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10 March 2011

Events that shaped the Cape’s national park: Relocating lighthouses

Kaimi Rose Lum -

When Cape Cod National Seashore was created in 1961, the federal government didn’t just inherit 44,000 acres of empty land; it took on the challenges that come with running a national park in a dynamic coastal setting home to feisty individualists and tight-knit communities. From lighthouse relocations to controversies over historic preservation, here are some of the events that kept life interesting for the park’s leaders over the last 50 years.

When Thoreau visited Truro’s Highland Light in the 1850s, one of the first things he noticed was how fast the bluff underneath it seemed to be 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 50 feet high or more, the ridges as sharp and rugged-looking as rocks; and in one place the bank is curiously eaten out in the form of a large semicircular crater,” he wrote in “Cape Cod.” The keeper had predicted that “ere-long, the lighthouse must be moved.”

The white brick light tower, the first seen by ships approaching Massachusetts from Europe, stood about 330 feet from the edge of the towering cliff in the mid-1800s. By the early 1990s, that distance had shrunk to just over 100 feet – a worrisome statistic for the Seashore, which acquired Highland Light from the Coast Guard around that time.

Standing 66 feet tall, the oldest and highest lighthouse on Cape Cod and an active aid to navigation, the Truro beacon was an icon. The citizens of the town would not stand by to watch it topple into the Atlantic, nor would the Seashore, which recognized its historic significance.

A campaign to preserve the light began in the mid-1990s, led by Gordon Russell and Bob Firminger of the Truro Historical Society, who raised $150,000. The federal government pitched in $1 million, and the state contributed $500,000. In the summer of 1996, the relocation of the lighthouse began.


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