Barely more than an acre in size, Little Brewster Island would perhaps be quite unremarkable if authorities hadn’t decided to construct Boston Light, the first lighthouse in all the land (aka the United States), on its tall, rocky outcropping. For nearly three centuries, the lighthouse has valiantly watched over the city and its harbor, welcoming those who intend no harm and thwarting those who do. In light of the fact that it’s one of the tallest and oldest structures in the harbor, Boston Light achieved National Historic Landmark status in the 1960s—but don’t fret! The fame hasn’t gone to our heads: you’re still free to visit Little Brewster Island and, if you’re not irreparably out of shape like us, ascend the lighthouse’s seventy-six steps and two short ladders to feel like you’re on top of the world.
In the early days, sailors had to navigate the strait between Little Brewster Island and its neighboring landmass, Hull, in order to reach the harbor for trade and other purposes. This waterway was, after all, the most negotiable entrance to the port at the time, but it still had its difficulties. After a few unfortunate incidents, people set up makeshift light sources—some as unrefined as tiny lanterns or lit bales of hay—on the island to facilitate nighttime steering. It seems sensible, then, that the Massachusetts government opted in 1713 to start construction on a more reliable provider of light, citing the need to compete with other burgeoning cities, including New York, in terms of maritime commerce. Naturally, the best site based on its location was the littlest Brewster, then rather appropriately known as Beacon Island.
Over the years, Boston Light would serve several crucial purposes, namely guiding boaters to shore and literally keeping enemies at bay. In the American spirit, Boston taxed all incoming boats a penny per ton in order to finance the lighthouse, which in its 60-foot glory was composed primarily of stone and, at the time, some wooden elements. Unsurprisingly, fire later severely damaged these bits. Boston Light’s keeper was responsible for keeping tabs on the passage and shoreline, and if he were to spot any suspicious crafts, he would lower the Union Jack as many times as there were vessels, thus alerting the fort at Castle Island to the happenings. (We say “he” because the first and, thus far, only female light keeper landed the job in 2003.) The fort at Castle Island would in turn alert the city—and, in the event that there were four or five ships, the surrounding towns—to the impending threat.
As you might imagine, life on Little Brewster Island wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Boston Light’s keepers, who always lived on the sanctuary, at times met grim fates in light of island life’s perils. In 1718, the light’s first keeper, his entire family, and his slave drowned after their canoe capsized. The keeper’s successor also drowned, this time in stormy weather. These tragic incidents made citywide headlines, and, incredibly, they prompted a twelve-year-old Benjamin Franklin to write an account of the tale in poem form, which he then (hilariously, we might add) sold along the docks.
For more on the stories behind the city’s sanctuaries, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein, or check out last week’s blog. To help you explore the islands on the go, download our free smartphone app. Anchors away!