143 and the 'I Love You' Lighthouse, Minot's Ledge Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

143 and the 'I Love You' Lighthouse, Minot's Ledge

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The 'I Love You' or 'I Miss You' lighthouse is perched facing out into the Atlantic, on the exposed Minot's Ledge — named after George Minot, an 18th-Century Boston Merchant who lost a valuable ship on the rocks prior to construction of the lighthouse. The ledge is part of the Cohasset Rocks1, off Massachusetts, USA.

When, in 1894, a new flashing lantern was installed in the 34-year-old lighthouse it had a 1-4-3 sequence2 and very soon the number sequence was taken to represent 'I Love You' or 'I Miss You' (I /1 flash, Love /4 flashes, You /3 flashes). Over the years this simple lighthouse code has been a comfort to sailors from the area, their sweethearts and families. The story is now widely known and the code is much loved for itself.

The History of the Lighthouse

Prior to the lighthouse, large amounts of shipping and lives3 had been lost on the wave washed ledges, exposed for a mere two to three hours a day. The local Indian tribe believed 'Hobomock', an evil spirit, lived beneath the ledges and was responsible for storms; his jagged rock teeth wrecking any unfortunate or wayward shipping. In 1838, the Boston Marine Society formed a committee to report on the feasibility of constructing a lighthouse on the ledge. However, Congress did not give the go-ahead (along with $20,000 for the enterprise) until 1847. It would take a further $24,000 and almost three years to complete the task.

Captain WH Swift, of the Topographical Department, considered various English designs, including the Eddystone lighthouse, before devising a structure of his own. He designed a 70-feet-high (21.3m) iron piling tower drilled into the rock ledge, believing the waves would flow more easily through the skeletal nature of the structure. Not only was it quicker to build, but it was less expensive than a stone tower. Isaac Durham, the first keeper, lit the lantern on 1 January, 1850, but the tower proved unsafe for the keepers as waves swept over the ledge. Durham quit after ten months and the lighthouse's pet cat jumped off the tower to its death in the waves below. Reportedly the tower was so unsteady it would sway two feet in either direction in bad weather.

A year later, during the night of 16 April, 1851, a huge storm swept the tower and the two remaining young assistant keepers off the ledge. Joseph Antoine, of Portuguese origin, and Joseph Wilson, an Englishman, both died. Keeper Bennett survived, having rowed ashore earlier, unable to return because of the storm. A new lighthouse was needed - but, in the meantime, the newly incorporated Lighthouse Board put steam towboat R B Forbes on station. The towboat remained until 1851, replaced by Lightship 'N' until 1854, and the purpose-built Lightship LV7 after that. Lightships are fine, but the light is not as high as a tower and subject to wind, wave and tide. Once lit it was said to be like farthing candles'4 compared to the original lighthouse.

Work on a new stone lighthouse was begun in 1855, but two years into the build, the vessel The New Empire wrecked the foundations of the structure. Work had to be restarted. Constructed from 3,514 tons5 of worked stone, 1079 dovetail-jointed granite blocks were assembled on land, dismantled, and then ferried out to the ledge. Three years later, on 29 June, 1860, builders laid the last stone and at a cost of $300,000, the lighthouse was one of the most expensive ever built. Remarkably, no workers were lost on the ledge, due in part to the foresight of having only men who could swim to work on the rock and Captain Brennock, a diver and lifeguard, attending. The lighthouse has a solid base 40 feet (12.2m) tall with access by ladder or hauling up by rope, and stands unpainted at 114 foot (34.7 m) high with its light at 85 feet (25.9 m). 15 November, 1860 saw the first lighting of the lantern. A flashing lantern was installed in 1894, automated in 1947, converted in 1983 to solar power and restored in 1989.

Once built, the human cost of the light continued. Storms threw huge waves right over the top of the lighthouse while the winter would ice everything over. The first keeper of the lighthouse left after a year and one assistant keeper was reported as being unable to cope with cornerless rooms and was going mad. The weather and lonely existence in the lighthouse would test the toughest of men, particularly as there were also stories of supernatural happenings.

Some tales were told of a bell ringing in the night, of knockings and two spectral figures, supposedly the lost assistant keepers up by the light. There were also reports of their images being seen in reflections of the lighthouse on calm seas. Even after automation, as bad weather closed in, passing sailors reported seeing a man clinging to a ladder yelling and screaming. Later, a Portuguese fisherman who saw the apparition on the ladder claimed he was calling for help in his own language. Logical, considering Joseph Antoine was also from Portugal.

Other than its role in saving lives and shipping, the lighthouse came to prominence, so the story goes, when the Coastguard6 proposed changing the light sequence and converting it to a computerised system. It may have just been a rumour, but naturally, there was an outcry from the local population over the proposed loss of their 'secret' message in the flashes. However, it is still flashing its '143' message much to the delight of the local people and the many romantics around the world who use this code, not to mention the producers of Minot Ledge merchandise.

Incidentally, the number 143 is the product of the sequential prime numbers 11 and 13; 11 x 13 = 143. If the pair are added, 11 + 13 = 24, and with the digits reversed, 24 = 42.

1Situated about 20 miles SE of Boston Harbour and 1.5 miles offshore at Lat/Long 42 16 12 N, 70 45 30 W.2The current sequence is - 1 flash (1.5 seconds) – occluded or dark for 5 seconds – 4 flashes (1.5secs. each flash with dark of 1.5secs. between) - dark for 5 seconds – 3 flashes (1.5secs. each flash with dark of 1.5secs. between) - dark for 15.5 seconds - repeated.3From a schooner in 1695 to the mid-18th Century 80 ships and 400 lives had been lost in these waters.4English Farthings were taken out of use in the 20th Century and were the lowest denomination coin with a value of a quarter of one old penny or 1/960th of one pound sterling. The phrase, therefore, referred to cheap candles.5This is the Short Ton as used in the USA. It is 2000lb or 907kg. The Long Ton, as used in the UK, amounts to 2240lb or 1016kg — compared to the Metric Tonne of 1000kg6The US Coast Guard has a strong defensive role and is also responsible for active lighthouses in the USA unlike the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency which is more concerned with safety. Trinity House has responsibility for the majority of lighthouses and buoys in UK waters, while The Northern Lighthouse Board covers Scotland.

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