Digest>Archives> April 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Isaac Morton Small

By Jim Claflin


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Isaac Morton Small is a name which you may not have heard often, but is one that is surrounded by lighthouse lore and information. Over the years Mr. Small wrote at least four lengthy pamphlets describing the Cape Cod life that he knew so well. In addition to living at and learning about lighthouse life, for more than 60 years he would work as the Marine Reporting Agent at Highland Light.

In 1796, 10 acres of land on a high bluff in North Truro on Cape Cod’s easternmost shore were acquired for $110 from his grandfather, also named Isaac Small, of Truro, who became the first keeper of the lighthouse. There Keeper Small served from 1797 until 1812 in that post. Keeper Small would later note that “Because the lands here are pretty good and are not so sandy as to be liable to be blown away by the high gales of wind too often experienced on this Cape... As the light-house must be made of wood the soil will be good for its foundation... Fresh water can easily be obtained within the ten acres. The land will summer a cow after a garden shall be taken off for which there is some pretty good land.”

In 1840, a new lantern and lighting apparatus were installed at the lighthouse by I. W. P. Lewis (Winslow Lewis' nephew), along with a new staircase and windows. At about this time the younger Isaac M. Small would be born in the nearby village.

Isaac Morton Small was born in a farm house in Highland Village in North Truro to James and Jerusha Small, on the 18th day of March, 1845. A few years later his father was appointed keeper of Highland Light Station and the family moved into the lighthouse quarters. Apparently he was the only keeper serving at that important station during that period.

In one of his pamphlets Small wrote of life there: “My father was the only keeper as it required no watch at night other than an occasional glance from the light keeper’s bedroom. My father also owned a large farm, which adjoined the light house reservation, so every day he went to conduct the farm, leaving my mother to trim and care for the lamps. She would take me in her arms and carry me up to the lamp room at the top of the tower and lay me down on the iron deck while she completed the work of putting the Lewis lamps in order for lighting when the night came on again. These lamps were set in two rows, one above the other with twelve lamps in each row, behind each lamp there was a reflector one foot in diameter, each lamp held a pint of sperm whale oil, which had to be carried up to the lamps from the storage tanks at the base of the tower.”

In 1849 the British vessel Josephus came ashore in dense fog on the outer bars just north of the lighthouse. Laurel Guadazno, in her September 21st, 2006 Provincetown Banner article, noted that during a break in the fog, the lighthouse keeper had seen the ship and spread the alarm. Truro residents hurried to the beach, including mother Jerusha Small and her four-year-old son Isaac. In an account of the wreck written in his 1928 pamphlet Shipwrecks On Cape Cod, Mr. Small remembered, “Many of her crew had been crushed to death and their bodies swept into the boiling surf.”

Only one sailor of the ship’s crew of

24 survived. In addition, two fishermen who had rushed to aid the crew also lost

their lives.

Small would see thousands of ships pass Highland Light in his long career, and many wrecks, but certainly this scene and the toll that it inflicted would remain etched in his mind forever.

A new brick tower was built at Highland Light in 1857 for $15,000 and equipped with a first order Fresnel lens from Paris. Some time later kerosene would be used for fuel when a more efficient type of lamp, an Incandescent Oil Vapor lamp(IOV), was installed.

About tending these lamps Small wrote in a later pamphlet: “The lives of the keepers are somewhat monotonous, though relieved in a measure during the summer months by visits of many pilgrims to this attractive Mecca. The routine of their duties is regular and systematic. Promptly, one half hour before sunset the keeper whose watch it may be at the time repairs to the tower and makes preparations for the lighting of the lamps. At the moment the sun drops below the western horizon the light flashes out over the sea; the little cog wheels begin their revolutions; the tiny pumps force the oil up to the wicks and the night watch has begun. At 8 o’clock the man who has lighted the lamp is relieved by No. 2, who in turn is also relieved at midnight by No. 3, No. 1 again returning to duty at 4 a.m. As the sun shows its first gleam above the edge of the eastern sea the machinery is stopped and the light is allowed to gradually consume the oil remaining in the wicks and go out. This occurs in about fifteen minutes. As night comes on again No. 2 is the man to light the lamp, the watches are changed at 8, 12 and 4, and so go on as before night after night.”

In about 1853 a telegraph line was strung from Boston to Provincetown, with a station installed at the Highland Light Station. Boston merchants were interested in obtaining early knowledge of the return of their ships carrying cargo into the port of Boston, and soon established a ship reporting office at the light station.

After graduating from the Common School, Small spent a term in the Academy at Bernardstown, Massachusetts, and two years later a term in Professor Cross’s private school at Sterling, Massachusetts, and then returned to North Truro where he began the work of watching the ships in 1861. By 1863 he was placed in full charge of the telegraph office which now was firmly established there.

In his pamphlet Shipwrecks on Cape Cod, Small describes his duties: “This station was equipped with signal flags, books and a powerful telescope, and an operator placed in charge, whose duty it was to watch the sea from daybreak until sunset, and so far as possible obtain the name of or description of every passing ship. This information was immediately transmitted over the wires to the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce (in Boston), where it was at once spread upon their books for the information of subscribers.”

For more than 60 years Isaac Morton Small would be the Marine Reporting Agent at Highland Light. In 1928 he wrote “now on the threshold of 1928, I am still watching the ships. … My duties begin as soon as it is light enough to distinguish the rig of a vessel two miles distant from the land, and my day’s work is finished when the sun sinks below the western horizon. Every half hour through every day of the year we stand ready to answer the call at the Boston office, and report to them by telegraph every item of marine intelligence which has come under our observation during the previous half hour. With our telescope we can, in clear weather, make out the names of vessels when four miles away. When a shipwreck occurs, either at night or during the day, we are expected to forward promptly to the city office every detail of the disaster.”

Beginning in 1873, Isaac Small also ran a boarding house for summer visitors near the lighthouse where he sold his pamphlets, mounted photographs, commemorative china and other souvenirs. Over time he operated and enlarged the Highland House and was connected with the business for more than 50 years. In addition, he served as a local selectman, and on many other town boards and even the State Legislature.

For more than fifty years he also worked as a “Displayman”, flying storm warning flags of the United States Weather Bureau at Highland Light when the weather demanded.

To satisfy the many questions of visitors to the light station and to supplement his income there, Small wrote a number of pamphlets – four that we are aware of. The first booklet was Highland Light — This Book Tells You All About It. (Provincetown, Mass., MA. 1891. 25pp). This pamphlet sold well and was reprinted in 1912, in 1902 in a fancier binding, and in 1930.

His second pamphlet was Shipwrecks On Cape Cod – The Story of a Few of the Many Hundred Shipwrecks Which Have Occurred on Cape Cod. (North Truro, MA. January 1st., 1912 48pp). This too sold well and was reprinted in 1928.

Additional pamphlets included: Just A Little About The Lower Cape From Provincetown To Brewster And The Journey Of The Mayflower Pilgrims. (North Truro, MA. 1922 and 1926), and finally True Stories Of Cape Cod. in 1934. (Buzzards Bay. 95pp.)

Sadly, Mr. Small passed away on February 5th, 1934, just days after he finished the final pages of True Stories of Cape Cod.

His pamphlets make wonderful reading and have become most collectible. They can be found sometimes at fine out-of-print book stores as well as at some antique shops in New England. Today good copies can fetch in the $50 – $140 range depending on the title, date of printing and condition.

This story appeared in the April 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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