|Baker's Island, MA|
Description: For some lighthouses scant information remains, even in the records of the Lighthouse Board, however, for Baker’s Island Lighthouse, situated on the northern side of Baker’s Island along the approach to Salem Harbor, there is a wealth of material. One rich source is the diary of Reverend Dr. William Bentley, who could easily read over twenty languages. As Bentley (1757-1819) was a maritime expert, his interest in the Baker’s Island Light is unsurprising.
In the late 1780s, Salem was a bustling international port with as many as ten ships docking each week from such exotic ports as China, India, Japan, and Australia, yet it lacked lighthouses and other navigational aids. Thus, on May 25, 1791, the Salem Mariners Society voted that a three-man committee should “Aract a Backon [sic] on Bakers Island.” A few weeks later, ₤20 was set aside by the society for an unlit navigational aid. It soon became apparent that those funds were insufficient, and a public subscription was circulated in July 1791. Seventy-one people signed it generating an additional ₤89.
According to Bentley’s diary: “the intended Beacon was raised by a large and Jovial party.” While Bentley considered the interior badly vented and the foundation stones to be “very miserably laid,” the red, conical beacon, which was fifty-seven feet high and topped by a black, two-foot diameter ball, nonetheless served as a daytime guide for the next several years.
The Salem Mariners Society also established some buoys in the waters near Baker’s Island, but as shipwrecks continued at an alarming rate, the society petitioned local lighthouse superintendent General Benjamin Lincoln and the U.S. Congress in 1791 for a proper lighthouse on the island.
White, being the absence of colour, & so a contrast to all other colours has been generally approved. But it is supposed that an illuminated horizon will not transmit it defined so well with white, as the darker colours. The presumption that white is not so well defined upon a Sky Horizon has induced the persons who have erected the late Beacon to chuse a deep red colour. The question which colour will be of most use through the changes of the sky, seems not attended to. The argument from a bright horizon is more attended to than an approach in the night or the land horizon, in which white is supposed to have an advantage.
On April 8, 1796, President Washington approved $6,000 for a set of twin lights for Baker’s Island, in spite of General Lincoln’s fear that mariners would mistake the lights for the twin lights on Thatcher Island to the north and Plymouth to the south. Lincoln had early proposed a two-story building with three lights spread along a 50-foot span of its roof, but his plan was rejected.
The light station was built on ten acres on Baker’s Island by the Boston contractor Solomon Blake for $3,674.57 and went into service on January 3, 1798. Two towers, set 40 feet apart, were built atop the roof of a wooden, two-story keepers dwelling—which was considered by Bentley to be “very plain.” The northern light was 95 feet above mean high water, while the southern had a focal plane of 78 feet.
The first keeper, Capt. George Chapman of the Salem Mariners Society, served until he turned 75 in 1815. When Chapman later went blind, his condition was blamed on the brightness of the lights he tended on Baker’s Island. Joseph Perkins was selected as keeper upon Chapman’s retirement. While serving on Baker’s Island as a harbor pilot during the War of 1812, Perkins spied the USS Constitution being pursued by two British ships, the Tenedos and Endymion. Perkins immediately leapt into his dory, rowed out to the Constitution, and, with his intimate knowledge of the local waters, piloted her to safety in Marblehead Harbor.
A severe storm in August of 1815 ended up drastically altering the appearance of the station. “Nearly every square of glass on the Western side of the Light house, and in the Lanterns” was smashed, according to a local newspaper report. The damage forced the station to close for a few months and cost $4,000 in repairs. When the station resumed operation, a single, freestanding stone tower, had taken the place of the twin lights.
Following the appeals of the Salem Marine Society and the citizens of Salem, Marblehead, and Beverly to restore a second light, on May 15, 1820, funds were appropriated to build a new 47-foot, conical granite tower to join the existing 26-foot tower. The two towers, first lit together in October of 1820, would become affectionately known as “Mr. and Mrs.” or “Ma and Pa.”
Despite their best efforts and precautions, a keeper’s life could be fraught with danger and discomfort. In late October 1825, a squall claimed the lives of both Keeper Nathaniel Ward and his assistant Mr. Marshall. The pair set off from the mainland with a load of supplies, but heavy seas prevented them from reaching the island. Ward’s body washed up near the light, and Marshall’s was found in the station’s small, flat-bottom boat. The 49-year-old Ward was reported to have a large family left destitute by his drowning.
Following Ward as keeper was Ambrose Martin, who was assisted for a time by his daughter Jane. Jane would later become a keeper in her own right at the Marblehead Lighthouse. Ambrose Martin received $300 per year, which increased to $400 in 1829. The miserable living conditions facing the Martins was noted in the 1842 report by engineer I.W.P. Lewis, wherein he described both towers as leaky and rotten, prone to icing up in winter, and the dwelling as “old and crazy” and requiring replacement. Lewis stressed that the sorry state of the facilities was not due to Keeper Martin.
No light-house of its class in Massachusetts is so poorly provided for in respect to the quality of its apparatus, which was old when introduced here, and now completely worn out. The keeper is deserving of the greatest praise for the extreme neatness of the whole establishment, which is second to none in this particular. A good apparatus, therefore, in such hands, would be well cared for, and is absolutely required in so important a locality; and seventeen years residence in a house little better than a barn entitles a faithful public servant to a comfortable dwelling in his old age.Keeper Martin never received the dwelling he so merited, as it took another fifteen years before the station received a new keeper’s house, lanterns, and Fresnel lenses.
In 1869, the Lighthouse Board called for the Baker’s Island lights to be moved farther apart to increase their efficacy, but the owner of the adjacent plot refused to sell the necessary land. In 1871, $5,000 was approved to rebuild the front light on a proper site.
According to a 1901 report from the Collector of the Port of Salem, 667 vessels entered the port that year with cargoes amounting to 656,039 tons, and in coal alone, 417, 924 tons, valued at $1,670,000. Vessels were often forced to enter Salem Harbor due to the “capricious” New England weather where blinding fog and thick snowstorms arose with little notice.
At 6 a.m. on March 20, Keeper Arthur L. Payne sighted an open motor boat in distress about two miles northeast of his station. He and his assistant, Elno C. Mott, immediately set out in the station boat to investigate and upon arrival found two exhausted and hungry men inside the boat, which had broken down about 7 p.m. the day before. The keepers took the two men to the light station, served them a hot breakfast, and afterwards towed them to Salem.
Although the smaller tower was deactivated and dismantled in 1926, the taller tower remains active. Baker’s Island Light was automated in 1972 and converted to solar power in 2000. When the U.S. Coast Guard attempted to remove the tower’s fourth-order Fresnel lens, which floated on a bed of mercury, the crew was overcome by fumes and had to be rushed by helicopter to a hospital. That lens is now on display at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine.
The Baker’s Island Association (founded in 1914) manages the island and only permits the islanders and their guests to land there. In 1988, the association was granted a 30-year lease for the keeper’s dwellings, which are inhabited by island residents during the summer season. Ownership of the lighthouse was offered to qualified nonprofits and governmental organizations in 2002 under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The Island Association applied for the lighthouse, but after the submitted applications were reviewed, the lighthouse property was awarded in April of 2005 to the Essex National Heritage Commission, a nonprofit organization that spotlights the historical, cultural, and natural resources of Essex County
The Island Association appealed the decision claiming that the government was biased in awarding the lighthouse to the Essex Commission, which receives a portion of its funding from the National Park Service. The original decision was subsequently upheld, leaving many island landowners concerned about the safety of their property if the lighthouse is opened to the public as required under the transfer. The Essex Commission plans to offer ranger-escorted tours to groups of up to forty people and also allow marine studies students from Gordon College to live in the keepers' houses for six weeks during the summer. The islanders’ battle to protect their privacy is certainly not over as they control the island’s only dock.
Located on Baker's Island at the entrance to Salem Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the Essex National Heritage Commission. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Essex National Heritage Commission. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Frederick Medina, used by permission.