Located on the Atlantic Ocean, Boston has no shortage of boat tours that you can take. During the summer months, a popular boat tour to take is the Boston Lighthouse Tour. What’s better than spending an afternoon on the water seeing lighthouses and learning some history of the Boston Harbor?
The 2 hour lighthouse tour is offered during the summer months at 1pm and 3:30pm on Saturdays and at 5:30pm on select Friday evenings. The Friday evening cruise states that it’s a Sunset Cruise, but due to the later sunsets during the summer months, it usually ends prior to sunset most weeks it’s offered. The boat does not have any food or beverage, so make sure to bring any snacks or water you may need for the two hours, especially if it’s a warm day, water is a must! To check out the current prices and available dates, check out the Boston Harbor Islands website.
Even though I knew I would not be able to see the sunset, I opted to try the Friday evening lighthouse tour. I checked in at the Boston Harbor Islands Welcome Center on the Rose Kennedy Greenway just across the street from the New England Aquarium 30 minutes prior to the cruise. From there they gave us directions to the right side of the aquarium where we would be boarding the boat for the tour.
We boarded the boat and it set off into the harbor. The view of the Boston skyline is always impressive when setting out into the Boston Harbor, but more on that later. As we cruised thru the Harbor, the tour guide pointed out all the points of interest along the way including giving some history of the Boston Harbor.
The first thing with came across was the Seaport District of Boston. This fairly new neighborhood of Boston is one of the fastest growing and up and coming neighborhoods in the city. What used to be an industrial area with nothing more than some old buildings and parking lots is now filled with new office buildings, shopping, restaurants, bars, condos, apartments and parks to enjoy. The area would be unrecognizable to my grandparents generation! As we were going by, there was quite a large yacht docked in the Seaport that evening.
After the Seaport we passed by Castle Island. Located in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston. Castle Island is an extremely popular spot for locals but is somewhere that I think tourists should also visit if they can. Once an actual island it is now a peninsula and home to the historic Fort Independence which was built in 1634 and played a role in both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. During the summer months, free tours of the fort are offered on weekends. Also at Castle Island there is the popular snack stand Sullivans, a beach and a 2.2 mile walking/running loop. It’s also a popular area for kiteboarding and watching a sunrise or sunset.
After passing Castle Island, we headed further out into the harbor passing by Spectacle Island, which is one of the most visited of the Harbor Islands as it’s accessible via ferry. What used to be a landfill for the city of Boston, the island now features a beach, picnic areas and hiking trails. Many activities are offered on the island like clam bakes, live jazz music and kayaking, making it a popular spot to visit in the summer.
Long Island Head Light
After passing Spectacle Island, we made our way to our first lighthouse of the tour, Long Island Head Light. This lighthouse was actually the hardest one to see as it was obscured by trees. Located on Long Island, this lighthouse was built in 1819 as a stone tower. In the 1840s it began to deteriorate and was replaced with the first cast iron lighthouse in the US. After storms damaged the lighthouse in the 1860s, the lighthouse was replaced again in 1881. This third lighthouse only lasted 20 years before it was replaced in 1901 with the current lighthouse which is located a bit further west on the island.
In 1982, Long Island Head Light was discontinued by the Coast Guard, but that lasted just 3 years when the lighthouse under went renovations and to this day is still in operation. In the photo below, you can just see the tip of the lighthouse poking out of the trees.
Next on the tour wasn’t a lighthouse, but a navigational marker in the harbor with an interesting history. Nixes Mate is a black and white striped hexagon shaped marker that serves to help boaters to avoid the sand bar and rocks that the marker sits atop. Interestingly the rocks at the marker actually form the shape of a question mark, something I’ll need to look for next time I have a window seat when flying out over the harbor.
The history of the island dates back to the 1600s and involves piracy. As someone fascinated with pirates, my ears perked up to hear this story. When I think of stories of pirates from that time, I assumed it was all in Florida and the Caribbean and never thought that piracy occurred right here in the Boston Harbor. But I guess back in the day, where ther was water and ships, there were pirates.
Once a 12 acre island, it gradually eroded and legend has it that it was because of a pirate named William Fly who was on a ship led by Captain Nix. He was left on the island to await his execution and just prior to being executed, he cursed the island stating it would disappear beneath the waves proving he wasn’t guilty of the crimes he was accused of. Nixes Mate is on a small 1 acre island today. Makes you wonder, was this pirate William Fly actually not guilty?
After Nixes Mate, we passed by a couple of the harbor islands. First was Lovells Island, which is a popular island for camping. This island has hiking trails, the remains of Fort Standish and even a shipwreck. One of the lesser known facts about this island is that it was considered as a location for the Statue of Liberty!
The next island we passed by was Georges Island. This is one of the most visited of the Boston Harbor Islands. It features the historic Civil War era Fort Warren, which is said to have a resident ghost, the Lady in Black! The fort served as a Prisoners of War camp during the Civil War and Melanie Lanier went to the island to help her husband escape. During the escape, they got caught by Union soldiers and Melanie’s gun accidentally went off killing her husband. Melanie was charged with being a spy and was hanged to death in a black robe at Fort Warren. Over the years there have been many sightings of the Lady in Black. In all my times on the island since I was a kid, I’ve yet to see or hear her.
Next we came to the second light house of the tour, the historic Boston Light located on Little Brewster Island. Built in 1716, Boston Light is the oldest continuously used lighthouse in the United States. The current lighthouse is the second one built on this site. The first one was damaged by a fire and multiple storms, but it wasn’t until the American Revolutionary War when it became completely destroyed when it was blown up as the last of the British troops were leaving Boston.
The lighthouse as it is today was built in 1783 and had many renovations made to it since that time, from revolving Fresnel Lens to upgraded fog signals to electricity to run the lighthouse which was originally run by generator and batteries.
A lighthouse keeper’s house is also on the island, as Boston Light is the only manned lighthouse in the United States. The current lighthouse keeper is the 70th for Boston Light, her name is Sally Snowman and she is the first woman to become lighthouse keeper of Boston Light. And chances are that she will be the last lighthouse keeper of Boston Light under the stewardship of the US Coast Guard. It was announced in 2020 that the US Coast Guard would be looking to transfer stewardship of the lighthouse. Two years later, this still has not occurred as they search for someone to transfer it to who will preserve the historic lighthouse and continue the public access to it. It will definitely be interesting to see who will take over Boston Light from the US Coast Guard.
We then were further out in the harbor past most of the Boston Harbor Islands off to the third and final lighthouse of the tour. On our way, I looked back at Boston Light and got a great view of the lighthouse with the city of Boston in the background.
Graves Light is located the furthest from the city of Boston at 9 miles, it’s also the most recently built lighthouse in the Boston Harbor. Built in 1905, there used to be no more than a a buoy at this location. The nearby Broad Sound Channel began to be used by larger vessels into the Boston Harbor which caused there to be a need for a lighthouse in this location.
When the lighthouse was finished in 1905, it included a 12 feet high and 9 feet in diameter Fresnel Lens which was made Graves Light the most powerful light in Massachusetts. In 1976, the Fresnel Lens was stored at the Smithsonian after the lighthouse was automated.
Graves Light is no longer in use and is privately owned. The only way to see it is via boat, which is one of the great things about this tour. While going by Graves Light, they pointed out the red door in the picture below. This was the door to get into the lighthouse when it was still operational. As you can see there are no steps to this door, so to get to the door, a letter would be necessary.
Since the island is so far out in the harbor, there were a number of birds sitting on the rocks and it was such a beautiful sight to see, from a far it kind of reminded me of seeing the puffins out on the rocks in the ocean while kayaking in Alaska. Sadly they were not puffins, but I did feel for just a moment like I was much further than 9 miles away from the city of Boston.
We then started heading back into the harbor towards the city of Boston. As someone who grew up in the Boston area and moved away for 11 years and then moved back, I have a large appreciation of just how beautiful the city of Boston is. It might be small and not compare in size to skylines of other cities like NYC or Chicago, but the beauty of the Boston skyline more than makes up for it’s size and seeing it from the water is an absolute must.
The views of downtown Boston alone make a boat tour a necessity when visiting Boston. There are many to choose from, but if you are wanting to see the lighthouses and hear about the history of the Boston Harbor, the Boston Lighthouse Tour is a must, you will not be disappointed.
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