Digest>Archives> May 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Fire At Boston Harbor’s "Bug Light"

By Jim Claflin


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Some time ago we found in a lot of photos a rare view that I thought would be of interest. Taken in 1929, the photo is rare because of its large 8" x 10" size and even more so because it is tinted, in full color. Best of all, it is a one-of-a-kind view, showing Boston’s Narrows or "Bug" Lighthouse as it was being destroyed by fire.

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Narrows "Bug" Light

Boston’s outer harbor is crowded with numerous islands and sandbars and over the years has claimed hundreds of vessels and many lives. One point of sand and rock known as Great Brewster Spit, stretches for a mile from Great Brewster Island southwest to a spot just off Lovell’s Island. At this point begins the entrance to the Narrows Channel, once the main route into Boston’s inner harbor. From colonial times this point was marked by an unlighted beacon.

In 1854, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a lighthouse to be placed at this important spot. The lighthouse constructed was a screw-pile type on iron "legs" (thus its nickname "Bug Light"), with a hexagonal wooden dwelling with galvanized metal roof and lantern perched on top. This lighthouse design was quite unusual at the time and was the first such design constructed in New England. The lighthouse was completed in 1856 with a sixth-order Fresnel lens installed, exhibiting a fixed red light visible for seven miles. This light would serve as a range light for the Narrows Channel. When a captain lined this beacon up with the lighthouse on Long Island, he would be clear of the ledge and could proceed into the harbor.

Mounted on the side of the lighthouse structure was also a fog bell with Gamewell or Stevens striking machinery, striking a single blow every 20 seconds in times of poor visibility. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board noted that an ice-breaking structure consisting of "oak piles secured with girders ballasted with stone, planked all over, shod with iron, and painted with red lead" was added around the base of the structure. In 1891, a new, wider gallery was built around the dwelling along with a new outer stairway. A 600-gallon water tank was installed in 1900.

Shipping mishaps near the lighthouse were not uncommon, but the most disastrous incident occurred, not to passing vessels, but to the lighthouse itself.

In the early summer of 1929, Keeper Thomas Small continued his summer project of scraping and removing loose paint from the wooden lighthouse structure in preparation for repainting. June 7th dawned sunny and clear, a fine day to continue his work. A common method of removing paint at the time (and still today in some areas) was to use a kerosene burning torch to heat the aged paint sufficiently so that it could be scraped off. As you can imagine, this method required extreme care and was fraught with an obvious danger - a spark finding its way under the siding to smolder and break out in fire at some later time. As noon approached and Keeper Small continued his work, he was soon dismayed to see wisps of smoke begin to push out from within the wall. Keeper Small attempted to extinguish the growing fire with water that he kept on hand for just such an occurrence, but the fire continued to grow within the walls, protected by its water-resistant siding.

The fire was quickly sighted by the Quarantine Station across the bay, which notified the Boston Fire Department. Within minutes Boston Fireboat No. 44 was dispatched and underway. Small continued his now frantic efforts as debris fell all around him. One report indicates that the "falling fog bell missed him by a few inches." Within 15 minutes the entire lighthouse was in flames. Keeper Small finally was forced to retreat. He managed to throw a few belongings into the station boat and narrowly escaped with his life.

Despite a rapid response by the fireboat, by the time she made the seven-mile trip to the lighthouse, it was all but consumed. Following the fire, the crew of the Lighthouse Tender Mayflower placed a gas-operated lighted bell buoy at the site. The base of the lighthouse remained standing for a time and in time an automatic light and fog bell were placed on top of it. Today, an automatic light on a small steel skeleton tower stands to mark the ledge and the former location of "Bug Light."

How fortunate for us today that on a vessel passing at the time, someone should have a camera to capture this dramatic scene shortly after the fire began. So keep searching through those old boxes and cartons, who knows what might turn up.

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Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the May 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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