In 1837 the U.S. government erected two 29′ towers for guidance to the mouth of the Ipswich River along with a lightkeeper’s residence. The lighthouses were aligned such that they would provide guidance into the river’s mouth. The westernmost tower soon was updated with a revolving light.
The first keeper of the Ipswich Light was Thomas Smith Greenwood, a native of Boston. Greenwood owned a large tract of land that is now operated by the Trustees of Reservations as the Greenwood Farm Reservation. During a hurricane in 1839 a schooner the Deposit ran aground close to the Ipswich Range Lights. Keeper Thomas Greenwood swam to the ship pulling a lifeboat with a Mr. Marshall in it. The captain’s wife was saved but her husband and other crew members were lost.
Joseph Dennis became keeper in 1841. There was ongoing concern about changes in the channel and the position of the light. It was observed that the channel had moved so much that a ship would run ashore at Plum Island if they followed the lights, and the front light was replaced by a “bug light.” It had to be moved 550 feet in 1867 because of continued shifting in the channel.
Benjamin Ellsworth was appointed keeper in 1861. Ellsworth’s wife died soon after he took the position, and the keeper’s daughter, Susan, kept house at the station. Susan was the youngest of 12 children. Three sons of Keeper Ellsworth fought in the Civil War, and all three returned safely. Benjamin Ellsworth would remain at the station until his death in 1902.
Keeper Ellsworth received a medal in 1873 for saving two men from a vessel near the lighthouse, and a second medal in 1892 for rescuing two men he saw in the ocean from a capsized boat while he was visiting Salem. The first story is told in “The Fishermen’s Memorial and Record Book” by George H. Proctor:
“The fishing boat Garibaldi, Capt. George “W. Morgan, of Lanesville, engaged in the shore fishery, was caught in the gale of Tuesday, March 11th, 1872, off Ipswich, while attending to the trawls, and, being unable to carry sail, was soon driven ashore on Ipswich Bar, and sunk within two minutes after striking. Capt. Morgan had with him his partner, Mr. Levi Lane, and their only hope of escape was by clinging to the mast until assistance came.
Here they succeeded, after much efffort, in lashing themselves for their long and perilous watch through the night that was coming on, if indeed they should live to pass that watch. Cold, benumbed and wet, with only a faint hope of holding out, the long hours of the night passed wearily. At midnight they saw the keeper of the Ipswich light go and return from his duties ; yet no help came.
It now became a question of endurance. Capt. Morgan, becoming so thoroughly wet and be- nnmbed, began to show signs of exhaustion, and must soon have perished. At length morning dawned, when the daughter of the lighthouse-keeper, Miss Susie Ellsworth, having, as it were providentially, risen earlier than usual that morning, saw the men clinging to the mast of their sunken boat. She immediately informed her father, who mustered a crew and went to their rescue in the life-boat. The men were taken to the house of Mr. Ellsworth, where they were very kindly cared for.”
The second story is told by By Jeremy D’Entremont:
“In 1892 Keeper Ellsworth performed a daring rescue down the coast from his lighthouse station. He was in the Willows area of Salem, Massachusetts, when he saw that a boat had capsized in rough seas, and two men were clinging to the craft. Ellsworth rowed in a small boat against high wind and waves and managed to pull the two men from the water; one of them reportedly was about to slip under. For his heroism, the keeper received a bronze medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society.”
In 1881 the rear tower had been badly damaged by the pressure of accumulated sand along its base, and was replaced by a conical 45-foot cast-iron lighthouse. The front light was replaced with a movable base.
Charles Wendell Townsend wrote in 1913 that the sand had shifted so much that the lighthouse was 1,090 feet from the high water mark. Use of the light was discontinued in 1932 and by 1938 sand had filled around the base of the tower.
The last keeper was LeRoy Lane, who lived at the station with his wife, Angie (Harris) Lane and their three children. One year the “Fying Santa” scheduled a Christmas present drop to children assembled in the lightkeeper’s house. Hearing the sound of an airplane the keeper called up to his wife, “Has Santa arrived yet, dear?” Immediately he heard the Christmas bundle crashing through the skylight, upon which his wife yelled down, “Yes, dear. We can start the party now.”
In 1939 the Coast Guard floated the entire the cast-iron lighthouse to Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to replace a lighthouse that had been damaged by the 1938 hurricane, and a steel skeleton light was erected at Crane Beach. It emits a white light every 4 seconds.
- Santa hits the Ipswich Lighthouse
- Ipswich Lighthouse: Voices from the Beach
- Massachusetts Lighthouses: Past & Present
- Lighthouse Handbook New England
- New England Lighthouses: Maine to Long Island Sound
- New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, & Other Tales
- New England Lighthouses: Bay of Fundy to Long Island Sound
- Lighthouses of New England
- Ipswich Range Lights