A Place of Pilgrimage

Duxbury’s Myles Standish Monument is a hidden gem

By Randall Geller
Photography by Matt Mulligan

On a clear day, you can see forever - or so it seems from the top of the Myles Standish Monument in Duxbury. The 130-foot tower is situated on Captain’s Hill, which is 200 feet above sea level, and offers visitors stunning panoramic views of Plymouth Bay, Clark’s Island, Saquish and The Gurnet. Visible from as far as 35 miles out to sea, seafaring captains have long used the monument as a navigational landmark. To many locals, it has become a place of pilgrimage.

When the tower is open, visitors can ascend 125 steps to a small viewing area at the top. On the clearest days, it’s possible to glimpse the point of Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument in the distance.

“The view is spectacular, especially at sunset,” says Duxbury resident and Drew Archival Library archivist and historian Carolyn Ravenscroft. “The last time I went it was a crystal clear day and I could see all the way to Boston and Provincetown. The vista is striking. I go almost every day.”

Duxbury Town Historian Tony Kelso has been making trips to the Myles Standish Monument ever since he was a kid. “It’s a great feeling to be on top of that big hill overlooking Plymouth and Duxbury,” says Kelso. “While I’m not sure Myles Standish has the cache he once had, the monument still has the lure of Pilgrim history and it is a town symbol.”

The Myles Standish Monument was the brainchild of a Boston businessman and historian, Stephen Merrill Allen, who arrived in Duxbury for the first time in 1870.  The town had been in economic decline for several decades but was on the upswing and Allen saw the town’s potential as a seaside summer resort for the wealthy. Allen sought to capitalize on the town’s Pilgrim associations by creating a grand monument in memory of Myles Standish. The Pilgrims’ only trained soldier and military leader, Standish played a leading role in defending the Plimoth Colony and helped establish Duxbury as a settlement in the early 1630s.  

Thousands of people turned out for the emplacement of the monument’s cornerstone in October 1872, but a severe economic downturn caused construction to be delayed. The monument’s exterior – including the 14-foot statue of Myles Standish – was complete by 1889, the same year the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth was dedicated. Indeed, the two behemoths facing one another across the bay were under construction at the same time.  

Despite the fanfare when it finally opened, upkeep was expensive and the monument was turned over to state supervision on August 6, 1920. Just two years later, the 14-foot statue of Myles Standish atop the monument was struck by lightning and decapitated leading to animated newspaper headlines like “Myles Standish Loses his Head.” According to a Boston Globe report the next day, the sound of the statue crashing to the ground was heard all over Duxbury. The tower itself was severely damaged and the steps leading to the monument, which weighed several tons, were upended. 

The original statue of Myles Standish was sculpted by Italian immigrants at the Cape Ann Granite Company in Rockport, but the 1922 lightning strike necessitated a wholesale replacement. Like its predecessor, the new Standish statue’s right arm holds a copy of the Mayflower Compact, which some people say is pointing towards Provincetown (the first landing site of the Pilgrims in November of 1620) while others argue it is pointing towards Plymouth, the final destination of the Pilgrims in December of that year.  

According to Erin McGough, executive director of Duxbury’s Rural and Historical Society, the town is planning to commemorate Myles Standish and the monument built in his honor in the year 2020. But on any given weekend, you can find visitors happily climbing the winding staircase and whooping with surprise and joy at the view of the ocean, church spires and lighthouses. It makes you wonder why an interior staircase for the nearby Plymouth Monument to the Forefathers was never built well over a century ago – but that’s another story.