A History of the Nantucket Cliff Lighthouse Station
(and the Origin of “The Shoe”)

Once upon a time, there was a U.S. Lighthouse Service station above Nantucket’s north shore Cliff Beach. It was decommissioned more than a century ago, but managed to evolve into two of the island's most famous landmarks. The history of that transformation is... complicated and fascinating, especially to admirers of the Gilbreth family.

In 1838, an installation with one or two small “bug lights”—lighthouses with a fixed beam, typically much smaller than major lights—was built on the north shore, between the beach cliff edge and Cobblestone Hill. The purpose was to provide a marker for ships entering Nantucket Harbor, along with the big light and other markers at Brant Point, in the harbor’s mouth, a mile to the east.1 Whether the original installation was one light or two, an undated but very early photo shows two lighthouses.2 Each had a narrow beam pointing out to sea, with one light twenty feet higher than the other. The taller light to the rear had a red beam, and the shorter light closer to shore was white.3 When a ship approaching the harbor channel had the two lights lined up—or in daytime, had the two lighthouses themselves lined up—the pilot knew they were on the correct course to enter the harbor safely.

(Click on any photo to open a larger version in a second window.)

Bug Lights, mid-1800s

The Nantucket cliff beacons and keeper's residence, probably as originally constructed in 1838. [from Lighthouse Digest]

As with all lighthouses of the era, lit with oil lamps, someone had to live in or immediately near the lights to light them, keep the wicks trimmed and adjusted for maximum brightness, and douse them in daylight. They also had to keep the lamps fueled, maintain the hardware, clean soot from the focusing lenses and keep the lighthouse itself bright white for ‘daymark’ purposes and sturdy against weather and age. (Larger lights also had clockwork mechanisms that needed to be wound, sometimes as often as every two hours, to keep the lens rotating and create a distinctive flashing pattern.)

Bug Lights, 1899

The replacement lighthouses, shown here in 1899. [from Nantucket PreservationTrust website, courtesy NHA]

To that end, the Cliff Beach site held not only the two lighthouses, but the lightkeeper’s residence… and eventually, an oil shed holding fuel for the lamps (kerosene or another light oil), a tool shed, and a paint locker, necessarily separate from all other buildings because of the flammability of oil-based paint. These smaller structures were added over time, and the lighthouses themselves were rebuilt, replaced and moved as well.

That early photo shows what is probably the original lighthouses: two square towers, with the front one quite squat and sturdy. Another photo dated 1899 shows two different towers, still square but of much slimmer profile.4 It's not known when these lighthouses replaced the earlier ones—possibly 1856—but this photo cannot be later than the end of 1903, for at that time new lights were built, the round shingled “silo” lights that still stand on the site today. At the same time, the keeper’s house as seen in the 1899 photo was moved and rebuilt into a larger structure, and a brick oil shed for lamp fuel was built between the towers.5 In 1904, a fence was built around the site, probably to keep livestock and curious “trippers” away.6 A few years later, changes to the harbor channel necessitated an adjustment of the towers' lineup, with the front light moved some 34 feet west to maintain navigational alignment.7 A photo of unknown date, sometime between 1904 and about 1908—probably the latter—shows the complete complex with all these structures.

Bug Lights, about 1908

The Nantucket cliff beacon station as it appeared at the end of its service, about 1908. The expanded keeper's residence is at right. The tool shed that would become “The Shoe” is immediately to the house's right. [Courtesy NHA]

That would be the last of the changes to the operating installation. In 1908, the government decommissioned the cliff lighthouses and replaced them with smaller “skeleton tower” lights further down the point. Operation and maintenance of the new lights was consolidated with that of the other lights—one primary, others for channel navigation—at Brant Point.8 A separate keeper or “wickie” was no longer needed for them.

The last keeper of the cliff station, George E. Dolby, had taken over from one Wallace Eldridge in June, 1902, apparently swapping stations, with Eldridge “promoted” to the Cape Pogue (now Poge) light on Martha's Vineyard from which Dolby came. He brought his wife Mabel and their son Winthrop, who is noted in social columns as having been a piano prodigy. With the closure of the Nantucket station, Captain Dolby was assigned to the Graves light in Boston Harbor, but “did not feel inclined to accept.”9 Although the Boston light was a prestigious post, Dolby felt his twenty years of service deserved better. He was assigned to the Palmer Island light instead, at the mouth of New Bedford Harbor… and then almost immediately transferred again, to the West Chop light back on Martha’s Vineyard.10 The reasons for all these reassignments, including the first that brought him to Nantucket with some air of demotion, are not known. However, his wife Mabel would conclude the matter by suing for divorce in July, 1909, for “cruel and abusive treatment”—which may have included being forced to live on isolated islands. The life of lighthouse keepers, or their families, was rarely easy.

Lightkeeper George Dolby

Lightkeeper George Dolby, washing down the boardwalk around the keeper's residence sometime after 1903. [Courtesy NHA]

In any case, the cliff lighthouse installation was decommissioned on July 13th, 1908, with the new lights on the point immediately taking over the duty.11 Some of the subsequent history of the site and buildings is documented—and quite famous—while other points remain uncertain.

A distinguished Nantucket native, Dr. E.B. Coleman, bought the property, bug lights and all. A deed cited by Frank Gilbreth Jr in his 1991 recollections states that he purchased it on July 31, 1912; this is the only record that could be found. Although Nantucket newspapers of the era noted every coming, going, triumph and faux pas of its residents and visitors, no mention of the property between 1908 and 1918 can be found. Dr. Coleman owned several other properties, including summer cottages, of which nearly complete occupant records can be constructed from “to let” and personal notices. For some reason, though, but for one photograph of 1911, the “cliff beacons” disappear from public record for this decade. The exact history of changes is thus somewhat muddled.

Bug Lights, 1911

The bug lights at about the time they were sold to private ownership, 1911. (Original photo clipped for collage.) [from 106 Views of Nantucket]

Coleman is said to have moved the two-story house to a separate parcel “across Pawguvet Lane” but it seems more likely that he simply divided it onto its own parcel, as that is where it would have stood originally, “to the northwest” of what would become the more famous Gilbreth summer cottage.12 (What makes more sense, from the slim evidence, is that he moved the tool shed near the smaller lighthouse, as it is seen ever after; the paint locker's fate is unknown.) The house may have been rented for a time, and then sold. It would eventually become the famous property of Philip R. Whitney and his wife Helen, noted artists and, after his parents, long-time Nantucket summer people. In an account by Frank Gilbreth Jr and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey from their 1948 book Cheaper by the Dozen, it is wryly noted that the Whitneys put up with one summer of the immense Gilbreth family, then moved their house down to the tip of Brant Point. That much seems to be true; the house, still known as the Lightkeeper’s Lodge, stands three-quarters of a mile down the beach, and the Whitney family summered there until the 1950s. (In, it can be assumed, relative peace.)

Only some of the timing of these events can be established. The Whitneys were well enough known that their comings and goings were noted, even down to those of their daughter Alba and her “Pommeranian dog.” They appear to have alternated between his parent’s cottage on Tuckernuck Island to the west and various summer rentals… including one as late as June 1918.13 It thus seems unlikely that they bought the Coleman/Lightkeeper’s house before late that summer, and possibly later. However, no note or record of its purchase or relocation can be found.

The Shoe, before 1952. The new Shoe, about 1960.

Top, the original Shoe as expanded over the years (before 1952). Bottom, the prefab “New Shoe” about 1960. [Courtesy NHA]

What is known is that Frank and Lillian Gilbreth came to Nantucket that spring, looking for a suitable beachfront property where he could recover from serious wartime illness. They found and fell in love with the quirky remains of the lighthouse station—at least, Frank did—and they bought the former tool shed and the smaller lighthouse from Dr. Coleman. He had previously converted the shed into something a little like a cottage and rented it to the Whitneys as a studio, but it was still a tiny structure, about twelve by eighteen feet. Why or how the Gilbreths thought they, their (then) eight children and two servants would fit into the two structures is not known. However, they also made use of the larger lighthouse, still some distance away, probably by arrangement with Dr. Coleman.14

At least… Lillian Gilbreth’s memoirs say they bought the property at this time, in the summer of 1918. That they were there that summer is unquestionable, but other evidence is that they did not purchase the property until the summer of 1921, from Dr. Coleman’s estate (and for $1,840). The deed, mentioned above, is in Lillian Gilbreth’s name, probably a grim reminder that the couple knew Frank’s health was fragile, his heart damaged during the war. (He would die in June 1924.) The contradictions between Lillian’s account and her son’s reference to the terms of the deed cannot be resolved; we can only assume that Lillian omitted a season or two of rental, or perhaps a delayed purchase agreement. The doctor’s death may have played a part; an old son of Nantucket, who had begun as a whaler’s mate, he had suffered a bout of typhoid several years before and never regained his health. He died the next spring, in March of 1919, at only fifty-seven… just past the age at which Frank Gilbreth would die a few years later.15 We can assume that his property, the old lighthouse station included, was tied up in probate and family discussion for a time after that, eventually resulting in sale of the two properties to the Whitneys and the Gilbreths.

The Shoe and surrounding land today.

The Shoe as it stands today, top center. The taller lighthouse now to the west of the house originally stood near the red circle. The lightkeeper's residence stood near the red square. The oil shed is highlighted in blue. [Google Earth]

Whether that summer or the next, whether the Whitneys were renting or owned the house across the lane in the summer of 1919 or later, and whether the chaos of the Gilbreth family had anything to do with it, the artist couple moved the house down the beach in about 1920, where it still stands at 11 Easton Road. Social notices of 1920 and later place them there.

The remainder of the property’s history is at the hands of the Gilbreth family. Within a year or two, the tool shed cum artist’s studio cum family cottage had been expanded, with a porch all around. This work was done before the purchase, but in time to accommodate the birth of the next-to-last Gilbreth child. At the same time, the larger lighthouse was moved to flank the rustic building. There is no record of its purchase, and we don’t know if Frank bought it from the doctor’s estate or was simply allowed to remove the largely useless structure from his property. Frank Jr's letter-memoire recounts the perilous job of rolling the tall building on logs, pulled by a patient and blindfolded horse driving a capstan.

Over time, the three buildings, dubbed “The Shoe” by Frank to tease his wife about the woman who had too many children, became the regular summer haunt of the sprawling family, and quite famous with the telling of Cheaper by the Dozen. The last two Gilbreth children were born there—one in the cottage, and the last in Nantucket’s hospital. The boy born in the cottage, Robert, would return just after World War II with his wife Barbara to purchase the Anchor Inn on Centre Street and operate it for the next decade.

Brant Point today.

Brant Point today. The circles, from left to right, mark The Shoe and original location of the lighthouse station; the present location of the Lightkeeper's Lodge; and the Brant Point light. [Google Earth]

Frank Gilbreth, with a penchant for giving his property and tools quirky names, dubbed the two lighthouses Mic and Cyc… short for micromotion and cyclegraph, two terms from his famous career as an efficiency expert. He seems to have had a comic strip of the day in mind as well; drawn by Rube Goldberg, it featured two identical figures in bowler hats and was titled “Mike and Ike, They Look Alike.” Frank Jr, in his 1991 reminiscence, notes this, and that they used the oil shed, still the property of the doctor, for their bicycles… and thus called it “Bike.”16

The Gilbreth family, eventually with eleven children (although famously “a dozen,” one daughter died young of illness), became a permanent fixture on Nantucket, with some visiting every summer and several eventually buying their own summer homes there. “The Shoe” remains in the family, although the worn-out cottage was torn down in 1952 and replaced with a stylish prefabricated house, the first on the island (and at some bemusement of the Board of Selectmen).17 The two bug lights remain, the smaller one still in its final working place, and both converted into office and living quarters and bearing identifying plaques as Mic and Cyc. By all accounts, their sturdy 1903 construction bears up well, with original stairs, plaster and structure still shipshape.

The last remnant of the lighthouse station, the brick oil house, also still stands, now abandoned in empty territory to the south of its famous companions. Whether any bikes are inside, we don't know.

« · »

  • NHA, Nantucket Historical Association, www.nha.org.
  • Nantucket Preservation Trust, www.nantucketpreservation.org
  • Nantucket Atheneum newspaper search, all The Inquirer & Mirror citations.
  • 106 Views of Nantucket, J.H. Robinson, 1911. Available from Google Books.
  • Argument Settlers, Harry B. Turner, 1920. Available from Google Books.
  • As I Remember, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, 1941. Published in 1998 by Engineering & Management Press.
  • My thanks to Dr. Edward Gilbreth for some corrections to the original photos selected.

1 Nantucket The Inquirer and Mirror (hereafter TIM), 8 Jan 1910.

Also an entry for 1838 in Argument Settlers, cited by Frank Gilbreth Jr in the article noted below, which states that the original installation was “bug lights”—plural, and not a regular lighthouse—and that the first keeper was Peleg Easton, for whom it is likely the adjacent Easton Road is named.

Argument Settlers also makes an 1856 reference to "Bug Light beacons refitted," but the only relevant TIM article refers to the Brant Point lights. The same article claims that bug lights are so named because they are “as dim as a lightning bug.”

2  Lighthouse Digest, May-Jun 2012, p21. The photo is uncredited.

3  TIM, 18 Jul 1908. Also, the white light of the shorter house can be seen in the photo cited above. The darker light of the tall house is less distinct.

4  Web page Nantucket’s Literary History Part 3, June 14, 2018, Nantucket Preservation Trust website www.nantucketpreservation.org, retrieved October 2019. Photo credited NHA.

5  TIM, 3 Oct 1903.

6  TIM 23 Apr 1904.

7  TIM, 27 Apr 1907.

8  TIM, 7 Mar 1908.

9  Ibid.

10 TIM, 13 Jun 1908.

11 TIM, 18 Jul 1908.

12 As I Remember, p161.

13 TIM, 13 July 1918.

14 As I Remember, loc cit.

15  TIM, 1 Mar 1919.

15 “The Gilbreth ‘Bug-Lights’,” Frank B. Gilbreth Jr, Historic Nantucket v39 n2, Summer 1991. Extract on NHA website.

This charming article, filled with priceless recollections by Frank Jr at the age of 80, makes several contributions to this essay. It nonetheless contains some notable errors of fact. The most significant is that while the property may have been purchased in 1921, the family’s first summer there, well-established by other accounts including those of Frank Jr, was in 1918. The error has propagated through other accounts of the property and its famous-family owners.

17  TIM, 29 Sep 1951.