Cape Cod’s First Lighthouse, Highland Light

By Mary Moran

Highland Light (Cape Cod Light)

Originally settled as “Pamet” in 1646, the town of Truro (name change in 1709) is the second most northerly town on Cape Cod. Adding a third title into the mix, Truro earned the nickname of “Dangerfield” early on, due to the frequent and devastating ship wrecks that occurred off the town’s shore. Attempts were made to get the necessary funding to build a lighthouse on the high land adjacent to Cape Cod Harbor. These attempts were made by both the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Boston Marine Society. Unfortunately no action was taken and the wrecks continued to occur at an alarming rate. By 1796 the waters off Truro had more ship wrecks than any other area throughout Cape Cod. In February of 1796, a committee of three men tried once again to gather the attention of Congress in regard to funding and building a lighthouse in Truro. A petition was drafted, signed, and presented to Congress. By May of that year, a sum of $8,000 was appropriated to build the very first lighthouse on Cape Cod, and the 20th lighthouse in the entire country.

The first Highland Lighthouse was a 45-foot octagonal wooden tower that sat about 160 feet above the average water level. On November 15, 1797, Cape Cod’s first lighthouse went into service surrounded by a new barn, oil shed, well, and keeper’s house. Wanting to distinguish the new light from a similar one on the Boston shoreline, the first rotating “flashing” light was created. However, the new machinery proved faulty and from 1812 to 1901 the light went back to the common, fixed, white light. Aside from the shoddy light machinery, it was decided in 1828 that the whole light station was crumbling and was in need of a makeover. With another $5,000 in funding, a brand-new 35-foot lighthouse was built. The structure was built of sturdy brick and was round in shape. The keeper’s house was also replaced by a new brick dwelling, in hopes that the structures would remain intact for many years to come. However, the harsh salty winds once again won the battle, breaking down the second structure bit by bit. When the town appropriated another $15,000 in 1857, the light house was built to endure the weather and help protect sailors for hundreds of years. Constant updates were made to the Highland Light after the third structure was completed. A first order Fresnel lens was imported from Paris, making the Highland Light one of the brightest lights on the East Coast. The light station also added an extremely powerful coal-burning fog signal, for the all-too-common  blinding blanket of clouds that sweep through the area.

Now being one of the brightest lighthouses on the entire coast, Highland Light was the first part of America to be seen by the increasing numbers of European immigrants coming to the country. In 1932, an electric light was installed in the Fresnel lens, making Highland Light the brightest and most powerful lighthouse on the coast. Under normal weather conditions this 4 million candlepower light could be seen up to 45 miles away. In extremely clear weather, the light from Truro could be seen up to 75 miles away! As technology improved, so did the light and finally in 1986, Highland Light was automated. Now that the light was up to par with the times, it was time to deal with the last major problem. Over the years, erosion caused the shore to creep up on the old lighthouse and if it wasn’t moved back from the edge, it would eventually be lost to the sea. The Truro Historical Society began fundraising and accepting donations to pay for the lighthouse’s costly move up the shore. They were able to raise $150,000. In addition one million dollars came from the Federal government and a half million from the state  of Massachusetts. Thus the lighthouse, weighing in at 404 tons was moved a mere 450 feet from its original location. The move took 18 days to complete and the light was re-lit in its new home on November 3rd of the same year.

In 1998, the doors to Highland Light were opened to the public, complete with a gift shop, tours, and exhibits throughout the keeper’s house. Highland’s light was upgraded again, this time to a VRB-25 optic that gives off a flashing white light every 5 seconds. This light remains today. The Highland Light Station is now owned by the National Seashore and managed by Eastern National. The light station is open to the public daily in the summer season and is active year-round. Although it is still called Highland Light, the lighthouse’s name was officially changed to Cape Cod Light in 1976 (and remains so on road signs to this day, FYI). The light’s new name, however, didn’t quite stick with the locals and is rarely used.

More Cape Cod Lighthouses


Cape Cod's Stowe Room, A
Harriet Beecher Stowe room
Cape Cod's Roosevelt Room, B
Cape Cod’s Roosevelt Room, B

While all of the bedchambers at the Palmer House have their own romantic charm suitable for relaxation after the most wonderful day of adventures on Cape Cod, we recommend the Harriet Beecher Stowe room, the Theodore Roosevelt room or the Emily Dickinson room. These rooms feature comfortable king beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi-style tubs for a relaxing stay before and after your day.