WIHA Hosts ‘The Lightship Service’ Presentation During Dinner Meeting

Operating a lightship was considered to be the most jeopardous responsibility in the United States Coast Guard. The floating lighthouses were crewed by 10-12 sailors, and anchored some 10 miles offshore to guide other vessels through unwieldy terrain, dense fog, and vicious hurricanes.

“The purpose was to mark dangerous shoals or reefs at important entrances where it was impractical to build a permanent lighthouse structure,” defined Robert M. Mannino, Junior, Founder/President, United States Lightship Museum.

Lightships were stationed throughout the country, predominantly in the northeast; but the most hazardous location was Nantucket Shoals, off the eastern coast of Nantucket Island. Water depth could be as shallow as 3-feet along the 50 miles of sandbars, weather was violent, and there was constant risk of being struck by passing freighters, ocean liners, or tankers.

“Lightship duty was extremely treacherous, especially in the Nantucket Shoals, the most remote station in the world. The lightship there was anchored 100 miles off the coast of the United States,” explained Mannino.

During a March 5 Winthrop Improvement and Historical Association (WIHA) dinner meeting in the Deane Winthrop House barn, Mannino emphasized the vital role of lightships, and the importance of preserving their history with his presentation, “The Lightship Service: 1820-1985.”

Lightship service started in the United States in 1820. Transoceanic commerce increased dramatically by the mid-19th century; and so to prevent shipwrecks, the Nantucket Lightship was established in 1854. It provided navigational aid for famous vessels such as the S.S. United States, the Queen Mary, and the Normandie.

“The Nantucket Lightship station was called the ‘Atlantic Gateway into the United States,” said Mannino. “All shipping — mostly going to and from Europe — was guided by Nantucket Lightship.” 

The vessel itself — which was the initial lightship to be outfitted with a Marconi radio system — was referred to as the “Statue of Liberty of the Sea” because it was the first landmark for immigrants traveling from Europe.

Nantucket Lightship/ LV-112 was built as a steam-powered vessel by the United States Lighthouse Service in 1936, and embarked on its maiden voyage in Boston. In 1960, the 150-feet-long ship was refitted with an eight-cylinder engine.

“A lightship is built like a battleship,” exclaimed Mannino. “The Nantucket has 43 air-tight compartments, is double-hulled, and double-plated. It was made of high-quality, high-grade steel. It’s built to withstand a collision.”

The Nantucket Lightship/ LV-112 was at sea for 39 years, only returning to shore ones or twice a year for service at a facility in Chelsea. Adjacent to the Meridian Street bridge, where the Eastern Minerals salt piles are today, was the Buoy and Lightship Depot, built by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Mannino also discussed the evolution of light beacons. Early lightships were equipped with steel, cast iron baskets with a live flame lit by whale oil. Lightships typically used two beacons at a time; but newer lightships were configured with one beacon, like a conventional lighthouse.

As light beacons modernized, they became more efficient, such as with the addition of mechanical devises to rotate the beacon around a mast. Another generation was gimbaled so the beacons remained level when ships rocked.

The Nantucket Lightship has two-duplex Fresnel lenses on rotating light beacons that have 500,000 candle power, and a flashing pattern designed to be seen from 20 miles at sea.

In 1985, Nantucket Shoals became the final U.S. lightship station to be discontinued. The Nantucket Lightship/ LV-112 was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989. Since its decommission, the lightship has since been utilized as a museum. When it became at risk of being scrapped in 2008, Mannino was determined to save it.

“Knowing how valuable the lightship was historically, we had a surveyor look at it. It was in terrible condition,” Mannino revealed. “The ship was badly scarred. The inside was a mess. It was full of rain water. Nothing worked.”

Mannino founded the United States Lightship Museum as a non-profit organization, and purchased Nantucket Lightship in 2009. When he contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association, former lightship sailors gathered from around the country every weekend in 10° temperatures to prepare the Nantucket Lightship for towing to Boston from Long Island, New York.

“One of our volunteers was a retired ship electrician, and restored most of the equipment. It was a labor of love,” recalled Mannino. “It’s important to save these historic sites because when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”

The United States Lightship Museum has restored 95% of Nantucket Lightship/ LV-112’s exterior. Over eight tons of marine growth were removed from the bottom of the ship, rivets were repaired, and the vessel was sandblasted.

Nearly 70% of renovation efforts have been completed, and the museum is presently focused on refurbishing the electrical infrastructure, plumbing, heating system, ventilation, and engines. Over $2.5 million have been invested in the venture; and another $2 million is projected to complete the renovations. All funding has been provided through donations from individuals, corporations, and grants.

Nantucket Lightship/ LV-112 is now berthed in its home port at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, where it serves as a floating learning center.

“We have a lot of seniors, local school groups, and people from all over the world visit the ship. We have classes here,” Mennino mentioned. “When people visit, they’re able to talk on the phone, steer the wheel, climb the ladders, and do fun things. It’s one of a kind.”

Nantucket Lightship/LV-112 will be open to visitors 10am-4pm, from the last Saturday in April through the last Saturday in October. The cost of admission is an $8 donation, and children under the age of 5 are free. Individual and tour groups can be arranged by appointment throughout the year. For more information visit www.NantucketLightshipLV-112.org  or call (617) 797-0135.

“It’s an important maritime treasure,” said Mannino. “When we bring kids on, we try to inspire and motivate them to become interested in historic preservation. We’re trying to get young people invested as much as possible so they can pick up the reins from where we leave off.”

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