Built between 1903 and 1905, the Massachusetts Graves Lighthouse is among the newest lighthouses in the state. It stands on the ledges named for Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, a London native who arrived in America in 1628 and was one of the early settlers of Charlestown. Congress initially appropriated $75,000 for its construction in 1902 when the Broad Sound Channel opened after the turn of the century. Congress appropriated an additional $113,000 in 1904 to complete the project.
Built around the same time as the Ram Island Ledge Light in Maine, the styles of the two lighthouses are very similar. Royal Luther oversaw the construction, which incorporated granite cut from Cape Ann at Rockport. Construction workers laid the foundation four feet above low tide level. Iron workers in Boston contributed to the project and the first-order Fresnel lens came from Paris.
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Elliot C. Hadley, who was the first keeper, powered up the light, on September 1, 1905. A report by the Lighthouse Establishment noted its importance due to its location and geographic range. Initially measured at 380,000 candlepower, a later upgrade brought it to 3.2 million candlepower making it the most powerful light in New England for many years.
Entry to the tower requires navigating a 30-foot ladder. It consists of five levels with the first reserved for storage and the fifth housing a library. The keepers’ beds occupy the fourth level with the kitchen one level below that. The engine room with the signal equipment takes up the second level.
A lighthouse tender filled the cistern at the bottom two times per year. The keepers received regular food deliveries by boat. They supplemented their diet by catching lobsters in traps hanging off the ledges.
The lighthouse played a prominent role as an abandoned structure on Cape Cod in David O. Selznick’s production of Portrait of Jennie with stars Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton. The movie’s climax was set around the tower on the ledges. The film crew spent 10 days there shooting scenes. Edward Rowe Snow, a famed historian from Winthrop, was the movie crew’s goodwill ambassador during the shoot.
In 1976, the operation of the light became automated. The site is not open to the public. Views of it are best by boat but it is also visible from Nahant, Nantasket Beach in Hull and Shore Drive in Winthrop. It still serves as an active aid to navigation in the harbor.