Too close for comfort: The day Army artillery shook Graves Light

Doc 1 May 24 1937Artillery practice before World War II caused one shell to land too close to Graves Light, prompting the Superintendent of Lighthouses to issue a sternly worded letter to the Commanding Officer in Boston.

The 1937 incident was the only time the granite tower was ever shaken.

It happened on May 21 of that year, when the Army’s coastal defense force at Fort Banks in Winthrop practiced shelling Boston Harbor’s narrow outlet to the sea, apparently to ensure that they could strike at any enemy ships trying to enter the port.

The thunderous artillery practice had shattered the keepers’ dinner plates at Graves Light.

Fort Banks was home at the time to two batteries of huge Endicott 1890M1 mortars to defend Boston Harbor against enemy warships.

A total of 16 mortars provided a formidable defense for the harbor. Each mortar was 12-inch caliber, meaning that each fired an explosive shell 12 inches in diameter. Each shell contained between 700 and 1,046 pounds of explosives. Each mortar could hurl the shell between 7 and 9 miles.

A researcher at the National Archives in Washington has discovered carbon copies of the letters exchanged between the US Light House Service and the Department of War from May and June, 1937, settling a matter between the artillerymen and the Graves Light keepers.

The correspondence shows that at about 1:30 on the afternoon of May 21, 1937, the keeper at The Graves phoned his superintendent in Chelsea that during artillery practice from Fort Banks, one shell landed within 200 yards of the lighthouse.

That resulted in a phone call to the commanding officer at Fort Banks, who made sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It seems that no further incidents occurred, though the recorded correspondence, typed on manual typewriters and sent via the Postal Service, took some delays that in retrospect seem curious.

Doc 1 May 24 1937Three days after the incident, on May 24, Light House Superintendent George E. Eaton in Chelsea, sent a letter to the Commanding Officer of the First Corps Area responsible for Fort Banks. (Doc 1 May 24 1937)

Eaton described the matter, making a correction about the distance of the target zone from the lighthouse.

Politely, but with what seems to be a taint of sarcasm, Eaton said that on receiving the phone call on May 21, “the officer in charge at Fort Banks was accordingly communicated with and assurance obtained that further shooting operations would be conducted in the proper direction.”

The lighthouse superintendent then spared no words to express his concern:

“The above is invited to your attention for such action as you may dispose to take in so far as issuing official instructions to the proper parties to make definitely sure that future similar maneuvers will be so carried on as to obviate any possibility of damage or other embarrassment being suffered by the relatively numerous lighthouses and other aids to navigation located in the vicinity in question.”

On the copy retained by the Commissioner of Lighthouses, someone scrawled in the margin, “Entirely too many chances taken with this sort of thing apparently.”

Doc 2 June 15 1937Three weeks later, on June 15, Colonel Clark Lynn, Adjutant General at Headquarters, First Corps Area in Boston, responded formally. (Doc 2 June 15 1937)

“No previous acknowledgement was made,” said COL Lynn, “due to the fact that your letter indicated that the Commanding Officer, Harbor Defenses of Boston, Fort Banks, Massachusetts, had been notified by telephone.”

The colonel assured the light house superintendent that instructions had been issued “to prevent any possible recurrence in the future.”

The same day he received COL Lynn’s letter, Superintendent Eaton wrote a memo to the Commissioner of Lighthouses, recounting the incident and stating that the Army commander “should have formally acknowledged our letter without request having to be made for the same.” (Doc 3 June 16 1937)

A modern Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chart (fig. 4.2, p. 8) shows that the lighthouse crew was right to be upset: A surface explosion of 700 to 1,000 pounds of TNT would produce severe wounds from flying glass in a building 200 yards away.

The letters appear on this page. Click on each image to enlarge.

Share Button

Before and after: The watch room is shaping up

The Watch Room at Graves Light, before initial cleaning and painting (left) and after sandblasting and first coats of primer and paint (right).

The Watch Room at Graves Light, before initial cleaning and painting (left) and after sandblasting and first coats of primer and paint (right).

Here’s the first look inside Graves Light after our initial cleaning and preservation. These two pictures are of the Watch Room, the black metal deck on top of the granite tower, just beneath the bronze-and-glass lamp room (see illustration).

watchroomThe outer walls are 1/2″ thick brass or bronze. The inner walls are thin sheets of steel. We had everything sandblasted. All brass, which had been painted, was coated with a clear preservative to keep the golden color of the metal. The two doors and doorframe at left, which lead out to the watch deck, are bronze. So is the circular perimeter of the ceiling where the round skylights can be seen.

The center of the ceiling is a modern addition from when the Coast Guard removed the enormous, original first order Fresnel lens and installed an automated system.

We primed the cast iron stairway and steel interior walls, repaired rusted sections, and painted the walls white and the stairs black with a special marine epoxy paint.

Because this room had no windows and little ventilation, we cut large holes through the walls and installed antique brass portholes from a steamship that sailed at around the time Graves Light was built.

We have a long way to go on this room, as it is going to be a kitchen and social area. This is just the first look.

Share Button

Boston Globe profiles Graves Light, one year later

Good news on the front page of the Boston Globe.

Good news on the front page of the Boston Globe.

Joe Kahn of the Boston Globe wrote an engaging feature about Graves Light, one year after Dave and Lynn purchased it from the federal government.

In a page-one, above-the-fold story datelined Graves Island Light Station, the Globe laid out what it called “A long to-do list for feeling at home in the lighthouse.”

“We’re figuring this out as we go, though,” Dave says in the Globe, “having no previous experience with something like this.”

“Few people do,” the Globe comments. “Fewer still have the passion and resources that Waller, 51, a Boston businessman who lives in a converted firehouse in Malden, has brought to renovating one of the state’s iconic landmarks, aiming to covert it into equal parts family vacation home and historic preservation project.”

The online version includes a gallery of pictures by Globe photographer Wendy Maeda, and a video.

Keeper Dave explains in the Boston Globe video the progress to date and future plans.

Keeper Dave explains in the Boston Globe video the progress to date and future plans.

While the Globe focused on Keeper Dave as the main character, it laid out the bigger picture of family members, contractors, volunteers, local officials, and well-wishers who are making the revival of Graves Light possible.

“Waller says his biggest surprise has not been the extent of the repair work, or the price tag attached,” the Globe reports.

“‘It’s been the outpouring of positive energy from the community — and willingness for contractors to actually come out and work on this,’ he said, grinning. ‘I thought people might say, “Hell, I’m not working out there on this rusty old lighthouse.” But they haven’t.'”

The Globe asked Dave what a lot of people have been asking: Will there be any public access to the lighthouse in the future, and might people have a chance to rent it out as a B&B?

“Yes and yes, says Waller. For now, anyone attempting to land on the rocky outcropping is trespassing and warned to stay clear. Once access is improved, though, open houses should become more feasible. Short-term rentals, too. ‘Because it’s something worth sharing,’ he said, bounding between floors. ‘People are curious.'”

Share Button

Volunteers devote Labor Day weekend to paint the lighthouse

Sunday paint crew: Sue, Allison, Mike, Shane, Andrea, Jack and Lynn.

Sunday paint crew: Sue, Allison, Mike, Shane, Andrea, Jack and Lynn.

Family, friends, friends of friends, and even a new friend discovered online took time from their Labor Day weekend to come out to Graves Ledge and paint inside the lighthouse.

We had sandblasted all bronze, iron and steel surfaces inside. We covered the bronze with clear protectant and painted the iron and steel with a special marine-grade green-gray primer. That work was done by a professional crew.

Over Labor Day weekend, a hardy group of volunteers from all walks of life visited Graves and, with paintbrushes and rollers, carried out the difficult task of applying a thick epoxy urethane paint as a secondary primer to bond with the first. This is the same kind of primer used on oceangoing vessels and oil rigs.

The two-day midcoat primer job was followed by a topcoat job on Monday, to apply black paint to cast iron stairways, rails and other surfaces.

Here are some of the pictures of our Labor Day weekend paint party. We are really, really grateful for all the enthusiastic and devoted help.

Share Button

Our new YouTube channel is launched

We just launched a YouTube channel to share our videos.

Click here for the link to the Graves Light Station YouTube Channel.

The first feature is the above magnificent 34-second time-lapse montage. Using a remote camera, we snapped a photo every five minutes for four days, resulting in this video.

Take a look at how the tide rises and falls, the sun and moon rise over the horizon, the workers move up and down the lighthouse and around the dock and ledge, and the light itself casts its beacon over the dark sky.

We also link to YouTube videos that other people shot, where Graves Light is seen or referenced, and arranged them on playlists for “one-stop shopping” for Graves Light videos. We’ll continue to expand these lists.

RC camera improvHow we made the stop-action video

The Graves Light keepers describe how the crew created the remote camera system: “We used a Canon 5D camera with a 24mm lens. My nephew Patrick and I built a waterproof housing out of a 50 caliber ammo box and powered it with two solar panels and a car battery.

“The real trick was the triggering device: Patrick cracked an old cell phone which he can fully control from his iPhone.

“The cracked phone triggered he camera, the camera sent the images to the cracked phone, which sent them on to Patrick’s phone, then automatically deleted them so the phone and camera didn’t fill up.”  

See the photo of the initial improvisation with the ammunition box, which we posted on Facebook in February.

Again, here’s the link to our YouTube channel.

Share Button

Authentic replacement windows restore original design

Karl Phillips of Driftwood Construction in Nantucket looks at how he's going to install the white oak casement window he built to restore the Graves Light windows to their original appearance and function.

Karl Phillips of Driftwood Construction in Nantucket looks at how he’s going to install the white oak casement window he built to restore the Graves Light windows to their original appearance and function.

From a rotted original casement window frame, master carpenter Karl Phillips and his friend Will Phelps built nine replacements in his Nantucket workshop, and installed them at Graves Light in early August 2014.

First we removed the historically inaccurate and aesthetically displeasing block glass windows that the Coast Guard installed decades ago to replace the originals, and then installed the casements.

Part of the installation was filmed for “This Old House.”

Share Button

Suspended 80 feet to repair stone at base

Mike Sylvester of CCI Construction hangs by ropes to reinforce stone blocks at the base of Graves Light.

Mike Sylvester of CCI Construction hangs by ropes to reinforce stone blocks at the base of Graves Light.

We started the stabilization and restoration of weathered stone at the base of Graves Light,  using modern techniques to revive the original.

In this picture, Mike Sylvester of CCI Construction is suspended 80 feet as he works to reinforce blocks of stone fragmented by a century of tidal action.

Mike’s drilling holes in the damaged stone, inserting epoxy and stainless steel bolts to reinforce the blocks, then covering the holes with grout.

We made the grout with crushed granite from the very same Rockport quarry that provided the original stone to build Graves Light in 1903.

Share Button

See the Light: Graves gets official US Lighthouse Society passport stamp


You can get your own Graves Light & Fog Signal Station stamp – if you have a US Lighthouse Society passport.

Serious lighthouse enthusiasts have a United States Lighthouse Society passport that they fill with stamps from all the lighthouses they’ve visited.

We are excited to announce that the US Lighthouse Society has issued the Graves Light and Fog Signal Station an official rubber stamp to allow us – and our friends – to participate in the passport program.

Even though Graves Light is not open to the public yet, and won’t be for a while, we want to make sure that anyone with a US Lighthouse Society passport can get a Graves stamp.

The stamp is designed by the US Lighthouse Society.

Here’s how it works. According to the Society, “When you visit a participating lighthouse, you can get your passport stamped. There are four panels on each page of the passport and each panel should have a different lighthouse stamp. When your passport is filled it will contain 60 stamps.”

But what if, as in the case of Graves Light, you can’t actually set foot at the lighthouse?

lighthousepassportNot to worry. The Society says that if you can’t get a visit for a passport stamp, just send proof that you tried and they’ll acknowledge it if you send in your passport.

No need to wait to fill your passport, though. Readers of, or those who follow us on Facebook or @GravesLight on Twitter, can get their passport stamped right away.

Its simple: Just send us your USLHS passport and a request for a stamp, plus a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), and we’ll return your passport stamped with a Graves Light and Fog Station seal. If you don’t already have a USHLS passport, just order one right here.

Graves Light isn’t in a town, so you’ll have to send your passport to our address in Boston:

Graves Light and Fog Station
180 Lincoln Street
Boston MA 02111  USA

I_Have_Seen_the_LightNow, here’s what US Lighthouse Society says about its program: “The United States Lighthouse Society sponsors a Passport Program. A passport with a blue vinyl cover, similar in appearance to an official United States passport, is available through the Society and lighthouse retailers across the US.

“There are seven levels of accomplishment in the US Lighthouse Society Passport Program. Each level is reached by completing a passport book & sending it to the USLHS Passport Fulfillment Service for verification. Upon achieving each of the seven levels, you will receive an official, collectible patch recognizing your achievement and dedication to lighthouse preservation.”

Share Button

Zip line operation recovers original lighthouse windows

window glass on zipline

The first load of original 1903 lantern glass is returned to the lighthouse by a 100-foot zip line.

The perfect weather coupled with our hearty all-volunteer team enabled us to recover the original lighthouse lantern glass.

Decades ago, when the lighthouse was being renovated, the Coast Guard thoughtfully stored the historic glass away in the oil house.

But to safely recover the heavy plate glass, we needed to build a 100 foot heavy-duty zip line over the treacherous rocks.

Fingers crossed as the first load is away!

We even recovered the rest of the original oak and brass casement windows from the tower.

Big shout out to Jack, Diana, Wes and Lonnie.

zip line from oil house to lighthouse

Moving the priceless original glass was a complete success. Decades ago, the Coast Guard had carefully stored the glass for safekeeping in the oil house.


Our volunteer crew takes a well deserved rest on the ledge, and does a little exploring as the tide starts to rise.

The plate glass we recovered were spares to replace the huge, curved panes in the lamp room.

The plate glass we recovered were spares to replace the huge, curved panes in the lamp room.

Share Button

Try a Friday lighthouse cruise with FBHI

Boston LightFor a relaxing and informative look at the lighthouses in our beloved harbor, pack your picnic basket for an expertly narrated Boston Harbor Lighthouse Tour.

“This is the only Lighthouse Tour in Boston in 2014,” says Friends of Boston Harbor Islands (FBHI), which sponsors the lighthouse cruise in cooperation with UMass Boston Marine Operations.

“Cruise through Presidents Roads past Deer Island and Long Island Head Lights, and Nix’s Mate before heading out to Graves Light and returning past Boston Light on Little Brewster Island and Fort Warren on Georges Island,” FBHI says.

“See up close the restoration work being done on Boston Light in preparation for its 300th anniversary in 2016,” according to the FBHI promo.

Lighthouse cruise dates are on Fridays: July 18, August 8 and September 12, boarding the MV Columbia Point at 10:45 a.m. from UMass Boston Harbor Campus, Fox Point Pavilion on Dorchester Bay.

The expertly narrated lighthouse cruise does not land on any of the islands, and provides open top deck seating, indoor air-conditioned cabin seating, on a wheelchair accessible vessel. Click here for more or download a brochure: 2014 Boston Islands tour


Share Button