How it looked up close

The Oil House project has generated a lot of interest in our restoration efforts, so we’d like to share some more photos that have been trickling in all week of our work on the second story.

Praise and respect for the whole crew! Thanks Anthony, Frank, Ben, Randy, Jared, Brad and Raivo for the excellent pictures from every possible angle. 

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Construction of the Oil House, then and now

The Graves Light oil house under construction, 1905.
Graves Light oil house, second story added, 2019.

Here is the only known photo of the original Oil House being built back in 1905.

Compare it to the expansion in 2019. How things have changed!


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Oil House gets a second story & new roof

Erickson Air Crane lowers the first wall panel of the second story of the Oil House.

In 25-knot winds and sub-freezing temperatures, a daring and dedicated crew of 30 put a second story and new roof on the Graves Light Oil House.

We have been working since last spring to convert the Oil House into a guest cottage.

A heavy-lift Erickson Air Crane helicopter ferried the five-ton marine concrete walls and a completed timberframe roof from a barge to Graves Ledge.

Waiting crews guided the massive pieces in place as the helicopter – Erickson’s civilian version of Sikorsky’s military CH-64 Tarhe Skycrane – neatly lowered them, one at a time, on the heavy granite Oil House.

The Oil House was built in 1905 to store whale oil used to fuel the Graves Light beacon. It is made of heavy granite blocks and has withstood all seas and weather ever since.

Making an equally tough second story was a task we gave to Carson Concrete, which pre-cast the four interlocking side panels in Pennsylvania and sent them to Boston by barge.

The original wooden roof also survived, but was too battered to salvage. Haystack Joinery in Maine built a magnificent timberframe replacement on shore. We helicoptered it out in one piece along with the concrete second story.

Hats off to our most daring and dedicated crew, which pulled off the job flawlessly on the icy ledge. Everyone’s safe.  


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Graves Light under construction, 115 years ago today

November 27, 1903: How Graves light looked after its first 7 months of construction.

One hundred and fifteen years ago today, Colonel Stanton of the Army Corps of Engineers took advantage of calm seas to photograph The Graves, documenting work accomplished in the 1903 season.

Remarkably, in seven months, the workmen prepared the ledge, constructed temporary cofferdams and wharves, built a barracks and footbridge, and set half the tower’s stones into place.

The next year would see the rest of the tower, interior tiled walls and stairs completed.

Graves Light went operational in September, 1905.

Click here for more historic photos of Graves Light’s construction, along with copies of many of the original blueprints and diagrams.

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Exact copy of original oak service cabinet is installed

Remember the oak cabinet that Cousin Kenny built for us?

Well we finally brought it out to Graves this week, in two pieces, and set it up on the first floor.

It’s an exact copy of the 1905 “Service Cabinet” used at Graves to organize the oil lamps and their gear. We have put the cabinet to its original use. As seen in the picture, it now stores genuine, antique, US Light House Service oil pitchers, wick maintenance kit, glass lamp chimneys, and other equipment.

The US Coast Guard provided us with the original plans from more than a century ago. Kennedy made this exact replica, to precise specifications, from the Coast Guard plans.

Well done, Kenny!

 

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Back to life, from the original 1903 blueprints

Our talented cousin Kenny Burns built this fabulous quarter sawn oak Service Cabinet.

It’s an exact copy patterned from the original 1903 Graves Light blueprints.

The back is curved to fit the radius of the tower.

The original is long gone.

The Keepers used the service cabinet to store oil lamps, tools, wicks and glass chimneys. We’ll use our new one for the same purpose.

Kenny’s shown in his shop before bringing his exact replica to Boston. Soon it will be in the lighthouse.

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New timber roof for the Oil House

Fully framed timber reconstruction of the 1905 oil house.

Our friend Raivo has been busy up in Maine transforming some old pine timbers into a dramatic new roof for our Oil House.

The original 1905 roof was solidly built and still mostly intact, but it’s time for a fresh one and this season we’ll be concentrating on transforming the little stone structure into a fabulous guest cottage.

Raivo will assemble the new roof in his shop, dismantle it and reassemble out at Graves late in the summer.

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Bathroom takes shape

Nat puts up the tile in the first-ever Graves Light bathroom.

Lots of enthusiasm here at Graves Light as we ready the new bathroom.

The lighthouse never had indoor plumbing as we know it, so a bathroom here is a first.

Master carpenter Nat is at it again.

He built the wooden bathroom in his Portland, Maine, shop, and installed it a few weeks ago.

The mahogany door, with porthole, is salvaged from an old boat.

Here, Nat is tiling the shower after he and Lynn laid out the marble pattern on the dock outside.

The plumbing and water treatment system are already in.

Soon we’ll have a fully functional sink, toilet, and shower.

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How we spent St. Patrick’s Day Eve

Pat attached the spliced line to an antique US Lighthouse Service block.

Cap’n Pat splices line to hang a lamp.

Staying at Graves during the nor’easter meant that the guys would spend the eve of St. Patrick’s Day eve having some quiet fun when the storm hit.

We took an antique U.S. Light House Establishment (USLHE) dock lantern, and repurposed it to become a hanging lamp in the kitchen.

The kitchen is on the watch deck just below the operational U.S. Coast Guard navigational beacon.

Cap’n Pat spliced an old length of line through an old USLHE pulley block.

Then we hung the lantern from the apex of the arch formed by the recovered First Order Fresnel Lens, just beneath the navigational beacon.

Then we hung the lantern beneath the actual navigation lamp.

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Graves Light gets another first-order Fresnel lens

gl-john-nelson-randy-clark-do-final-fitBig news, everybody. Graves Light received a little taste of a genuine first-order Fresnel lens, similar to the original 1905 lens that sent out a 350,000-candlepower beam across the harbor.

The Coast Guard is still in charge of the navigational aids at Graves, so we couldn’t make the beacon shine like it did before the original giant Fresnel lens was removed in 1975. Since 1905, Graves had been the most powerful lighthouse in New England. Not so any more.

So we did the next-best thing by reconstructing part of the lens with pieces from lighthouses around the world. We assembled them as part of the interior decor in a way that won’t interfere with the modern, solar-powered lamp.

What’s a first-order Fresnel lens?

John and Randy assemble the flash panels to adorn the kitchen on the watch deck.

For a lighthouse, a Fresnel lens is a beehive-shaped compound lens made up of rings of glass prisms that cast parallel beams of light.

It is named after its inventor, French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), who had a special understanding of the physics of light.

Lighthouse lenses are divided according to size and light focal length, a category called “order.” Formally there are eight orders of Fresnel lenses, with the first-order being the largest. (There is also a 3-1/2-order lens. Two larger lenses were ultimately developed.)

A first-order lens casts a beam that can be seen more than 20 miles away. Only the curvature of the Earth prevents it from shining further on a clear night.

Fresnel lenses are made of heavy glass prisms housed in large brass or bronze frames, assembled as panels and arranged in a circle. The entire assembly of an operating Fresnel lens rotated on mechanical carriage or a pool of mercury, and in some parts of the world, still does. That liquid heavy metal ensured steady, constant, friction-free rotation, regardless of the weather, on a corrosion-free surface. The Coast Guard recovered 400 pounds of mercury from Graves when it removed the lens. Our new lens is stationary and won’t be used as an aid to navigation, so there’s no rotation mechanism or mercury.

Where did the new Graves first-order Fresnel lens come from?

We assembled the new Graves lens from several antique first-order lenses from decommissioned or modernized lighthouses outside the United States. Nearly all first-order Fresnel lenses have been destroyed, or are owned by governments as legacy artifacts. No complete first-order Fresnel lens exists in private hands, anywhere in the world.

Working through Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers of Melbourne, Australia, we bought pieces from English lenses built between 1880 and 1920.

Wyatt designed the bronze frame by computer, and built a full-scale wooden mockup.

Wyatt designed the bronze frame by computer, and built a full-scale wooden mockup. Then he assembled the frame on the mainland to make sure everything fit.

Reconstructing a lens

A first-order Fresnel lens would generally consist of glass prisms assembled in about 45 panels.

The panels are stacked three high and arranged in a circle. The lower and upper panels are called catadioptric panels and bend the light by reflection like a mirror. The center sections, or flash panels, are dioptric prisms which concentrate the light like a magnifying glass.

We acquired glass prisms to fill 15 panels. For considerations of living space and climate control – and for the practical matter of finding enough prisms – we did not attempt to rebuild an entire first-order lens nor could we. These panels are so scarce, it appears there may be no more to be found!

The objective was to illustrate the wonder of a First Order lens without taking over our kitchen.

No shop drawings for assembling a lens like this exist. It’s been said the factories that made them in England and France were destroyed during World War II. Our own Wyatt designed a custom skeleton frame using SolidWorks software, and uploaded the specifications to a water jet cutter, producing a rigid structure out of 1/2-inch bronze plate.

The assembly in our shop allowed us to correct mistakes, make sure the glass prisms fit properly, and refine each frame to ensure a good fit-out on station.

We packed each completed panel in wooden crates, brought them to Graves Light aboard Miss Cuddy, and winched them halfway up the lighthouse to the entrance, and hand carried them up the tower for installation.

After assembly, we found that the lens focused sunlight inward and melted our first aid kit. We knew from our neighbor Sally Snowman, keeper of Boston Light, and our visit to the Castle Morro lighthouse in Havana, that the old Fresnel lens lighthouses had interior curtains to block the sun by day. Both the Boston and Havana lighthouses still have operational Fresnel lenses.

So we went to Zimman’s for a bolt of the proper cloth. Our own Keeper Lynn is creating a custom curtain to prevent the sunlight from starting a fire, without the curtain obstructing the navigational lamp.

Vital statistics

  • Manufacturer: Chance Brothers of England
  • Grade: First Order Lens
  • Origin: From several lighthouses worldwide, circa 1880-1920
  • Weight of a complete sense: 3 tons
  • Weight of our lens apparatus: 1 ton
  • Height: 9 feet
  • Diameter: 6.5 feet
  • Light strength: Approximately 350,000 candlepower with kerosene burner

Where’s the original?

The original Graves Light lens, made in Paris by Barbier, Bernard and Turenne, is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It isn’t on display, but is probably crated up in a warehouse. The Smithsonian loans out many of its pieces for public display, but federal law forbids the original Graves lens from being exposed to weather, so we couldn’t move it back to the lighthouse even if the Smithsonian would let us (which it won’t.)

The Coast Guard loans out Fresnel lenses under strict conditions, but requires that they be kept in climate-controlled environments, and, for preservation purposes, forbids them to be kept in lantern rooms.

See Theresa Levitt’s biography of optical genius Augustin Fresnel and his remarkable impact on lighthouses and navigation, A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse (Norton, 2013).

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