Digest>Archives> June 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lens Replaced At Cape Cod’s Highland Lighthouse In 1901

By by Jim Claflin


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Some time ago we found in a lot of photos another great find – an original photo album put together by the District Inspector for the U.S. Light House Establishment in about 1901. The album was filled with wonderful rare images of operations that we never get a glimpse of. Included are a number of images taken inside the Lighthouse Depot at Chelsea, Mass. showing men repairing Gamewell and Stevens fog bell striking apparatus, constructing gallery railings, office employees and much more. Another page of photos shows crews of the Lighthouse Tender Myrtle laying power cable to the lighthouses on Thatchers Island off Cape Ann. Additional images show the inspector reading on the deck of the Myrtle, bell buoys, fog signals and more. But the photos that struck me most during my recent look at the album are a set of six or so views showing the removal of the First Order Fresnel lens from Cape Cod’s Highland Lighthouse in 1901. Views include the temporary light tower constructed next to the lighthouse, workers in the lantern room installing the new lens, work crew posing next to the tower and much more.

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Jeremy D’Entremont in his history of the site notes that the 45-foot wooden lighthouse was built on the clay pounds in North Truro in 1797, exhibiting its flashing light (done by means of an eclipser) from 160 feet above mean high water. The eclipser was removed in 1812, when Highland Light received a new Winslow Lewis system of lamps and reflectors.

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In 1840, a new lantern and lighting apparatus were installed by I. W. P. Lewis and by 1857 a today’s brick tower was built. This third lantern was equipped with a first order Fresnel lens from Paris. This new light made Highland Light one of the coast’s most powerful. By 1901 an even larger Fresnel lens, floating on a bed of mercury, would be installed. The French lens sections that were removed were most likely taken to the area depot, located at Woods Hole.

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Why did these photos intrigue me? Recently we obtained from an estate on Cape Cod a large First Order lighthouse lens bulls-eye section. The lens assembly measures 40” in diameter, with a brass outer ring housing a series of concentric prism sections terminating in a center bulls-eye measuring 11”. The outer ring is marked “Barbier Benard a Turrene Paris”.

As it turns out, a family member had been a lighthouse keeper on Cape Cod from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, ending his career as the Keeper at the Lighthouse Depot at Woods Hole. Examination of the national lens inventory reveals that there were only a handful of BBT first order lenses used in this country, and only one in New England - at Highland Lighthouse.

In all probability this lens section is indeed one of those removed from Highland Lighthouse in 1901 and shown in the album. I have always prized this album as one of my best finds. When I go to antique shows, I never fail to thumb through every early photo album that I come across - you never can tell what might be in it.

This story appeared in the June 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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