The charming history of Eastham’s ‘Three Sisters’ lighthouses
Cape Cod Life / August 2017 / History
Writer: Emily Turner / Photographer: Paige Biviano and Timothy Little
Cape Cod Life ONLINE exclusive
Since their birth in 1838, the Three Sisters lighthouses in Eastham have worked together as a family—first to illuminate the waters off Nauset Light Beach to keep sailors and their families safe, and now to educate the public about the importance of lighthouses in Cape Cod’s history.
The journey of the Three Sisters to their current location in the woods off Cable Road began in 1836 when residents of Eastham, who were concerned about shipwrecks, petitioned the Boston Marine Society to ask the U.S. Congress to fund construction of a lighthouse. There were already a pair of lighthouses in Chatham to the south and a single lighthouse in Truro to the north, so it was decided that three lighthouses would be constructed at Nauset Beach Light Station to help mariners differentiate between Cape towns from the water. Congress granted the petitioners $10,000, and builder Winslow Lewis began construction soon after. The completed 15-foot towers resembled three women wearing white dresses and black hats standing on the shoreline, so the nickname “Three Sisters” caught on quickly with sailors—and it has been used to describe the towers ever since.
The original Three Sisters served until 1890, when erosion of Nauset Light Beach made it impossible to preserve the towers. That first generation of sister towers were replaced by a second generation of 22-foot, wooden look-alike towers in 1892, which were built farther from the edge of the cliff.
The second generation of Three Sisters served for almost two decades, until erosion again took its toll. While the middle tower remained on the beach as a navigational beacon, flashing her lights three times every 10 seconds as a reference to the original three towers, the other two sisters were decommissioned. Helen Cummings purchased the two lighthouses at auction for $3.50 in 1918, and they were moved to their current location on Cable Road in 1920. A room was added to connect the two towers, and the structure became known as the Twin Lights Cottage. Bill Burke, cultural resources program manager at the Cape Cod National Seashore, which currently oversees all three lighthouses, says Cummings and her family called the cottage home. “They used one tower for a kitchen and living room, with a bedroom upstairs on the landing,” he says. “The other tower had two bedrooms.” By 1923, the single tower that remained on the beach was also decommissioned, sold, and incorporated into a cottage.
Finally, in 1975, after 57 years of separation, the Three Sisters were reunited. After purchasing the Twin Lights Cottage in 1965, the National Park Service purchased the third tower and relocated it between its sisters on Cable Road. Burke explains that the lighthouses are no longer connected to cottages and have been reverted to their original orientation. He notes that “the distance between them and the angles at which they lie are correct.” During the 1980s, the Three Sisters underwent restoration, and in 1989, they were opened to the public for tours.
Ranger-guided tours, operated by the Cape Cod National Seashore, are free and run throughout July and August on Tuesday and Sunday evenings at 5 p.m. The lighthouses are currently undergoing restoration, but the tour schedule will not be interrupted. The one-hour, half-mile tour teaches visitors about the history of the Three Sisters and their importance to the area. Visitors are allowed to enter and climb the middle tower to see its lantern, and a series of small exhibits are on display on the wheelchair-accessible ground floor.
For adventurous visitors, the foundation of the original middle sister is occasionally visible on Nauset Light Beach at very low tides. “That foundation shows up every couple of years and has for a really long time,” says Burke. Lucky beachgoers may catch a glimpse of this foundation, and can look up at Nauset Light, which now occupies the Three Sisters’ original place on the cliffs.