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Old Scituate Light–a landmark and a legacy

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By Marie Fricker

My freckle-faced five year-old was sprinting up the 34 steps of the spiral wooden staircase of the Scituate Lighthouse in the summer of 1987, just one week after we had moved into town. I grabbed a corner of his red t-shirt to stop him from slipping backward in the damp, narrow cavern as his older sister made a far less daring ascent behind us, pony tail bobbing and rubber flip flops cautiously gripping each step. At the top of the stairs, our harrowing journey was rewarded with arrival at the lantern room, where we were treated to the most panoramic view of the blue Atlantic that this inlander had ever seen.

Through the years, the lighthouse at Cedar Point in Scituate and the small beach beside it have provided respite, beauty and a sense of serenity for me on harried days. Both of my children had their wedding photos taken against the backdrop of the white tower as do hundreds of young couples every year. But Scituate Light is much more than a place to sit on a bench, inhaling sea breezes and watching seagulls fight over your piece of tossed bagel.

Throughout the centuries, lighthouses have played a vital role for seafarers—guiding ships past treacherous rocks and shoals during storms that battered the coastlines in the black of night. But Old Scituate Light has a special story of its own. And no one knows it better than Duncan Bates Todd, the 98-year-old great-great granddaughter of the first Scituate Lighthouse Keeper, “Captain” Simeon Bates.

“In 1810, the U.S. Congress appropriated $4,000 to build a lighthouse on Cedar Point,” said Todd, who chronicled the history of the landmark in her book, The Fourteenth Lot. “The next year the tower and cottage were built and my great-great grandfather moved into that 2-bedroom house with his wife and nine children. He lived there for 23 years, a tenure equaled only by one of the 12 Scituate lighthouse keepers since then—Ruth Downton, who was appointed in 1985 and retired in 2008. Bob Gallagher, a Marshfield High School history teacher, succeeded Ruth to the post, and he is doing a wonderful job bringing our lighthouse into the 21st century with blogs and webcams and lots of other outreach efforts to keep the community involved.”

In the early 19th century, the duties of a lighthouse keeper could be daunting. The light had to be kept lit with whale oil and wicks, and wind or water damage to the tower and house from fierce Nor’easters constantly required repairs and renovations. But it was an exciting life, and Todd is proud to share in her family’s heritage at Cedar Point. For years, she led tour groups through the lighthouse and shared stories about her ancestors.

One of those tales (founded in historical records) is about the “American Army of Two.” Abigail and Rebecca Bates, the young daughters of Simeon Bates, who saved the town from an attack by a British warship in 1814 by hiding behind some cedar bushes and playing their fife and drum loudly. The troops thought they were hearing the Scituate Militia coming, and they left the town unscathed.

According to David Ball, former President of the Scituate Historical Society, the lighthouse at Cedar Point is the oldest “complete lighthouse” in the country. “There is an older lighthouse, but ours is the oldest one with an original keeper’s cottage attached,” said Ball. “People who move away from town always want to come back to the lighthouse. It’s the landmark that is the biggest draw in Scituate.”

More than two centuries have passed since Simeon Bates and his family first lit the wick on the whale oil lamp in the lighthouse tower. Much has changed in Scituate since then, but the lighthouse at the entrance to the town’s harbor continues to flash its white light (now electric powered) every 15 seconds through the darkness from dusk until dawn.

But it wasn’t always so. In 1860, Old Scituate light went dark for 134 years. “The lighthouse was removed from service because of the construction of Minot Light,” said Gallagher, who was appointed lighthouse keeper by the Board of Selectmen and moved into the cottage with his wife and young daughter in 2009. “In 1916 the lighthouse was put up for sale and the town of Scituate purchased it for $1,000. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Three years later, it was relit with the light visible only from land, and in 1994, the light was made visible from sea as a ‘private aid to navigation.”’

Gallagher’s 9-year old daughter Haley grew up at Scituate Lighthouse. It was home to her, as it feels to so many others, including the groups of third grade students who have their field trips there each year. Small fingers continue to probe the damp, cool surface of the tunnel that leads to the beacon tower. Children wiggle past their parents to climb the spiral staircase that leads to a small ladder, which only the appointed lighthouse keeper may climb. It is there that Gallagher vacuums out dust and debris, checks the bulb on the light, checks on damage to the windows, and looks out on the sea from a vantage point that few others have.

More than 100 applicants expressed interest in the lighthouse keeper position when the historical society posted the vacancy in August of 2008 after Downton’s retirement. “We didn’t’ even have to think about who we wanted,” said Ball. “Bob Gallagher was a history teacher and perfect for the job. He has done so much since he’s been here, including installing webcams on the tower, creating learning stations on the lighthouse grounds, installing the wooden boardwalk, and hosting tours in the summer months. He even writes a blog (oldscituatelight.blogspot.com), where you can literally see what’s happening at Cedar Point 24/7.”

For Gallagher, serving as the Scituate Lighthouse keeper is much more than a job. “I am deeply honored to safeguard this 209-year-old landmark,” he said. “And as a teacher, I try to educate people about the history of the area.  The rock where the Italian freighter the Etrusco grounded on the beach here in 1956 now bears a plaque telling its story, and I’m happy when I see walkers around the lighthouse stopping at the various learning stations to read the information.”

Living in a tiny 1811 waterfront cottage in New England might be frightening to some, but Gallagher seems to relish it.

“We used to lose power a lot and that was tough,” he admits.  “One night the temperature in our kitchen was 21 degrees, but now we have a generator and the new revetment wall protects this area from flooding. Yet, I have to admit, I love the storms. When they’re predicting a blizzard with 13-foot swells, I can’t wait to be in the middle of it—here in the lighthouse— feeling the power of the wind and the sea and the legacy of those who came before me. There is nothing like it.”

A lighthouse cannot steer a ship. It cannot board the boat and turn the wheel. It cannot demand a response from the captain. All it can do is shine. —The Christian Post, July, 2004

About the Author: Marie Fricker is the Editor of the South Shore Senior News and noted author of the book, All in My Head: How a Hypochondriac Beat Brain Cancer. 

Marie lives on the South Shore with her family and is also a real estate professional.