Lightship service in the United Sates spans a period of 165 years from 1820-1985. These floating lighthouses marked shifting shoals and sandbars, harbor entrances, river mouths or any other hazardous location on the water where the building of a stationary lighthouse was an impossibility.
179 lightships were built between 1820 and 1952. In the early years the ships were made of wood, powered only by sail and fitted with oil lanterns, as technology advanced, ships were eventually constructed of steel, powered by steam and diesel engines. In 1915, the peak of lightship operations, there were 54 stations in the United Sates; 36 on the east coast, 2 in the Gulf, 5 on the west coast and 11 in the Great lakes.
Some of the largest concentrations of lightship anchorages on the East Coast were in the highly trafficked and heavily shoaled waters of Nantucket Sound, but it goes without saying that by far the most isolated, most exposed and most extreme post in the entire lighthouse service was the lone Nantucket South Shoal Lightship, standing a year round vigil some 25 miles out to sea, south of Nantucket at the tip of the dreaded South Shoals. There have been numerous lightships that served this post from 1854-1983, with many a tale to tell, but in this episode, I focus on the particularly fascinating history of the first two lightships that made station on Nantucket’s South Shoals.
Boucher, Mike: "Lightships in America," United States Lighthouse Society;
Kobbe, Gustav: "Life on the South Shoal Lightship," Century Magazine; August, 1891
Leach, Thomas: "Lightships of Nantucket Sound," January, 2006
Stackpole, Edouard: "Life Saving Nantucket," Stern-Majestic Press; 1972.
Music and Narration: Performed, Produced and Edited by Evan Schwanfelder.
Special Thanks to Katie Schwanfelder for all your help and for joining the discussion
*Musical Note: Main Story Theme, instrumental cover; "Boots of Spanish Leather" by Bob Dylan