Full Speed Ahead: The Storied History of the Nantucket Lightship

Posted on: August 31st, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Laura Wainman, Editorial Intern

In 1936, shipbuilders Pusey & Jones built a lightship to replace the ill-fated, 630-ton Nantucket/LV-117. The ship had been struck on May 15, 1934 by the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic -- a luxury liner that was nearly 75 times larger than the Nantucket.  Four of the 11-man crew died instantly and three others died later from critical injuries and exposure. As reparation, the British government paid the US $500,000, and along came the Nantucket/LV-112 (one of our National Treasures).

Seeing as it was replacing a lightship that had been cut in half, and would be stationed in the most exposed, remote, and dangerous lightship station on the East Coast (known as a “graveyard of the Atlantic”), LV-112 was built to the specifications of a battleship. At 149 feet long, 1,050 tons, with a double hull made of nearly 1.5-inch armor plating and 43 watertight compartments, it was one of the largest U.S. lightships ever built; built to be virtually unsinkable.

For 39 years, longer than any other Nantucket lightship, LV-112 guided transoceanic traffic, including the Queen Mary, Normandie, and the SS United States, through the dangerous Nantucket shoals. The shoals had been the cause of more than 700 shipwrecks over the years, and even prevented the Mayflower from reaching her original destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.

Crews were required to stay aboard, regardless of weather, and the ship managed to weather hundreds of brutal storms. But no storm was worse than Hurricane Edna in 1954. LV-112 endured 110-mph winds and 70-foot seas which broke the ship’s anchor chain, lifeboats, and life rafts. Its signature safety features, lights and an ear-piercing foghorn, were rendered useless, as water spilled into the smoke stacks and put out the fires in the engine boiler room.

Meanwhile, fires broke out all over the ship. The crew managed to plug holes in the hull with extraneous debris, extinguish the fires, and throw out the spare anchor in order to control the ship long enough to get the ship back to its station. LV-112 finished its shift that night, and was taken in for repair the next day. Once again, she had prevailed in perilous circumstances.

In 1942, LV-112 took a brief break from its station at Nantucket Shoals in order to aid the United States in World War II efforts. Lights, bells, and fog signals were removed to make the ship more stealthy and its vibrant red exterior was painted battleship grey. Two machine guns were installed on its foredeck and a gun was mounted on the fantail.

Renamed the USS Nantucket, the ship was stationed in Portland, Maine for three years. When a German U-Boat managed to enter its territory and sink the USS Eagle-56, the Nantucket helped to save the crewmembers in distress.

Thirty-seven years after it was decommissioned, LV-112 still faces an uphill battle. The ship had been passed from owner to owner since 1975, and maintenance needs had fallen by the wayside, despite being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In October 2009, the ship finally caught a break when the United States Lightship Museum (USLM) purchased LV-112  for $1 and began preparations to tow it home to Boston.

For seven months, volunteers at USLM spent their weekends commuting from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to Oyster Bay to get the ship ready for the tow. Bilges were pumped, temporary lighting was installed, and debris was cleared. A marine survey was conducted to ensure the ship was sea-worthy, which it passed, but the group had no way of knowing what the condition of the steel of LV-112’s hull would look like once they got it out of the water.

Though the hull has been stabilized and her exterior is 95 percent restored, there is still work to be done. The ship’s interior needs to be painted, plumbing and heating systems need to be made operational, and ventilation/fire suppression systems need to be restored.

“I’d say she is approximately 60 percent restored,” says Bob Mannino, founder and president of the USLM and leader of the movement to save LV-112. “Our goal is to have her operational again, so we can take her out maybe once or twice a year for special port visits. Aside from that, she’ll most likely be berthed and used as a floating classroom.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

National Treasures, Preservation Magazine, Slideshows

One Response

  1. Sharon Butler

    September 9, 2012

    Interesting history did not know anything about light ships. Are they related to tugboats and lighthouses?