SANKATY HEAD LIGHT
Mariners of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries knew that the shoal waters
to the east and south of Sankaty Head presented a real danger because of
the shifting currents, the movement of the sand bars, and the imprecise
charts of the area. Ships, cargoes and lives were lost here. The need
for a safe passage through this treacherous region was apparent to
seamen and landlubbers alike.
Sankaty Head Light rose sixty feet above the hundred-foot tall bluff and
was topped by America's first Fresnel lens. This lens, a series of
prisms and magnifying glasses designed by France's Augustin Fresnel,
concentrated light into a narrow beam that was visible as far as twenty
Sankaty Head Light was lit for the first time on February 1, 1850 and has been in continuous service ever since. The first light was provided by a single wick whale oil lamp. At the time Sankaty's beam, focused through the Fresnel lens, was the brightest man-made light in the world.
The first Keeper of the Light, Captain Alexander Bunker and his two
assistants, stood four-hour watches to fuel the lamp and wind the
clockwork mechanism that rotated it. Over the years changes and
improvements were made, increasing the light's height to its present 70
feet, electrifying and automating the light, and removing the Keeper's
In 1969 the Coast Guard removed the lantern and deck, replacing them
with "...an odd-shaped aluminum cap." Following impassioned objections
by the public, the Coast Guard rebuilt the deck and lantern and in 1970
Sankaty once again "...looked like a lighthouse."
Even with today's high tech navigational instruments and equipment, and
accurate, up dated charts, the shoal waters off Sankaty Head, as in
earlier times, are potentially dangerous. The busy shipping lanes
continue to be protected by the venerable lighthouse, which is itself in
danger as the sea continues to erode the base of the Sankaty Head bluff.
Sankaty Head's classic Fresnel lens and its clockwork mechanism are on
display in Nantucket's Whaling Museum.
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