Sankaty Light: “I see Sankaty, the mariner’s friend!” : The future of Nantucket’s “blazing star”

I see Sankaty, the mariner’s friend! Who would be the first to say this as we headed eastward over Bean Hill on the Milestone Road? An annual ritual repeated upon arrival on the island at the onset of summer days and weeks in ’Sconset, it meant we had arrived. The beautiful lone structure atop Sankaty Head bluff stands as a sentinel for all who approach. It has done so for over 157 years. Will it continue for future generations to be the Rocket Light, Nantucket’s “blazing star?” Or will Sankaty suffer the same fate as its northern sister at Great Point and become a pile of brick and mortar rubble at the edge of the ninety-foot bluff?

Many stories can be told about Sankaty Head Lighthouse, majestically and stoically in its place at Sankaty Station since its construction in 1849—why she came to be, who lived with her and managed her lights over the years, who looked to her for guidance and safe passage through the treacherous shoals of the New England Atlantic, what she has faced at the fury of Mother Nature’s relentless attack below her magnificent brick apron, and who has hugged her at sunset with a prayer or wish.

Sankaty Head Lighthouse vital statistics:

  • Erected in 1849–50, at a cost of $10,330
  • Originally sixty feet tall but raised to seventy feet in 1888
  • Illuminated by second-order Fresnel lens and a single-wick whale-oil lamp in 1850
  • Visible twenty-four miles at sea
  • 450 tons
  • 158 feet above sea level—the station and south-abutting property contain the highest elevations on the island
  • Light completes its rotation in 7.5 seconds
  • 1933—converted to electric light
  • 1944—U.S. Coast Guard took over management of the lighthouse station
  • Automated in 1965
  • Lighthouse placed on National Register of Historic Places in 1987
  • Ownership transferred from the federal government through the NHA to the ’Sconset Trust in 2007

The storyline that took front stage in the final decade of the twentieth century and continues to grab the headlines today is the destructive and persistent march of Mother Nature against the eastern face of the Nantucket landmass. Images from the 1890s right through the 1950s show a lovely, vegetative bank with a gradual walk able incline and inviting wooden stairways to the picturesque sandy beach below the Sankaty Head bluff.

Then something dramatically changed. Because of extreme erosive conditions at the toe of the bluff and at the bluff’s peak, the great lighthouse is now in jeopardy of being beyond our ability to save. Simply put, saving the light means lifting it from its 157-year-old cradle and moving it with great care and skill to a safe new site to the northwest. Waiting another year could render such an undertaking beyond twenty-first-century engineering capabilities and the philanthropy of our pocketbooks.

Sankaty Head erosion vital statistics:
• 1850—280 feet from the bluff’s edge to lighthouse; 275 feet in 1894
• 1977—down to 173 feet
• Between 1977 and 1999 an additional 78 feet were lost, bringing the distance to 95 feet
• Current distance as of summer 2007 is approximately 76 feet = a loss of just over 200 feet over the 157 years
• Annual average loss of 3 feet over past 30 years
• Between June 1991 and July 1992 a total of 17.1 feet eroded as a result of successive nor’easters and a hurricane

The glorious history of the light and its dedicated keepers set against the challenges of Mother Nature lead us to the newest storyline—the great Nantucket preservation movement. What community in the United States has embraced preservation of historic dwellings and structures with greater commitment than Nantucket? While Sankaty Head Lighthouse was the third and final lighthouse erected on Nantucket, today it stands as the only original—its bricks and mortar have stood as a great sentinel since the beam was first lighted in February 1850. Preserving the signature redstriped lighthouse, truly an island icon, has to be a top priority for twenty-first-century Nantucket.

Yes, Nantucket, like many communities, faces difficult social and economic issues that challenge its citizens to plan in creative ways for the future. This does not lessen the responsibility of our community to save and preserve a great lighthouse for future generations; it reminds us of our common heritage and link to the sea that surrounds us. Whether looking westward from the fishing banks off Nantucket’s east coast or peering eastward over Nantucket’s grand moors, the mariner’s friend will be there to welcome and comfort the soul.

Robert D. Felch has been president of the ’Sconset Trust board of directors since 2004 and is a year-round resident of ’Sconset.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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