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Boston Light, First Lighthouse In U.S., Celebrates 300 Years

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The oldest lighthouse in the country has a big birthday today. Boston Light, as it's called, is celebrating 300 years as a navigational beacon in Boston Harbor the lighthouse is still operating and has the only resident lighthouse keeper in the nation. Deborah Becker from member station WBE - BUR recently visited.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: On a small, rocky island about 10 miles from downtown Boston, the 98-foot-high lighthouse tower looks just like the historic rendition of what it looked like when it was first lit on September 14, 1716 - white stucco; small, black iron doors and a large, windowed room at the very top.

SALLY SNOWMAN: That's the classic look - that when you see things like on mugs, or postcards or different renditions of paintings.

BECKER: Also preserving historical authenticity is the keeper of Boston Light, Sally Snowman, dressed in Revolutionary-era clothes that she makes herself - a long, flowered dress, apron and bonnet.

SNOWMAN: The dress that I'm wearing today it is the garb that the keeper's wife would have worn in 1783.

BECKER: Why 1783 and not 1716 - because during the Revolutionary War, Boston Light was such an important navigational tool that it became a target for both sides. Americans set it on fire to prevent the British from getting in and out of the harbor, and when the British were forced to withdraw, they planted gunpowder at the base of the tower.

SNOWMAN: It is not the one built in 1716. That was blown up by the British in 1776. This is the new one.

BECKER: And new here is a relative term. Seventy-six steps up to the top of the tower is a 13-foot-tall rare Fresnel lens with hundreds of panels of glass that reflect light that can be seen for 27 nautical miles. That lens dates back to 1859.

SNOWMAN: And you'll notice that the light that was flashing every 10 seconds is not a light bulb that's flashing. It's 4,000 pounds of glass and brass rotating.

BECKER: And despite 21st century technology, Snowman says lighthouses are still important.

SNOWMAN: There are so many pleasure boaters and small-boats fishermans lobsterwomen and things like that that still depend on that visual sighting. So although vessels have electronics, they have a tendency to fail.

BECKER: The Coast Guard which oversees the lighthouse spent more than $1 million renovating it for this year's anniversary, saying Boston Light represents the cornerstone of the nation's maritime legacy. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.