Description: Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse, with its forty-one-foot white tower and black lantern, is the quintessential image of a New England lighthouse. And as such, the lighthouse has been featured in films such as “The Women” (2008), wherein it serves as a location on the Maine coastline.
The lighthouse and its keeper were even featured in an insurance ad in the April 20, 1957, issue of Time Magazine, accompanied by the following text:
Many folks think a lighthouse keeper is not interested in people on shore...let alone automobiles, traffic jams and accidents.
Annisquam Lighthouse is situated on the Annisquam River, which is in fact an estuary that connects Ipswich Bay to Gloucester Harbor. In 1631, the village of Annisquam was founded on the eastern side of the northern end of the river. The village grew into a fishing and shipbuilding center that during its heyday rivaled Gloucester. For ships traveling the coast, the river was considered an important refuge.
The lighthouse got its start with an April 29, 1800 act of Congress that authorized the erection of a light on Wigwam Point in Annisquam. The act also provided for the appointment of a keeper and other support of such lighthouse at the expense of the United States, provided that sufficient land for the lighthouse be granted to the United States. That land was to come from Gustavus Griffin, who deeded six-and-one-half acres on October 26, 1800, for which the U.S. Government paid him $140. The area was known as Wigwam Point, because it was historically a summer gathering place for Native Americans. Annisquam is a combination of the local Native Indian name for a harbor, “squam”, and “Ann” from Cape Ann, after Queen Anne of England. Originally, it was frequently written as “Anesquam.”
In 1801, $2,000 was spent for the construction of the original thirty-two-foot wooden lighthouse with a fixed white light forty feet above the water. A two-room keeper’s dwelling was erected near the tower. Its first keeper was George Day, a Gloucester native, who was provided an annual salary of $200. A well on the land was dug by Day himself.
An article published in the Boston Post during the early years of the light provides insight into the life of Keeper Day and his family. The article, quoted in
The Lighthouses of New England, states:
A large milk pan, an iron pot, and a dozen wooden spoons made up the greater part of their housekeeping articles; and their livestock consisted of a cow. It was their custom, while boiling their hominy for supper, to milk the cow into the pan, and after turning in the hominy and placing it on the floor, to gather around with their wooden spoons, and all help themselves from the same dish. On one of these occasions, old parson F., their minister happened to be paying them a parochial visit; and one of the boys, being a bit crowded, thought he could better his position by changing it to the opposite side of the dish. In attempting to do this, by stepping across, he accidently put his dirty foot square onto the milk and hominy, and before he could take it out again the rest had revenged themselves for the interruption by rapping him smartly on his bare leg with their wooden spoons, and without taking any further notice of the affair, went on eating as before…
When Civil Engineer I.W.P. Lewis made an 1842 inspection trip to the light, seventy-two-year-old Day was still keeper. His salary had been increased to $350 annually, but the light was in such appalling condition that Day worried it would fall down around him. Prompted by Lewis, Day wrote the following to be included in an 1843 report to Congress.
…The frame of the tower is rotted in all its parts, and has been shored up with spars for about twenty years. In gales, the tower is so shaken as to be very unsafe, and I hardly know what has kept it standing. Two years ago the bridge or walk leading from the house to the tower was swept away by a heavy sea only a few minutes after I crossed it. In the winter ice collects on the stairs so as to render passage up and down very dangerous. I expect every storm that comes the tower will be destroyed.
Despite the horrendous state of the lighthouse and keepers house, it was to take the U.S. Government another eight years to rebuild the lighthouse — following Day’s departure by mere months. William Dade took over in 1850, and by 1851 a new, white, octagonal forty-foot tower was in place, and the keepers dwelling was repaired.
In 1857, Annisquam Lighthouse received a fifth-order Fresnel lens rotated by a clockwork mechanism. A 109-foot-long covered walkway from the dwelling to the tower was built in 1867, but it was replaced with a simple walkway sometime after 1900.
From 1872-1894, Dennison Hooper was keeper at Annisquam. In 1879, his son Edward was born there. Later Edward was to write to historian Edward Rowe Snow about his years at the light, including a tale about two shipwrecks and a rescue attempt on September 26, 1888.
The two-masted schooner I.W. Hine ran aground on Coffin’s Beach. Luckily, the crew was able to make it to shore and to refloat the schooner. However, events did not go as well for the three-masted schooner the Abbie B. Cramer carrying coal out of Baltimore bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After it wrecked on Coffin’s Beach, the ship’s crew was forced to cling to the rigging for the entire day praying for help.
The crew of the Davis Neck Lifesaving Station arrived and repeatedly tried in vain to land a line for a breeches buoy. A group of volunteers from the Massachusetts Humane Society was mustered to launch a boat long kept for this purpose from the lighthouse. First they had to row the boat across the river to the west side. From there they had to carry the boat two miles to the beach near the wreck. Somehow after they launched the boat again, they managed to save the entire crew. However, the Cramer was a complete loss, and Hopper recalled seeing parts of the ship sticking from the sand at low tide for years.
In a letter to the Coast Guard, Edward Hooper reminisced about life at Annisquam and the annual supply ship visits carrying kerosene in 5-gallon cans covered with wood and a barrel of lime to be made into the tower’s whitewash.
In 1897, the present tower and attached workroom were built on the stone foundations of the previous lighthouse, replacing the original wooden construction with brick. Extensive repairs and improvements were also made to the dwelling, including its entire interior arrangement.
John Davis and his wife Ida (Birch) witnessed many changes during their time at the lighthouse from 1900-1936. In 1907, the light-station was connected with the city water supply and telephone service; and in 1922, the lighthouse received a more powerful fourth-order Fresnel lens. By 1930, the Annisquam Light Station was described as having a “six-room dwelling for lighthouse keepers; wooden tower for light; brick oil house for oil for light; fuel house and barn (wooden) for dwelling.”
A fog horn was established in 1931, but within the year it was decided that it should only operate from October 15-May 15, so as not to disturb the peace of summer residents. By 1949, the foghorn was put back into use during the summertime, but only during the daytime.
The lighthouse was completely automated in 1974, and the last keeper relieved of duty. However, the Coast Guard retained the building and surrounding 1.3 acres to house a Coast Guard family. When the Coast Guard deactivated the foghorn as part of the automation, a hue and cry rose up from local fishermen demanding it be turned back. Several thousand people signed a petition demanding its return. In 1975, a switch for the foghorn, which is operated by a sensor, was installed in the local police station.
By the end of the 20th century, the lighthouse tower appeared to be in good condition, but an inspection found that serious problems once again existed. Despite the tower having been well-built, exposure to the salt air had caused metal beams, installed to support a landing beneath the lantern room, to rust. Roughly 3,000 bricks, old glass block windows, and the rusted beams were replaced, along with the roof of the 1801 keeper’s house. The repairs were concluded in August 2000.
Located on Wigwam Point at the entrance to Annisquam Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.