Boston lighthouse offers visitors adventure

BOSTON — Living on a small island where there is nothing but the Atlantic Ocean around you might be a dream many people in hectic Boston may have. For Sally Snowman this is more than a dream, it is her everyday life and job.

Little Brewster Island in the outer harbor of Boston hosts the Boston Light since 1716 but since summer 2003 it is also home to a special kind of keeper. It has seen 69 keepers coming and leaving but the 70th keeper is Sally Snowman, the first female keeper ever.

“In the spring of 2003 the civilian position was posted on the federal employee job listing. For the fun of it, I submitted an application. I did not believe that I would get the job because of having no past experience with managing a ‘site’. Wonders never cease. I was offered the job and I took it,” Snowman said.

Keeper Sally Snowman sits with the island’s official Coast Guard dog, Sammy, near a garden and the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island (Photo courtesy of Sally Snowman).

Since Aug. 13, 2003, Snowman has worked as the U.S. Coast Guard Civilian Keeper and Site Supervisor of Boston Light. She lives on the island Wednesdays through Sundays from May to mid- October and during the winter she spends approximately five to 10 days a month on the island.

Little Brewster Island, with its lighthouse station, has been publicly accessible since 1999. During summer season, visitors can travel to the island through guided ranger tours to learn more about the fascinating history of the lighthouse and get to know keeper Snowman.

For the summer season, two tours to the site are offered: Boston Lighthouse Tour and Lifesaving History Tour.

The Boston Lighthouse Tour takes visitors on a three-hour ranger guided ferry trip to Little Brewster to explore the island, meet Snowman and climb up the 76 spiral stairs to the beacon of Boston Light. From the top of the lighthouse a breathtaking view on downtown Boston and the other harbor islands is waiting.

The Boston Light as shown from the island’s seasonal dock. The boat is Sally Snowman’s “Boston Light Shuttle” as she calls it. (Photo courtesy of Sally Snowman).

The Lifesaving History Tour adds a two hours tour at the Hull Lifesaving Museum and a lunch box to the experience on Little Brewster Island. The museum currently features the new “Sea Dog’s! Great Tails of the Sea,” a traveling exhibit from Mystic Seaport Museum and lifesaving history collection.

During both tours visitors will not only experience Little Brewster and Boston Light as it looks today, but they will also learn about the fascinating past of the lighthouse.

The original structure of the lighthouse of 1716 was destroyed by the British during the war in 1776. In 1783 it was rebuilt out of rubble stones which are believed by some historians to be the stones of the original tower, Snowman said. The new lighthouse was enlarged to its current height of 89 feet in 1859. Additionally, in 1783 the Fressnel Lens was added. It is still functioning today.

“The 1859 classical Fressnel Lens made of 4,000 pounds of glass and brass remains the optic that shines two million candlepower of light 25 miles out to the sea,” Snowman said.

Since 1998, all lighthouses in the U.S. are automated with the Boston Light to be the last to adapt this change. But still this site remained to be the last one in the country to be kept by a keeper.

“I am the only Coast Guard-paid keeper. The reason for my position is to honor Boston Light having been established as a light station in 1716. Congressional law passed in 1989 stating the island is to remain ‘manned’ and this is accomplished with the paid keepers position augmented by volunteer auxiliarists that have been trained as assistant keepers called watchstanders,” Snowman said.

Before Sally Snowman started officially as the Coast Guard Keeper of Boston Light in 2003, she worked as a specialist for children with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, taught in the Master of Education Program at Curry College in nearby Milton, Mass., and earned her Ph.D. in education. However, her relationship to Boston Light began long before her other working experiences.

“I grew up in Boston Harbor on boats and have loved and appreciated the privilege of being so fortunate to have these opportunities,” Snowman, 54, said. “When I was a young adult, I joined the Coast Guard Auxiliarist volunteering in a wide range of programs including performing safety patrols on Auxiliary boat in the harbor.”

In 1994 she then began volunteering at the lighthouse with helping the Coast Guard activity duty personnel.

“This prompted my desire to find out everything there was to know about the island, the establishment of the lighthouse, all the ‘light’ and ‘sound’ technological advances that had been made over the past 280 years, and the people who lived there as keepers, wives and children,” Snowman said.

The result of that were five years of research and the publishing of the book ‘Boston Light: A Historical Perspective’ together with her husband in 1999.

Snowman then helped out when the newly established Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area started to offer tours to Boston Light and developed a program to recruit and train auxiliarists to be historical interpreters/ tour guides on the island to assist Park Rangers. Shortly afterwards she developed a training program for auxiliarists to learn to become assistant keeper.

The seasonal dock (or barge). For visitors to safely gain access to the island, the dock-barge needs to be in place (Photo courtesy of Sally Snowman).

One of the 44 Coast Guard auxiliarists is her husband Jay Thomson, a civil engineer for the Town of Plymouth, Mass., and the city where Sally and he live if they are not on Little Brewster Island. Although her husband visits her on the weekends at Boston Light, which is the place where they got married in 1994, it remains a challenge to balance island life and family life, Snowman said.

But even during the time that her husband is not on the island for a visit, Snowman is never alone.

“There is a safety in numbers and it is the Coast Guard policy to have two staff on the island so that in case of an emergency if something happens to one of the staff, the other can get help,” Snowman explained.

During their island stay, Snowman and the second person live in the keeper’s house, which was built in 1884. Its architecture is described as a traditional New England farm house. The first floor features a living room, kitchen, laundry room, all purpose room, and a small office. The second floor offers three bedrooms, and a full bath, Snowman said.

“Electricity for the island comes from the near by Town of Hull with a 13,000 underwater power line which provides sufficient electrical power for microwave oven, conventional stove, refrigerator, etcetera,” Snowman said.

But, most of the time, Snowman is busy ensuring that everything is functioning properly on the island, recruiting, training, and scheduling auxiliary volunteer assistant keepers or working with the National Park Service on the visitor schedules and programs. She also is the Boston Light historian, which means that she collects and files everything that is written about the lighthouse, the island and the keepers.

“When I am not on the island, I have office space at the Coast Guard Support Center in Boston that I report to or I am on the road visiting classrooms, presenting and attending at maritime conferences,” Snowman said.

Most exciting for Snowman, though, is being part of a “living history.” She says she plans to continue in her rare position as first female and last and only U.S. Coast Guard Keeper for the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island.

Little Brewster Island and the Boston Light from the harbor.

If You Go

Which tours to Boston Light are available:

  • Boston Lighthouse Tour featuring a ranger-guided ferry tour to Little Brewster Island, guided tour of Boston Light, a optional climb to the beacon of Boston Light (only children 8 years and older can climb the light).

Rates for tours:

  • Group fee: $25 per person
  • Adults $28
  • Seniors/ active military $25
  • Children 3-11 $17
  • Children under 3 free.


  • Lifesaving History Tour featuring a two-hour visit to the Hull Lifesaving museum’s exhibit “Sea Dog’s! Great Tails of the Sea” and lifesaving history collection, a lunch box and afterwards a three-hour tour to Boston Light including a ranger-guided ferry tour, guided tour of Boston Light, a optional climb to the beacon of Boston Light.
  • For group rates contact Larissa Fawkner.

Where to get further information:

Where to reserve your trip:

Map courtesy of the National Park Service.

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