
Range: W-17, R-15 nautical miles
34-feet high White Octagonal Pyramidal
Wood Tower with Black Lantern/Red
Fog signal: One 3 sec Blast every 15 seconds
First Keeper: John Thomas (4)
Automated: 1986
Current Use: Active aid to navigation,
U.S. Coast Guard
maintained by Project Bug Light (5)

(1) The Eighth Lighthouse built in America to mark the entrance to Plymouth Bay and Plymouth Harbor which was another major Seaport of colonial America.

      In 1605, French explorer, Samuel de Champlain mapped the sandy peninsula protecting Duxbury Bay and Plymouth Bay and English explorer, Captain John Smith mapped the New England coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod in 1614 and his map for Prince Charles (later King Charles) first named New England and Plymouth in an effort to promote colonization.

      On Dec. 21, 1620, English Separatists* and “strangers” (merchant adventurers) settled Plymouth Plantation due to the lack of fresh water at Provincetown on Cape Cod.  Only 51 of the 102 settlers survived the first winter.  During the early years, the settlement struggled to survive when the merchant adventurers left in 1624.  The colonists depended on agriculture and trade instead of cod fishing as originally planned.  The Pilgrims planted and harvested Indian corn which was traded with the Native Americans for the highly valued beaver skins that were profitably sold to England for necessary supplies and paying the colony’s debts.

      From 1626 to 1692, there is practically no evidence of the Old Colony’s economy except for the division of land by separatists and colonists who founded fishing outposts and villages as far north as Gloucester, Massachusetts.  In 1692, the colonies of Plymouth and Maine became towns of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

      Over the following 18 years, Plymouth developed as another major fishing seaport in colonial America and a Lighthouse was needed on Gurnett’s Nose to guide vessels approaching the entrance to Plymouth Bay and Plymouth Harbor. Gurnett’s Nose (presently Gurnet Point) was named by the Pilgrims for the similar headlands in the English channel where gurnett fish were caught.

      In 1768, the Massachusetts Legislature authorized 660 to build the Light-House to replace a primitive Light structure (may have been Lanterns raised on poles since early records do not indicate the type of structure) that was erected on Gurnet Point in 1710.  Plymouth Light (or Gurnet Point Light) was America’s first twin-lighthouse constructed with two Lanterns at each end of the roof on a 30-feet long by 15-feet wide and 20-feet high Keeper’s house.  Both Lanterns were illuminated by two Oil Lamps exhibiting Fixed White Lights.  The twin Lights were built at the end of the Duxbury Beach peninsula at Gurnett’s Nose (Gurnet Point) owned by John and Hannah Thomas who rented the property to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  John Thomas also served as the first Lightkeeper.

U.S. Coast Guard Photograph of Plymouth Twin Lights

Loading Image
Nautical Chart of Plymouth, Massachusetts
for informational purpose only
Not to be used for Navigation

      During the Revolutionary War, Fort Andrew with a 6-cannon battery was built on Gurnet Point by the towns of Plymouth, Duxbury, and Kingston in 1776.  During the same year, the British frigate, H.M.S. Niger, seeking American privateers attempted to enter Plymouth Harbor.  In a exchange of fire with Fort Andrew’s battery, the H.M.S. Niger destroyed one of the Lighthouse beacons.  The British vessel ran aground on Brown’s Island after the encounter and was refloated before the Patriots could further pursue the battle.  The frigate’s grounding convinced Captain Talbot that a harbor pilot was needed to enter the harbor.  Gurnet Light is the only known United States Lighthouse to have been pierced by cannonball.

      In 1778, Plymouth’s worst shipwreck occurred when the American privateer, General Arnold, was grounded on White Flats near Plymouth’s Twin Lights during the blizzard of December 25th.  Lightkeeper Thomas was unable to reach the vessel due to the ice floes blocking the harbor.  On December 28th, Plymouth inhabitants built a causeway over the ice to rescue the 36 survivors.  Seventy crewmen perished in the freezing water that swept over the main deck of the 20-gun brigantine commanded by Captain James Magee.

      In 1783, the Lighthouse Lanterns damaged during the Revolution were repaired.  Another December blizzard wrecked a coasting sloop from Boston to Plymouth on a sand bar off Gurnet Point in 1786.  Two survivors approached the Gurnet Twin Lights for assistance and the Lightkeeper rescued the rest of the crew.  On June 10, 1790, Gurnet Twin Lights was ceded to the new Federal Government per the act of August 7, 1789.

      The original Lighthouse was completely destroyed by fire on July 2, 1801 and Plymouth and Duxbury merchants constructed a temporary beacon.  On April 6, 1802, Congress appropriated $2,500 for a new Lighthouse and purchased the land from the Thomas Family.  In 1803, two 22-feet high Towers were built 30-feet apart with six oil lamps with 8-1/2 inch reflectors displaying Fixed White lights 70-feet above sea level.

      By 1838, the twin Lights were reported to merge and appear as a single Light from a short distance and double Lights were needed to distinguish Gurnet Twin Lights from Sandy Neck Light at Barnstable on Cape Cod.  In 1843, I.W.P. Lewis, engineer to the U.S. Light-house Survey, reported the Lighthouses were in serious ruin.  Two new octagonal pyramidal wooden 34-feet high Towers were constructed.  According to Coast Guard sources, the Plymouth Light’s South Tower, First Lit in 1843, is the oldest freestanding wooden Lighthouse in the United States.

      In 1871, the Lighthouse Board stated the Sixth-order Fresnel Lenses were too small and “readily mistaken for the lights in a dwelling house.”  To fix this problem, the Lights were refitted with Fourth-order Fresnel lenses yet the short distance between the Towers continued to cause problems for mariners who sighted both Lights as one Light from a distance.

      In 1914, the importance of Plymouth Twin Lights as coastal beacons increased when the Cape Cod Canal was opened redirecting navigation from around Cape Cod to the canal.

      The octagonal twin towers, illuminated by Fresnel lenses and two oil lamps with four large wicks in each tower, were active until 1924 when the northeast tower was decommissioned and removed.  As a cost savings measure, Twin Lights were phased out since the remaining standing Lighthouse could be refitted with a revolving lens using a unique flashing sequence to distinguish the Light from other Lighthouses in the area.

      On Dec 3, 1998, Plymouth Light was relocated 140-feet inland to save the Lighthouse from destruction due to a cliff erosion rate of one foot per year. The Tower was originally located 50-feet from the edge of a 45-foot high cliff.

*William Bradford first used the term Pilgrim to describe the Leiden Separatists who were leaving Holland and the passengers of the Mayflower were first described as the Pilgrim Fathers in 1799.

(2) The Flash sequence is 0.12s fl. 4.88s ec; 0.12s fl. 4.88s ec; 0.12s fl 19.88s ec.
      A Red sector from 323° to 352° covers Mary Ann Rocks.
      Emergency light of reduced intensity when main light is extinguished.

(3) The Original Fresnel Lens is on Display at Hull Lifesaving Museum, Hull, Massachusetts.

(4) In 1776, Hannah Thomas became America’s First woman Lighthouse Keeper after her husband, Major General John Thomas died from smallpox on June 2nd.  John Thomas was first commissioned a Brigadier General in the Continental army and was ordered to seize Dorchester Heights.  The siege was a decisive victory of the Revolutionary War forcing the British to evacuate Boston.

      In 1790, Hannah Thomas was appointed Keeper by the federal government.  Her son, John was officially appointed Keeper later the same year and served until October 16, 1812.

(5) In 1999, the Coast Guard leased Plymouth Light to Project Bug Light. This preservation organization restored the Duxbury Pier Light. On September 20, 2000, Project Bug Light was renamed Project Gurnet & Bug Lights, Inc. to convey the maintenance and preservation efforts of both Lighthouses.

      Previously, the Massachusetts Chapter of the United States Lighthouse Society leased the Lighthouse and the Keeper’s House was open for overnight lodging until the lease reverted to the Coast Guard. In 1990, Bill and Debbi Ricci became resident caretakers of the lighthouse for 4 years. Debbi Ricci has created counted cross stitch kit of Plymouth Lighthouse.

(6) Plymouth Light is best viewed by boat. The Lighthouse is opened to the public on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend during Duxbury’s “Opening of the Harbor” when four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed on Duxbury Beach over the Gurnet Peninsula.  A 4-mile one way hike is required since private property closes road access when the Lighthouse is not open to the public.

      For the adventurous hikers, visit Mapquest for driving directions and enter the following destination:

399 Gurnet Road
Duxbury, MA 02332

Gurnet Road ends at the Parking area for Duxbury Beach where hiking 4 miles begins.  Note that the grounds and Plymouth Light are private property that can only be viewed from the road.  Perhaps this will inspire a Harbor Tour or a Lighthouse Cruise:

 Travel Weather Forecast

Plymouth Harbor Cruises and Tours
Town Wharf off Water Street
Plymouth, Massachusetts
(800) 242-2469
eMail: contactus@plymouthharborcruises.com
Scenic Views of Duxbury Pier Light and Gurnet Point Light
as well as the Mayflower II and the legendary Plymouth Rock.

Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands
(781) 740-4290
The Friends generally schedule Southern Lights Cruises
yet, the cruise is entitled the Plymouth Expedition this year.

Dolphin Image
*Notable Sentinel Navigation
Back to Previous Light: Morris Island Light
Forward to Next Light: Portsmouth Harbor Light

*or Regional Navigation
Back Home Next

Public Access

The Tower is closed except
for occasional open houses.
Plymouth Light is best
viewed by boat.

See Note (6)

Gurnet Point

- Google Map 

Access to the Grounds is
restricted to an annual “Open
House” when four-wheel-
drive vehicles are allowed on
Duxbury Beach over the
Gurnet Peninsula.
See Note (6)

Travel Links

Lighthouse Cruises

Plymouth Lighthouse
is a Special
Lighthouse Cruise scheduled

Plymouth Light


Existing 1963 Keeper’s house
and cistern

National Register of Historic
Places -19770308,
Lighthouses of Massachusetts
TR (AD) 77000655

Document Updated: Thu 16 Sep 2010, 6:00:00pm EDT (GMT-4)

Copyright © 2000 to 2010 by Debbie Dolphin. All Rights Reserved.

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