Longtime readers of Twelve Mile Circle already know that I have a thing for lighthouses amongst numerous other counting-related quirks. I might have gone overboard on the recent trip to Cape Cod, however. That wasn’t my intent. It seemed as if lighthouses appeared every time I turned around, and the next thing I knew I’d photographed fourteen of them. In my defense it was a particularly lovely stretch of coastline, combining rocky shores, towering bluffs and lots of little towns that grew lighthouses in abundance. Lighthouses don’t appeal to everyone so readers should feel free to skip to the next article or simply scan through the pretty pictures and ignore the text if so inclined. I won’t take it personally.
Boston Light & Graves Light Station
I blamed it on my visit to Fort Revere Park in Hull where I noticed this wonderful alignment of the Boston Light (map) and the Graves Light Station (map) at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Boston was blessed with a wonderful natural harbor although it came at a price, an unfortunate array of dangerous navigational obstacles including islets, shoals and ledges. Even the most skilled navigators needed additional assistance to avoid shipwrecking disasters.
The Boston Light — in the foreground — was one of the earliest such structures built in the United States, first lit in 1783. It was also the last one automated, 1998, and actively staffed by US Coast Guard personnel. The website Lighthouse Friends described the Boston Light as the "ideal American Lighthouse" for its wonderful placement and appearance. The Graves Light Station on the Graves Shelf — in the background — was an added bonus from this particular vantage.
Duxbury Pier Lighthouse
I severely tested the telephoto capabilities on my camera with the Duxbury Pier Lighthouse in Plymouth Harbor (map). The lighthouse was so far away that the image seemed to resemble an Impressionist painting more than a photograph. I couldn’t imagine anyone living on the Duxbury light back when people used to do that, confined solely to a small room with a circular balcony around its perimeter. Nonetheless, someone needed to staff that light to protect mariners from the deadly shoal at Saquish Head. It must have required a special kind of character to willingly endure that level of confinement and isolation.
The local name for this lighthouse was the "Bug Light" although it didn’t appear to resemble a bug to me. It was also the first light built in a style that came to be known as the sparkplug design, a resemblance that seemed more appropriate.
I found myself with an entire day to explore Cape Cod National Seashore as I drove up to Provincetown. The Nauset Light stood above one of the most popular beaches within the seashore so I wondered if it might be crowded. I arrived at the lighthouse (map) at a huge parking lot with an unmanned toll gate, completely vacated, the reward once again for traveling slightly off-season.
This wasn’t the original location. The cliff below Nauset Light continued to erode until it imperiled its foundation. The Coast Guard didn’t plan to preserve it because Nauset Light wasn’t needed anymore. Local residents rallied and funded its relocation farther inland in 1996. That was a much better solution.
Three Sisters Lighthouses
The Three Sisters Lighthouses (map) were said to resemble three women in white dresses and black bonnets, and stood maybe another quarter-mile farther inland from Nauset Light so visiting was easy. The Three Sisters were older structures, having been replaced by Nauset in the 1920’s. They had also been moved farther away from the cliff as it eroded. A marker (photo) explained their history and the reason for such an unusual number of structures on a single spot.
These lights, which replaced brick towers, were part of a network along the treacherous and busy Cape Cod. Ships approaching the southern Cape saw the stationary beams of the twin Chatham Lighthouses. The Three Sisters’ triple light configuration told sailors that they had reached the Cape’s mid-point. Sailors knew they were nearing the Cape’s tip when they saw the single flashing beam of the Highland Light.
Eventually lighthouses were given distinctive flashing patterns so multiple towers were no longer necessary.
My timing guaranteed smaller crowds although there was a downside to that strategy. The Highland Lighthouse wouldn’t open for another week. I could still enjoy the grounds that surrounded it though (map). This was the tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod (66 feet / 20 metres) and continued to serve as an active navigational aid. Like some of the others, it had been moved away from a crumbling cliff in the 1990’s. Apparently one shouldn’t build too close to the eastern shore of Cape Cod.
Highland Lighthouse had one additional historical footnote: Henry David Thoreau, famed as the author of Walden, used to enjoy visiting here in the 1850’s and even wrote an article about his experiences.
Over this bare highland the wind has full sweep. Even in July it blows the wings over the heads of the young turkeys, which do not know enough to head against it; and in gales the doors and windows are blown in, and you must hold on to the light-house to prevent being blown into the Atlantic. They who merely keep out on the beach in a storm in the winter are sometimes rewarded by the Humane Society. If you would feel the full force of a tempest, take up your residence on the top of Mount Washington, or at the Highland Light in Truro.
Wood End Lighthouse
The Wood End Light (map) was the only site that involved any meaningful effort during my journey. I’d spied it from the top of the Pilgrim Monument the previous day. It looked like it might be feasible so I went for a walk early the next morning to see if I could reach it. I stepped carefully across the harbor breakwater, then onto the sand of Provincetown Spit and along a rugged path to the lighthouse itself. I never saw another person. I stopped for a few moments, took photos and walked back. The stroll lasted about an hour each way.
Wood End marked the southernmost point on the Cape Cod hook for approaching mariners. I didn’t make it to the very farthest eastern tip though, a place called Long Point that also featured a lighthouse. That was simply too far for this particular trip. Maybe next time.
Brant Point Light
We left Cape Cod and then headed offshore, first to the island of Nantucket. It was cold and foggy. We’d spent the afternoon at Cisco Brewers a few miles outside of town, bicycling there for an afternoon of live music and beer sampling, then loaded a growler onto a bike for our ride back to town. Somehow we thought it might be a good idea to wander out to Brant Point Lighthouse (map) later that evening. There might have been some alcohol involved. It wasn’t a particularly daunting walk, certainly much easier than my earlier trip to Wood End, just that wiser minds may have remained indoors near a fireplace or something on such a dreary evening.
Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse
I didn’t have much to add about the lighthouse at Hyannis Harbor (map). Apparently it was built around 1849 and it’s privately owned. We passed the light four separate times on ferry rides to and from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard so I felt an obligation to take a photo.
I really went lighthouse crazy on Martha’s Vineyard. Sites were too far apart for bicycling so we rented a car for the day.
Three of the lights were stewarded by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum including the Edgartown Lighthouse (map). It was right on the edge of Edgartown, thus the name. The museum decorated the lighthouse for special occasions. Ribbons around lantern room during our trip marked Pink and Green weekend; a "celebration of Spring and Mother’s Day"
Gay Head Light
I will attempt to be the first site on the Intertubes to refrain from make a joke at the expense of Gay Head Light in Aquinnah (map). The weather had been wonderful all day except for this far western corner of Martha’s Vineyard. I could barely see the lighthouse. In fact I had to move much closer than I expected simply to take a photo. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any closer because Gay Head Light was in the process of being moved. Sound familiar? Here, just like many of the sites on Cape Cod, eroding cliffs threatened the very existence of an historic structure.
West Chop Light
Other lighthouses stood on Martha Vineyard’s northern shores near Vineyard Haven. The West Chop Light (map) was an active navigational aid. It also included a lighthouse keeper’s quarters that continued to serve as a home for people posted at the Menemsha Coast Guard Station located elsewhere on the island. Access was pretty limited for that reason.
Compare this to the image of Gay Head Light and notice the weather conditions. That was the stark difference between separate parts of the island on the same afternoon.
East Chop Light
However if there was a West Chop Light it made sense that there would also be an East Chop Light (map). That one was located within a small park overlooking the ocean. The lighthouse itself was closed at the time although we could relax on the benches along the bluff and enjoy the view.
Newport Harbor Light
Finally — and I am as relieved as the audience to get to the last one — I spotted a lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island completely unexpectedly. This was the Newport Harbor Light, also sometimes called the Goat Island Light (map). It was built in 1842 and automated in 1963. I didn’t check on it much beyond noting how nice it looked sitting in the harbor.
I still hate airlines. I don’t fear flying, I simply want to withhold as much of my money as I can from those greedy [censored] until the tight squeeze of market forces compel them to start treating their passengers with a little respect. I’m pretty much at the point where I’ll drive to any destination of a thousand miles or so instead of fly. That sentiment led to another grandiose road trip over the winter holidays. Of course, the handful of readers who follow the 12MC Twitter feed already figured that out. That’s an incentive for the rest of you to subscribe to my Twitter page I guess, or maybe it’s a disincentive. I don’t know.
We took a rather unusual route to the Mississippi Gulf Coast this time, via St. Augustine, Florida. I know many readers would think of that as a crazy detour. I rationalized it a couple of different ways. First, there wasn’t a completely straight route between the Mid Atlantic and the Mississippi Gulf so the detour didn’t make all that much difference in the larger trip. Was it the most direct route? No, of course not. It wasn’t totally insane either.
Second, there were lots of cool things to see and do in St. Augustine and I knew the boys would love it. My wife actually nailed it on the head, though. "Is this a county counting thing?" she asked. Well, ahem, yes that might have had something to do with it. She was fine with the idea once I confessed the ulterior motive. We’ve been married long enough by now that she accepts my weird hobby even if she doesn’t completely understand it.
We left on Christmas day to avoid the worst of the soul-sucking horror of Interstate 95 traffic and stopped overnight somewhere in North Carolina. That evening, with few restaurant options, I chose shrimp and grits for my Christmas Dinner. That’s a thing, right? The traditional shrimp and grits Christmas Dinner? I enjoyed it anyway, and it reminded me that we were in the South. I washed it down with a Sweet Tea since we were way below the Sweet Tea Line by that point. The next day we continued to Florida and all went smoothly except for some bad traffic for the final forty-five miles of South Carolina. We made it safely to St. Augustine (map) by late afternoon.
We stopped first at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (map).
Americans often think of Plymouth, Massachusetts (established 1620) or Jamestown, Virginia (established 1607 – and visited by 12MC) as the "oldest" successful European settlements in the continental United States. That’s because people of English descent wrote many of the history books. As a point of fact, that honor should go to St. Augustine instead which was founded by Spanish settlers in 1565.
St. Augustine didn’t incorporate a magnificent fort from its inception. Rival European nations and their privateers conducted raids up and down the Atlantic coast. St. Augustine was sacked a couple of times by the English and threatened by the French. Spain finally had enough after the 1668 attack by Jamaican privateer Robert Searle. Construction of Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672, a full century after the original settlement of the city.
The National Park Service discussed the architecture and construction of this oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., and its only surviving specimen from the Seventeenth Century:
… It is a prime example of the "bastion system" of fortification, the culmination of hundreds of years of military defense engineering. It is also unique for the material used in its construction. The Castillo is one of only two fortifications in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina… A cannon ball fired at more solid material, such as granite or brick would shatter the wall into flying shards, but cannon balls fired at the walls of the Castillo burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there, much like a bb would if fired into Styrofoam. So the thick coquina walls absorbed or deflected projectiles rather than yielding to them, providing a surprisingly long-lived fortress.
Castillo de San Marcos was constructed in a star shape with four bastions. This allowed defenders to create deadly crossfire for anyone hoping to to attack. The fort never fell during battle, however it changed hands a number of times because of political changes.
Florida became a British territory in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years’ War.
Florida returned to Spanish control in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War (Spain had been a supporter of American independence and this was its reward).
Florida became part of the United States through the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1821.
Florida seceded from the U.S and joined the Confederate States of America in 1861.
Union troops seized the undefended fort in 1862 and held it for the remainder of the war and ever since.
During all that time and up until 1933, it remained a military garrison. Only then did the property convey to the U.S. National Park Service.
Our other primary stop that day was the Saint Augustine Lighthouse (map).
Everyone else, it seemed, had a similar idea. The weather was absolutely perfect on the Saturday after Christmas. All the sites were mobbed. We drove onto Anastasia Island and noticed a line of traffic stretching at least a half-mile in the opposite direction, backed up by a traffic light at the end of the bridge in St. Augustine proper. Getting onto the island was easy. Getting back would be a problem. We couldn’t do anything about it so we headed towards the lighthouse anyway. We feared the worst when we were forced to park down the street because the parking lot was completely full. Tons of people mingled around the lighthouse base although few of them ventured to the top. I suppose the 219 steps in the spiral staircase separated the tourists from the lighthouse nerds. From there, 165 feet (50 metres) above the fray, we spotted another bridge several miles away. We enjoyed a panoramic lighthouse view of the Florida coast and discovered a way to avoid the dreaded stoplight. Pro Tip: maybe skip the extra helping of mashed potatoes on Christmas so one can climb to the top of the tower and find the secret escape route.
A lighthouse stood at this spot even during the Spanish period. It was an important structure marking the inlet between two barrier island, Anastasia and Conch, so that ships could enter the Matanzas River and approach St. Augustine safely. This version was constructed in 1874 and continues to remain an active navigational aid. According to Lighthouse Friends, the tower was built using brick from Alabama, granite from Georgia, iron work forged in Philadelphia, and a first-order Fresnel lens crafted in France."
We also visited a couple of brewpubs including A1A Ale Works in downtown St. Augustine (map).
Imagine that. Somehow we ended-up at a fort, a lighthouse, and a brewpub — all things that I "collect" and count. It sounded pretty self-indulgent although we also did plenty of things enjoyed by the other members of the family too. I’ll talk about some of those in the second part.
The dirty little secret of the geo-oddities blogger community is that there’s only so much geographic weirdness to go around. We all tend to overlap with our material from time-to-time, and that’s fine. We each apply our own spin on a common set facts to come up with things original and creative.
I’d been trying to think of somewhere to take the kids during their brief Autumn break from school. Right around that same time "Weekend Roady" posted his Extending the Summer in Chincoteague article so I stole his idea. Blatantly. A tip of the hat goes to Weekend Roady for inspiring the 12MC family to spend four wonderful days on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The Eastern shore is the commonwealth’s own little exclave consisting of two counties separated geographically from the remainder of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. A 17-mile Bridge Tunnel does connect the tip of the peninsula to the rest of Virginia although that didn’t happen until 1964. This might lead someone to question whether the Eastern Shore is truly an exclave or not. That would also ignore more than three hundred years of prior history extending back to the colonial era when settlers of European descent first arrived here.
The bridge does create an interesting situation if I may go down a tangent for just a moment. It makes it possible for someone to drive 600 miles (965 km) over 11 hours using an efficient route without ever leaving Virginia (map). One will experience the opposite phenomenon in my circumstances. I began our journey in Virginia, left the state within a few minutes, and experienced the odd sensation of re-entering Virginia three hours later (map). Thus, the physical territory of the commonwealth involved but a tiny portion of my road trip on either end. Both situations arise from Virginia’s unusual triangular shape.
Anyway, let’s get back to Chincoteague and Assateague, and untangle their names since designations can become confusing. They are both part of a chain of sandy barrier islands separating the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Assateague is on the ocean side, is long and skinny, and extends another 30-miles-or-so northwards towards Ocean City, Maryland. The large preponderance of Assateague Island is protected parkland (e.g., the National Park Service’s Assateague Island National Seashore). Chincoteague sits immediately west of Assateague’s southern tip, protected from the ocean by Assateague. It rests comfortably within Chincoteague Bay.
The usage sews confusion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains its Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island directly across a short causeway from Chincoteague Island and the town of Chincoteague. Got all that? Assateague is an island. Chincoteague is an island, a town, a bay and a wildlife refuge.
Likely, fewer people would travel to this beautifully remote spot if it weren’t for the wild ponies made famous in the 1947 bookMisty of Chincoteague and 1961 movieMisty. Nothing has done more to transform Chincoteague from a fishing village focused on the bounty of the sea into a tourist destination harvesting travelers more than the renowned Misty mystique.
Even so it still manages to hold onto a small-town feel unlike its Maryland and Delaware counterparts further up the Atlantic coast. This can probably be attributed to geographic isolation and government ownership of its beach. Nobody will ever be allowed to build ocean-front hotels, rickety boardwalks or tacky t-shirt emporiums along the ocean waterfront here.
Ponies have occupied Assateague Island since the colonial era although nobody really knows exactly how or when they arrived. I’m a believer in simple solutions. It makes sense to me that people would have plenty of incentive to stash or hide their livestock on a barrier island to avoid paying taxes. The tax evasion explanation seems more plausible to me than the alternate theory of Spanish galleons laden with ponies shipwrecking off-shore. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.
Also "wild" ponies seem a bit of an exaggeration unless one defines wild to mean "mellow ponies without saddles." Take the Assateague ponies five miles inland, drop them in a large field and nobody would bother to give them a passing glance. Stick the very same ponies on an island, combine them with romantic tales of Spanish shipwrecks and an iconic children’s book, and watch tourists gawk. I’m not mocking the phenomenon — I was right there with them pointing my camera as one can see plainly from the short video above — just amused by the situational difference. I’m glad the town earns a living from it and the local volunteer fire department uses the annual roundup as a fundraising activity. I’m not sure Chincoteague necessarily needed to taxidermy poor Misty and put her body on display after she passed away, although who am I to judge? People want to see Misty, dead or alive I suppose.
Pony-watching kept the kids happy. I rather enjoyed the lighthouse (yes, I have a lighthouse thing along with my various other fixations). The Assateague Light is easily accessible, open to the public, and continues to serve as a functioning navigational aid. This one is 142 feet tall (43 m) and sits on a naturally-elevated part of Assateague Island to extend its focal plain. The tower could use a new paint job although it seemed to be in pretty good shape structurally. We could see the tower all over Assateague Island as we biked along miles of flat, paved pathways.
Assateague, since I’m on the topic now, was the name of a Native American tribe who lived along the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula. They were Algonquians as were many of the people who greeted European explorers and colonists as they arrived on the Mid-Atlantic. I don’t know where Chincoteague came from although I’ll guess it derived from something Algonquian given the common suffix.
The beach on Assateague Island is another good reason to come to Chincoteague. Government ownership allows the island to exist naturally so it shrinks and grows and wanders as barrier islands are likely to do when not disturbed by human intervention. This can lead to controversy. Chincoteague first earned a mention on Twelve Mile Circle last year when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed moving the Assateague Island beach and busing people to it. I don’t know what happened to that idea or whether it’s still being considered or not. I can confirm that we were able to drive through the wildlife reserve and park directly on the beach as of October 2012. I might have to side with the Chincoteague residents on this issue. Taking a bus to the beach would be a hassle.
October air temperatures were fine for lounging next to the ocean. The water itself was a bit nippy although the kids splashed around a bit. Generally the sky wasn’t as angry as this photo implied either; I took this photo for dramatic effect and the clouds quickly parted.
I love traveling during the off-season. We rented a two-bedroom cottage and saved literally hundreds of dollars from what one would pay for an ordinary hotel room during the summer. Mid-October is considered "winter" at the beach, yet this is often the best weather in Virginia: warm, not oppressively hot, and plenty of sun. Another off-season joy we discovered on Chincoteague was the ability to call about pontoon cruises around the island without advance notice. We were on the water later that same day. A two-hour tour on a party boat offers a completely different perspective unavailable to those who remain on dry land.
I’d be a liar if I claimed we had perfect weather the entire time. We did experience one gray, rainy morning. This was the only time we left the islands. We stopped at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility visitor center about ten minutes west of Chincoteague. NASA launches sounding rockets and high altitude balloons from Wallops, one of the oldest and most active rocket facilities in the world. The center kept our attention long enough for the rain to clear.