• Thoreau’s Cape Cod

    Posted on February 1, 2012 by in Uncategorized

    Anyone who truly enjoys reading of the life of a lighthouse keeper, or of the charm of Cape Cod, should surely read Henry David Thoreau’s account of his visit with the keeper of Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse, and his walk from Eastham to Provincetown in 1849 and again in 1855. In this renown work, Thoreau records his adventures and sights as he trekked the outer beaches, and the humor of the “local, self-reliant folk”.

    Thoreau first published his account of his visit with the light keeper (possibly Keeper James Small (1843-1849 and 1853-1856), in The Atlantic Monthly as “The Highland Light” [Vol. XIV. December 1864, pp. 649-659]. Later, in 1865, he published the complete account of his Cape Cod treks under the title “Cape Cod” In it, Chapter VII included his account of his stay at Highland Lighthouse.

    I have reproduced here a small portion of his account for your enjoyment, I hope:

    “….To-day the air was beautifully clear, and the sea no longer dark and stormy, though the waves still broke with foam along the beach, but sparkling and full of life…. The sun rose visibly at such a distance over the sea that the cloud-bank in the horizon, which at first concealed him, was not perceptible until he had risen high behind it, and plainly broke and dispersed it, like an arrow. But as yet I looked at him as rising over land, and could not, without an effort, realize that he was rising over the sea. Already I saw some vessels on the horizon, which had rounded the Cape in the night, and were now well on their watery way to other lands…. We struck the beach again in the south part of Truro. In the early part of the day, while it was flood tide and the beach was narrow and soft, we walked on the bank, which was very high here, but not so level as the day before, being more interrupted by slight hollows…. Thus we kept on along the gently curving shore, seeing two or three miles ahead at once…. We saw this forenoon a part of the wreck of a vessel, probably the Franklin, a large piece fifteen feet square, and still freshly painted. With a grapple and a line we could have saved it, for the waves repeatedly washed it within cast, but they as often took it back…. This light-house, known to mariners as the Cape Cod or Highland Light, is one of our “primary sea-coast lights,” and is usually the first seen by those approaching the entrance of Massachusetts Bay from Europe. It is forty-three miles from Cape Ann Light, and forty-one from Boston Light. It stands about twenty rods from the edge of the bank, which is here formed of clay.… It rises one hundred and ten feet above its immediate base, or about one hundred and twenty-three feet above mean low water…. Even this vast clay bank is fast wearing away. Small streams of water trickling down it at intervals of two or three rods, have left the intermediate clay in the form of steep Gothic roofs fifty feet high or more….

    The Highland Light-house, where we were staying, is a substantial-looking building of brick, painted white, and surmounted by an iron cap. Attached to it is the dwelling of the keeper, one story high, also of brick, and built by government. As we were going to spend the night in a light-house, we wished to make the most of so novel an experience, and therefore told our host that we would like to accompany him when he went to light up. At rather early candle-light he lighted a small Japan lamp, allowing it to smoke rather more than we like on ordinary occasions, and told us to follow him. He led the way first through his bedroom, which was placed nearest to the light-house, and then through a long, narrow, covered passage-way, between whitewashed walls like a prison entry, into the lower part of the light-house, where many great butts of oil were arranged around; thence we ascended by a winding and open iron stairway, with a steadily increasing scent of oil and lamp-smoke, to a trap-door in an iron floor, and through this into the lantern. It was a neat building, with everything in apple-pie order, and no danger of anything rusting there for want of oil. The light consisted of fifteen Argand lamps, placed within smooth concave reflectors twenty-one inches in diameter, and arranged in two horizontal circles one above the other, facing every way excepting directly down the Cape. These were surrounded, at a distance of two or three feet, by large plate-glass windows, which defied the storms, with iron sashes, on which rested the iron cap. All the iron work, except the floor, was painted white. And thus the light-house was completed. We walked slowly round in that narrow space as the keeper lighted each lamp in succession, conversing with him at the same moment that many a sailor on the deep witnessed the lighting of the Highland Light. His duty was to fill and trim and light his lamps, and keep bright the reflectors. He filled them every morning, and trimmed them commonly once in the course of the night. He complained of the quality of the oil which was furnished. This house consumes about eight hundred gallons in a year, which cost not far from one dollar a gallon; but perhaps a few lives would be saved if better oil were provided. Another light-house keeper said that the same proportion of winter-strained oil was sent to the southernmost light-house in the Union as to the most northern. Formerly, when this light-house had windows with small and thin panes, a severe storm would sometimes break the glass, and then they were obliged to put up a wooden shutter in haste to save their lights and reflectors, and sometimes in tempests, when the mariner stood most in need of their guidance, they had thus nearly converted the light-house into a dark lantern, which emitted only a few feeble rays, and those commonly on the land or lee side. He spoke of the anxiety and sense of responsibility which he felt in cold and stormy nights in the winter; when he knew that many a poor fellow was depending on him, and his lamps burned dimly, the oil being chilled. Sometimes he was obliged to warm the oil in a kettle in his house at midnight, and fill his lamps over again, for he could not have a fire in the light-house, it produced such a sweat on the windows. His successor told me that he could not keep too hot a fire in such a case. All this because the oil was poor. The government lighting the mariners on its wintry coast with summer-strained oil, to save expense! That were surely a summer-strained mercy….“

    I hope that this brief introduction to his work may encourage you to find a copy of Thoreau’s “Cape Cod” and to read further. This is a truly important account, and a must if you are interested in the shipwrecks, lighthouses, life-saving and life as it existed for residents of outer Cape Cod in the mid-1800’s. We have this and other of Thoreau’s works available on our Cape Cod web page.

    In April of 1946 historian and author Edward Rowe Snow began a similar hike around the “bended arm” of Cape Cod, as Thoreau called it, in an effort to trace, in as many cases as possible, Thoreau’s route and the locations where he stopped. Although others have attempted to duplicate Mr. Thoreau’s trek, I suspect that Mr. Snow is one of the very few who came close to duplicating the difficult walk through the deep sand of the outer beach. For portions of Snow’s account and for hours of wonderful reading, you will want to read one of his earlier books as well: “A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod” [Boston. 1946]. See this and others of Mr. Snow’s works, on our Edward Rowe Snow web page.

    For more too, you may want to read our monthly column entitled Collecting Nautical Antiques in Lighthouse Digest Magazine.

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