Lighthouses are an integral part of Cape Cod history. The first lighthouse station for Eastham, known as the Nauset Beach Light Station (nicknamed The Three Sisters), was completed in 1838. It consisted of a group of three lights atop 15-foot high brick towers located approximately 500 feet east of where the present light now stands.

Because of the encroaching cliff edge, the brick towers were replaced by three 22-foot high wooden lighthouses in 1892 and located roughly 450 feet east of where the present light now stands.

In 1911, the continuously retreating shoreline made it necessary to move the lights again. Two of the towers were sold at auction. The third tower was moved back, put on a brick foundation, and attached to the keeper's house. A rotating Fresnel lens flashing three times every ten seconds was installed.

The present Nauset Lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is made of cast iron with a brick lining and stands 48 feet high. It was built in 1877, and was located in Chatham as a twin to the one that is there today. In 1923, the smaller wooden lighthouse in Eastham was retired, and the north tower in Chatham was dismantled, moved to Eastham, and reconstructed about 200 feet from the edge of the cliff near the relocated keeper's house. In the 1940s, Nauset Lighthouse was painted red and white as a daytime indicator. In 1981, the light's Fresnel lens was replaced by two two rotating aero beacons. The signal was changed from three white flashes to one red and one white flash of 5 second intervals between them.

Coastal erosion continued and by 1996 it was dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. Less than 35 feet remained in November 1996 when Nauset Lighthouse was moved in one piece approximately 300 feet to a new site across the road. For the previous 73 years, the lighthouse had provided guidance to mariners traveling along the treacherous coastline of Cape Cod. In its new location, Nauset Lighthouse should be safe for another 30 years.


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Erosion along the eastern shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is an ongoing natural process. The wide sandy beaches are made from sand that falls down from the glacial cliffs, or scarps, behind the beach. Waves, currents and wind then move much of the sand to other parts of Cape Cod. 

Human construction, such as buildings and parking lots, often suffer severely from coastal erosion. A 300-car parking lot located one mile south of Nauset Light was completely demolished by the Great Storm of 1978. More recently, private homes in Chatham have fallen into the ocean as a result of coastal erosion. Nauset Lighthouse was in danger of falling over the cliff until it was moved to a new site in November 1996. It has been learned that it is better to build farther away from the shoreline and to plan for regular replacement or relocation of buildings, such as lighthouses, that need to be close to the water's edge.

The average natural erosion rate on the Atlantic Ocean side of Cape Cod has been 3.8 feet a year. However, in the area of Nauset Light, the average for the period 1987-1994 had accelerated to 5.8 feet. There may be little or no erosion in some years, and more than fifteen feet in other years.

Cape Cod is gradually narrowing. It loses more land than it gains. In several thousand more years, it will no longer exist.