With its distinctive appearance, the Marblehead Light is part of the Town of Marblehead’s identity.
Located in Chandler Hovey Park, it’s the only lighthouse in New England, and it differs from the traditional brick or stone lighthouse that one might picture.
“It’s an icon!” said Bill Conly, local author of the book “Marblehead Light.”
In his book, Conly sketches out the history of how the 23-foot-3-inch traditional white stone lighthouse — built in 1834 — was replaced by a cast-iron skeleton tower, five times the size, to become one of the town’s most historical symbols.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, light towers became increasingly popular because of their cheaper costs. A traditional lighthouse cost around $45,000 — but the Marblehead light tower came in with the lowest bid of $8,786.
Light towers were mostly popular in the South and along the Gold Coast of Long Island, with the Coney Island Lighthouse in New York the nearest lighthouse to New England.
The new Marblehead light tower was built in 1895 — 100 feet high to the focal plane, standing 134.6 feet above mean high water. Its height offered a clear view of the tower, uninterrupted by hills and trees.
The new iron pyramid skeleton and the light-centered cylinder (which are the main features that distinguish a light tower from a lighthouse) were manufactured in Richmond, Virginia, and shipped to Marblehead via train to be assembled at the same location as the old brick tower — the tip of Marblehead Neck.
The open work structure, built much more quickly than a lighthouse, consists of eight vertical supports that rest at ground level on eight concrete foundation platforms set in a square, with alternating horizontal iron beams to stabilize the piling. Towards the top, the vertical supports lean inwards to create the pyramid structure.
“The effect was a tall, spidery tower through which wind and water could freely blow without the resistance of hard-surface stone or brick,” Bill Conly wrote in his book.
Inside the center iron cylinder, spiral stairways lead the way up 127 steps to the balcony level. The last 20 steps are half steps rather than full steps.
At the balcony level, a small interior and exterior ladder leads toward the polygonal-shaped lens room, which includes a roof and ventilation shaft standing 134.6 feet above mean high water — the highest point of the Marblehead Light.
On August 1, 1992, the Light underwent a major fuel change from oil to electricity. The new 150-watt electric light bulb, replacing the previous oil-burning lamp, allowed the Light to keep the traditional bright glow of a lightship, lighting 10 miles out to sea.
Today, there is a small 250-watt bulb in the light, with four other bulbs held in reserve, if one fails.
Since the Marblehead Light was lit on April 17, 1896, its color has changed —to a ruby color in 1922 and later to a steady green in the 1930s.
During World War II, the light was extinguished starting in 1941, but gained its steady green color back in 1946.
According to locals, the color of the Marblehead Light has to do with the long-used expression “red right returning,” a reminder to seafarers that the red buoys are kept to the right side when approaching the port.
In his book, Conly writes that “any boat returning to Marblehead Harbor should have a green signal light on the left, or port, side. If the mariner’s rule of ‘red right returning’ held, then a green light in a lighthouse on the port side would indeed have made sense.”
The iconic tower was sandblasted in 1992 and repainted its original metallic brown, with specific instructions for a red lead ground base coat in linseed oil, two coats of “Prince’s Metallic Brown” paint ground in linseed oil, and two coats of black for the gallery railing, the parapet and the lantern. The interior was repainted with three coats of white lead paint, with black stairs.
For 128 years, Marblehead’s Light has served as a part of the town’s identity. It’s a historic icon for Marbleheaders and tourists alike, who visit the site year after year. Even businesses — including candle companies and jewelry brands — have adopted the Light as part of their branding, using its image in their logos.
To learn more about the Marblehead Light or purchase Bill Conly’s book “Marblehead Light,” please visit www.marbleheadhistory.org.
All proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to the Town of Marblehead Historical Commission.