Built in 1865 and standing 190 feet above sea level – with 237 steel steps from top to bottom – the Black Rocks Lighthouse of Avalon Shores was once quite a sight. For six years it had the honor of being the tallest lighthouse in the continental United States (until it was unseated by the 207-foot-tall lighthouse of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1871). The name of Avalon’s famous structure derived from the black basalt jetty rocks that were painstakingly positioned into a ring around the lighthouse’s base to combat erosion.
A man named O’Shaughnessy designed Black Rocks Lighthouse and then oversaw its construction over a period of two years. His passion for architecture was unparalleled – and outmatched only by his passion for the sea – so when the United States Lighthouse Board recruited him to design the lighthouse for Avalon Shores, he was ecstatic. He began sketching immediately, envisioning a two-tone black and white façade.
O’Shaughnessy was a native of Ireland, but unlike most of his emigrating countrymen, he brought with him to America a very moderate wealth. Using this wealth, he made arrangements to import bricks from an old church that had once stood in his hometown of Kinsale. The church had been a touchstone of the small town for generations before it collapsed, the soil below having shifted from a season of freak heavy rains. Despite its unfortunate end, O’Shaughnessy had considered the church to be good luck and felt the inclusion of its bricks would bless his lighthouse in some way. The bricks were imported per his request, carefully sanded, and seamlessly weaved into the construction of his project. Specifically, it was these bricks that were used to create the three equidistant black rings that O’Shaughnessy envisioned in the otherwise white lighthouse.
The finished product was majestic and immediately became the pride of Avalon Shores. Construction ended mid-winter of 1865, but was not officially unveiled until the spring of 1866. It was a major event in the town. The mayor made a rousing speech, which finely camouflaged the small town’s dependence on the ability to safely export goods with images of salty dogs sailing majestic waters, the sun on their backs. When dusk fell, the bright lamps at the lighthouse’s top were illuminated, and when the white light rode the gray clouds across the sky, a brief hush fell over the crowd. And then applause rang out. O’Shaughnessy served the inaugural first shift as lighthouse keeper, smoking his pipe and keeping an eye on everything before him until the sun rose that morning.
Black Rocks Lighthouse stood like a sentry for over seventy years, receiving occasional and routine renovations during this time. Brighter lamps were installed to keep up with increasingly strict regulations, large sections of new internal steps were installed, and not the least important, technology was upgraded in every way possible in the lighthouse’s control center. O’Shaughnessy died before any of this had occurred, however; he succumbed to a heart attack at 63.
On October 16th, 1925, an immense storm the likes of which most Avalonians had never seen rampaged their shores. Waves fifty feet high crashed across and over the rocks of the lighthouse. The structure once thought sound began to buckle under the force of the water and the strength of the wind. Her creaking and groaning could be heard almost a mile away in every direction. The two-man crew working the lighthouse that night abandoned her and ran for safety, knowing her destruction was imminent. Their attempt to alert the coast guard that the lamps of Black Rocks Lighthouse would soon extinguish had little result, as power across the seaside town failed, including the phones. The groaning that emanated from the succumbing lighthouse – which the two men later described as eerily similar to human wails of pain – intensified. Soon after, the two men became the only witnesses to the lighthouse’s collapse into the angry seas. The waves greedily swept the fallen bricks – including the ones O’Shaughnessy once considered holy relics – into the unseen depths of the waters.
The town was devastated for all manner of reasons. The lighthouse, while not having brought them considerable wealth, had certainly made things more comfortable financially. Not only did its bright lights allow for easy post-sundown dock deliveries, but it had proved a popular tourist destination as well.
Officials scrambled to begin plans to erect a new lighthouse in its place, but looked upon rebuilding on the original foundation with great doubt, afraid to lose yet another lighthouse to a merciless storm. Further, entire portions of the jetty were now missing, and the collapsing lighthouse had done considerable damage to its concrete base. It was decided that the area would be cleaned up as best as possible, but no lighthouse would ever stand in that spot again—not without a considerable amount of money, time, and ingenious engineering.
Two weeks later, a small clipper ship just off the coast of Avalon Shores became lost in the dark. In a time before radio communication, the captain of the vessel had only his sextant to guide him through the black waves. As he unknowingly drifted closer to the hidden rocks of Avalon Shores, a ring of light whipped across the night. And then another. The captain looked with panicky eyes and claimed he saw Black Rocks Lighthouse, finally realizing how close to his vessel’s destruction he had strayed. He very quickly repositioned the course of his vessel, giving Avalon Shores a wide berth. The man later admitted he had been awake for almost 28 hours straight – desperate to make a timely delivery of smelt after his vessel had suffered a mechanical problem – which is probably why his claims of the black and white lighthouse having saved his life were laughed off and disregarded. The man stuck to his guns, never changing a word of his story, even after it was explained to him that the lighthouse had collapsed two weeks prior.
Some of the townspeople enjoyed this tale, amused as if it were no more than an anecdote to tell at dinner parties, while others simply said the man had mistaken his dates and had seen the lighthouse prior to its collapse. But that all changed when multiple reports began steadily rolling in—reports that the lighthouse’s glow could be spotted from way out in the water. The idle amusement in the claims ceased almost over night—especially when it wasn’t just strangers or sailors passing through, but members of their own town claiming to see the lighthouse standing stoically, as if it had never tumbled into the waves. Despite the many eyewitness accounts that poured in, there simply was no constant presence of the lighthouse—in physical form, or otherwise. The only time it ever seemed to appear was when someone at sea was in distress.
Avalon Shores was again filled with pride in regards to their lighthouse. Though stories of the “ghost lighthouse” traveled far down the shores in both directions, outsiders never gave it any serious consideration, and so it remained a hidden secret only for those who lived in town. As fantastic as the stories were, eventually Avalon citizens stopped talking about it and simply let it be.
As time went on, construction began on a new lighthouse, roughly 200 feet from the previous location—as well as further from shore. It was also decided early on to reinforce the base of the lighthouse with twice as many basalt rocks as before, ensuring its stability. With a larger crew, and newer technology to aid in their construction, the town was confident they could have a new lighthouse up and running in less than a year.
One night in early May, 1926, another vessel appeared in the midnight horizon. It was a dark, foreboding vessel, with antiquated carvings and an ominous design. Manning the vessel was a pirate named Donovan, one of the most bloodthirsty sailing the ocean at that time. He and his crew were lowly creatures, not stopping at robbing and pillaging other ships, but rather taking sick pleasure in ending the lives of those who crossed their paths. Oftentimes, Donovan and his men would storm a ship, or even a small seaside town, to murder and mutilate, leaving would-be treasures and valuables behind. They were not out to profit—they were only out to kill.
On this May night, as they sailed closer and closer to Avalon Shores, light they assumed to be coming from the nearby lighthouse flooded across their ship. But according to the lone survivor of the vessel, he claimed it was:
…the brightest light we had ever seen—brighter than the sun. It was so bright that our flesh began to warm, and even sweat. The light blinded us—we could not see a foot in front of our noses. For several minutes we stumbled across the decks, our hands covering our eyes. Any man who dared look into the light had his eyes burned out in seconds. And that’s when our ship struck the rocks. We went down in less than three minutes. The men’s bodies were smashed repeatedly against the rocks by the tide, and those who survived the thrashings sunk below the waves. After that, the light vanished. My last thought before washing up on the shore and passing out was, “Where the hell is the lighthouse that left us blind?” Because there was nothing there!
He later confessed that the men were scouting out Avalon Shores, planning to invade and kill a bulk of the town before the week was out.
Construction of Avalon Shores’ new lighthouse – rechristened as simply Avalon Light – was completed earlier than anticipated. There was little fanfare around the event this time around, although the town did install a memorial plaque just outside the main entrance of the lighthouse.
The plaque is still there to this day. It reads:
“She shone her light to those in peril;
And with it she vanquished the darkness.”
In Memory: The Black Rocks Lighthouse
1865 – ?