Truro, the second most northerly town on Cape Cod, was settled in 1646. In its early years Truro had a whaling fleet, with nine sloops in the early 1800s. A dangerous spot called Peaked Hill Bars, graveyard of many ships, is about a mile northeast of Highland Light. In 1794, Reverend James Freeman wrote that there were more ships wrecked near the eastern shore of Truro than on any other part of Cape Cod. "A light house," he went on to say, "near the Clay Pounds should Congress think proper to erect one, would prevent many of these fatal accidents."
In 1796, 10 acres of land on a high bluff were acquired for $110 from Isaac Small of Truro. Small became the first keeper of the lighthouse.
… A 45-foot wooden lighthouse, the 20th in the United States, was built 500 feet from the edge of the bluff in 1797, exhibiting its light from 160 feet above mean high water.
.. An 1828 report stated that the 1797 wooden lighthouse was "very imperfect - is easily wracked by the winds, which shakes the lantern so much as to break the glass very frequently." A new brick lighthouse was erected close to the site of the first one in 1831. …
Naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau visited Highland Light several times in the 1850s. Thoreau found the lighthouse "a neat building, in apple pie order." In his book, Cape Cod, he wrote:
The keeper entertained us handsomely in his solitary little ocean house. He was a man of singular patience and intelligence, who, when our queries struck him, rang as clear as a bell in response. The light-house lamp a few feet distant shone full into my chamber, and made it bright as day, so I knew exactly how the Highland Light bore all that night, and I was in no danger of being wrecked... I thought as I lay there, half-awake and half-asleep, looking upward through the window at the lights above my head, how many sleepless eyes from far out on the ocean stream - mariners of all nations spinning their yarns through the various watches of the night - were directed toward my couch.
… A Naval radio station was located at Highland Light in 1904. The station assumed great importance during World War I and was guarded by a detachment of Marines. An even larger Fresnel lens, floating on a bed of mercury, was installed in 1901. After an electric light was put inside this lens in 1932, the light became the coast's most powerful. The 4,000,000 candlepower light could be seen for 45 miles, and reportedly as far as 75 miles in clear weather. The giant lens was removed in the early 1950s, replaced by modern aerobeacons.
… When the first lighthouse was built in 1797, it was over 500 feet from the edge of the 125 foot cliff. The cliff continued to erode at a rate of at least three feet a year until, by the early 1990s, the present lighthouse stood just over a hundred feet from the edge. In 1990 alone 40 feet were lost just north of the lighthouse.
A group within the Truro Historical Society began raising funds for the moving of Highland Light. Gordon Russell, president of both the Truro Historical Society and the Save the Light Committee, said that he and other volunteers sent out 30,000 brochures and collected 140,000 signatures on a petition. Local residents and tourists made donations and bought t-shirts and other souvenirs, and the Society raised over $150,000. In 1996 this money was combined with $1 million in federal funds and $500,000 in state funds to pay for the move of the 404-ton lighthouse to a site 450 feet back from its former location. The operation got underway in June 1996, under the direction of International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, with the help of subcontractor Expert House Moving of Maryland, the same companies responsible for the successful move of Block Island Southeast Light in 1993. Thousands of sightseers gathered to catch a glimpse of the rare move.
… On Sunday, November 3, 1996 Highland Light was relighted in its new location. Over 200 people toured the tower's interior before the relighting ceremony. The Highland Light Bagpipe Band performed in full regalia, and Congressman Gerry Studds, an important proponent of the move, spoke to the assembled crowd. "While this light may not save lives," said Studds, "it will inspire lives for a long time to come."
… In April 2001 the lighthouse got a needed facelift. The job performed by Campbell Construction of Beverly, Massachusetts entailed sandblasting the lead paint from the interior of the lantern room and the tower's stairs, removing rust from the exterior iron work and replacing some railing sections as well as rusted iron panels. Some cracks in the iron work were welded with certanium. A new window was installed, and some of the brick work on the ocean-facing side of the tower had to be replaced. The interior of the lantern room and the stairs were repainted, as was the entire exterior of the tower. In addition, a new ventilation system was installed, which will make visits to the lantern room more comfortable in summer.