Boston Light still shines bright after three centuries

Lighthouses are a strong part of American history. They’ve not only lighted the path for ships and boats but also guided the way for the country’s founding.

In light of its 300th birthday Wednesday, CBS News’ Mark Albert went ashore to the Boston Light -- America’s first lighthouse that is now a national historic landmark.

Jetting off into Boston Harbor aboard a Coast Guard boat, Albert followed the currents of history, navigating to a beacon older than the republic.

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Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island

CBS News

After docking on Little Brewster Island, Albert was greeted by a woman dressed like it’s 1783. She’s Sally Snowman, the last Coast Guard lighthouse keeper in America.

“What’s it like living on an island with a lighthouse?” Albert asked.

“It’s a dream come true,” Snowman said.

Boston Light has been both a dream and a vision for countless mariners through three centuries. And Snowman’s job is to safeguard it for another 300. She makes rounds twice a day. She guided CBS News along on a cloudy Thursday in July, starting at the lighthouse’s imposing granite base that’s seven-and-a-half-feet thick.

Built in 1716, 60 years before the American Revolution, the Boston lighthouse has weathered countless storms – some man-made. The American rebels set it on fire twice to stop it from guiding occupying British forces. George Washington himself gave the order the second time. Then, the Redcoats blew up the lighthouse, in their retreat from Boston in 1776.

The victorious Americans finally rebuilt it in 1783. It’s been raised in stages through the centuries, now towering over Boston Harbor at 89 feet tall – almost nine stories.

“Seventy-six spiral stairs and two ladders,” Snowman said.

As the conical walls narrowed, Albert reached the first ladder, into the gear room.

“This is what makes the light turn?” Albert asked.

“Exactly. It rotates 4,000 pounds of glass and brass. When we look up inside, we see a short, little bulb or lamp. That’s 1,000 watts,” Snowman said. “It’s tiny, and it gets magnified to two million candle power by all the glass.”

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Boston Light’s crystal orb -- 336 prisms in a 13-foot-tall Fresnel lens -- that provides the light

CBS News

Another ladder took Albert to the crystal orb that’s saved countless lives – 336 prisms in a 13-foot-tall Fresnel lens. Unusual for a lighthouse, it rotates counterclockwise. The light cuts through darkness every 10 seconds and is visible at least 27 nautical miles away.

“The light gets reflected and refracted and into a narrow beam into the bull’s eyes, and that’s what we see flashing,” Snowman said.

“Wow, this is breathtaking. Oh my gosh, and there’s Downtown Boston,” Albert said.

“Absolutely. And imagine on the Fourth of July, fireworks everywhere - up and down the north shore, the south shore. Panoramic views,” Snowman said.”

“You have the best view in Boston,” Albert said. 

“Absolutely,” Snowman said. 

Snowman has been keeper for 13 years and oversees a team of 90 volunteers. She took CBS News to her favorite spot on the island – a windy perch few get to experience.

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Snowman’s favorite spot in Little Brewster Island

CBS News

“When you sit up here, do you think of your predecessors hundreds of years ago sitting and taking in this view?” Albert asked.

“Absolutely,” Snowman said. “I mean I’ve been out here at 3 o’clock in the morning and it’s just been awesome. Even when it’s foggy, it feels like you’re cloaked, that nothing can happen to you, that you’re safe.”

The lighthouse is one of 371 operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Claudia Gelzer is the captain of the port in Boston.

“Why in the world does a 21st century Coast Guard need a three-century-old lighthouse?” Albert asked.

“She has been serving, really the same purpose for 300 years in keeping mariners out of trouble out of shore waters and guiding them safely in the Boston Harbor,” Gelzer said.

“Mariners wanted to go to ports that had lighthouses because it was safer for them to navigate in and out,” said Eric Jay Dolin, author of the recent book, “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse.”

Dolin said Boston Light allowed its young city to thrive and expand, and lighthouses all along the East Coast reeled in commerce for a newborn nation.

“We would not be the country we are today without the service that lighthouses and their dependable keepers have provided,” Dolin said.

“In your book, you call them beacons and sentinels?” Albert asked.

“Yeah, these towering symbols of welcome and safety,” Dolin answered.

But in an age of GPS, radar and sonar, many wonder if these symbols of another era should drift into history.

“Why not just tear down some of these lighthouses?” Albert asked.

“Some lighthouses have been torn down,” Dolin said. “But many lighthouses are so integrally entwined with the history and the identity of the communities where they’re located that if you tried to tear down a lighthouse, you’re going to have a political uprising.”

Just ask Congress. While the Coast Guard has automated all of its lighthouses, lawmakers decreed in 1989 that Boston Lighthouse – the nation’s first – be “forever manned” as a tribute.

That’s why Sally Snowman is the latest in a long line of keepers to live on Little Brewster Island, kept company by her husband, Jay.

Snowman is the 70th keeper of the lighthouse in 300 years, and the first woman keeper at Boston Lighthouse.

“Still making history after three centuries?” Albert asked.

“Absolutely. And we’re going to keep on making it,” Snowman said.

Inside her front door is a sign that reads: “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

At Boston Light, that isn’t just a saying – it’s an unblinking promise kept for centuries.

To celebrate the tricentennial, there will be a ceremony on the island on the lighthouse’s official birthday on Wednesday, Sept. 14. Tours are available weekly through the National Park Service.