Most tourists visit Cape Cod for its pristine beaches and numerous water activities like kayaking, boating, and fishing. But during their travels on the peninsula, they will surely notice the abundance of lighthouses, some of which date from the 18th century.
Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, providing a safe crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to Boston and north and to New York and south, ships sailing along the northeast coast had no no choice but to brave the notoriously treacherous ocean currents and storms along the east coast of Cape Cod.
Estimates of the number of shipwrecks along this stretch of ocean dating back hundreds of years exceed 3,000, and the National Park Service, which operates the Cape Cod National Seashore, says there were more than 1 000 shipwrecks in the waters between just two of Cape Town’s most distant cities, Truro and Wellfleet, where the peninsula reaches its easternmost point.
It is therefore not surprising that, from the end of the 1700s to the 19th century, more than a dozen headlights were bred at various locations on the shores of Cape Cod. Many lighthouses still shine at night and some of these historic lighthouses are open for public tours in the summer. Most of the time, tourists stroll through the grounds of the lighthouses, settle in with a picnic, and take selfies in front of these looming, life-saving structures.
With shifting sands and erosion constantly changing the Cape Cod coastline, most lighthouses have been moved from their original locations to avoid falling into the sea, and several have been rebuilt, sometimes more than once, over the past 150 years.
Visitors can tour these historic Cape Cod lighthouses
Four of Cape Cod’s historic lighthouses are open seasonally for guided or self-guided tours. Three are located in the Cape Cod National Seashore: Highland Light, in North Truro, and Nauset Light and Three Sisters, all in Eastham. The fourth, Chatham Light, is still an active U.S. Coast Guard station performing search and rescue operations when needed. Lighthouse tours are usually free, although donations to help defray costs are always welcome.
Highland Light, also known as Cape Cod Light, was the first lighthouse built on Cape Cod in 1797 as a 45-foot tall wooden tower. In 1857 it was rebuilt into a 66-foot-tall brick tower, the tallest on Cape Cod, and was connected by a covered walkway to a keeper’s house. In the 1990s, highland light was a precarious 100 feet from the edge of the cliff on which it was built and was set back 450 feet. An on-site museum welcomes visitors, and guided tours are offered in the spring, summer, and fall.
Nauset Light is located across from Cape Cod National Seashore’s famous Nauset Light Beach in Eastham. Built in 1877, it was originally located about 20 miles south of Chatham. In the 1990s, the 48-foot-tall lighthouse was moved 300 feet from its cliff edge overlooking the beach. Volunteers tend the lighthouse in the summer, when visitors can explore and climb to the top of the light.
Also in Eastham, the Three Sisters are a trio of historic lighthouses that originated as three 15-foot-tall masonry towers. According to the National Park Service, they were nicknamed The Three Sisters because, from afar; they reminded sailors of women in white dresses with black hats. NPS rangers offer tours of the site during the summer season.
Chatham Light is open for tours for limited hours in the summer. It was built in 1808 as two wooden light towers about 70 feet apart, which is why it is known as The Twin Lights. They were replaced in 1877 and one of the new towers was moved to Eastham and became today’s Nauset Light.
Provincetown is home to three lighthouses
At the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is home to three historic lighthouses, including Race Point Light. It was built in 1816, its tower was replaced and a keeper’s house was added in 1876. Located on a remote beach accessible only on foot or by 4×4 vehicle, the lighthouse keeper’s house and another cottage on the site can be rented by tourists during the summer.
Closer to downtown, Provincetown’s Long Point Light, built in 1875, and Wood End Light, dating from 1872, can be seen from the harbour. They are not open to the public, but visitors can explore and see the exterior of these historic sites.
Wood End can be reached by walking at low tide on the Provincetown Breakwater, located at the western end of town. This is a moderately difficult hike of around 45 minutes each way. Long Point marks the entrance to Provincetown Harbor and is accessible on foot or by boat.
Several other lighthouses are now privately owned, under repair or permanently closed and can only be viewed from a distance, often by boat or ferry. These include Monomoy Light and Stage Harbor Light in Chatham; the Bass River Lighthouse in West Dennis; Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse in Hyannis; Sandy Neck Light at Barnstable; Nobska Point Light at Woods Hole and Wings Neck Light at Pocasset.