They've basked in the luxury of beachside summers and they've bristled against the most ruthless island winters. Nantucket has three lighthouses, each with its own distinctive look, personality and history.
Brant Point Lighthouse
The ever-shifting battalion of sandbars, or shoals, lurking beneath the waters that surround Nantucket have caused between 700 and 800 shipwrecks in recorded history. All three of Nantucket's lighthouses were originally built as navigational tools, but today, modern technology has rendered the island's most iconic lighthouse useful only for our viewing pleasure.
For those who arrive on Nantucket via ferry, the lighthouse on Brant Point (officially named Brant Point Light) is the little wooden welcome that ushers folks to the island. First erected in 1746, the Brant Point Light is America's second oldest lighthouse. (Some rumors claim a bonfire existed there as early as 1700.) The Brant Point Light is only 26 feet tall, making it the shortest lighthouse in all of New England! Small but mighty, its red light flashes every four seconds, and is visible ten miles out.
In 1987, Brant Point Light became a part of The National Register of Historic Places, placing itself in good company with Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave, the Wright Flyer III (the third plane of the Wright brothers), and thousands of other sites of significance. But life hasn't always been rosy for this brave little beacon; the current structure is actually the 10th one that has sat at the location. As one might imagine, some were torn down by ferocious Nor'easters. Others were simply built cheaply. Two of them actually burned down; and still others rotted and were condemned. The existing structure has lasted for over 110 years and is emblematic above all; visitors toss a penny into the sea as they round the point leaving the harbor to ensure that they return someday to the Grey Lady's welcoming arms.
Sankaty Head Lighthouse
The name of this lighthouse is derived from the language of the Native Americans who lived on Nantucket, the Wampanoags. Their word "sankoty" means highland, and even erosion hasn't changed the appropriateness of that name. The brick-and-granite structure sits 70 feet tall on the bluff at the end of what is now Baxter Road in Siasconset, flashing its white light every 7.5 seconds.
The stalwart lighthouse was built in 1850, and has not been replaced. Upon a 1990 inspection of the structure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrongly predicted that it would fall off a nearby sea cliff within 10 years. Nonetheless, in 2007 the lighthouse was very meticulously moved 400 feet back from the cliff's edge. In 1987, it was tucked in right next to its counterpart in The National Register of Historic Places, even though it still functions as a navigational device. The tower itself is not open to the public, but you are free to roam the grounds at any time throughout the year.
The location offers a breathtaking view of the island's moors and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Standing here, you are reminded that we on Nantucket are still part of the rest of the world. We're just beautifully removed.
Great Point Lighthouse
At the northernmost point of the island out past Wauwinet, within the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Reserve, you'll find the most powerful light in New England! Officially named the Nantucket Light, it was first erected in 1784 as a wooden tower. A fire destroyed the little wooden lighthouse in 1816, and so a second tower – this time made of stone – was built in 1818. The stone tower fell over in 1984, but the third time was the charm. The existing lighthouse, a 60-foot replica of the original 1816 tower, was constructed in 1986.
With its extreme location, the light at Great Point still aids mariners' navigation as it flashes every five seconds. Today, this sweet young light may well feel like the black sheep in the Nantucket lighthouse family; it's the only one of the three that is not in The National Register of Historic Places. Its status was rescinded when it was rebuilt for the second time due to a policy. The National Register of Historic Places requires that each entity on its list be at least 50 years old. Despite not having that official significance, it remains one of Nantucket's must-see places.
The grounds can be accessed by foot (if you're feeling up for a seven-mile walk in the sand), or by four-wheel-drive vehicle bearing a beach permit sticker. (Beware that driving in soft sand can be tricky, and your day can turn very un-fun if you don't let the air out of your tires properly.) A hassle-free option is to take an oversand vehicle tour with a knowledgeable guide from The Trustees of Reservations.