Following the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision to surplus Straitsmouth Lighthouse, in July 2008, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) stepped in. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the GSA is responsible for making decommissioned lights available to a federal agency, state or local government, nonprofit corporation or community organization that is financially able to preserve the lighthouse. The light station must then be used for recreational, historic, cultural or educational purposes and made available to the general public at reasonable times and under reasonable conditions.
Had all the necessary conditions not been met, the GSA would have made Straitsmouth Lighthouse, which remains an active solar-powered, navigational guide, available at public auction. The rest of Straitsmouth Island, where Straitsmouth Lighthouse is situated, is owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and used as a bird sanctuary. Straitsmouth Island, along with Thacher and Milk islands, were originally dubbed the “Three Turks’ Heads” by Captain John Smith, who visited the area in 1614 and is reputed to have cut off the heads of three Turks at the siege of Caniza. In honor of Smith’s part in the siege, Prince Sigimundus of Transylvania, granted approval to symbolize the three Turks in Smith’s coat of arms.
Straitsmouth Island received its current name sometime before 1699, when the General Court granted the island to Captain James Davis, because he had “been at much charge and expense in the late wars with the French and Indian enemy, and spent much time in said service.” The island’s value was 225 pounds in the devalued currency of 1732.
In the 1800s, the addition of Rockport’s growing granite trade to its already thriving fishing business conclusively proved that a lighthouse was necessary to guide ships to Pigeon Cove Pier, where the stone was loaded, and Straitsmouth Island was deemed the ideal location on Sandy Bay’s northeastern end.
On June 30, 1834, $5,000 was appropriated, of which $4.091.29 was spent to construct the lighthouse, a nineteen-foot-tall brick tower, and an associated brick keeper’s dwelling. When Benjamin W. Andrews became the light’s first keeper in 1835, he was granted exemption from jury and military duty by an Act passed by the Massachusetts Commissioners on April 8, 1835. Andrews died on the island in 1840, at the age of forty-four, and was replaced on July 1, 1841, by John Davis, whose annual salary was $350 at the time of his appointment.
By the time I.W.P. Lewis inspected the light station in 1842, it was showing unmistakable signs of poor construction. Keeper Davis had taken some steps though to make the house “tight and comfortable,” and had torn apart the leaky, useless brick cistern in the cistern and used the bricks to pave the cellar floor. Lewis called the tower “a specimen of contract work of the worst kind.” It was “laid up in bad lime mortar,” its woodwork was rotten, and it was very leaky. Although there were six lamps with thirteen-and-a-half-inch reflectors in the lantern room, four were “out of plumb” and one pointed toward the lantern’s door where it had “burned for six years without the possibility of being seen.”
Keeper Davis suggested in a letter written in April 1843, that the light should be moved eighty-seven yards. This new location would put the tower farther from the dwelling, but Davis argued that “that circumstance ought not to be thought of for a moment, when the property and lives of our seafaring brethren are in jeopardy.”
In 1843, the local superintendent branded the lighthouse “a miserable brick tower.” He had praise for Davis though, saying he was “an excellent, attentive man, and careful of everything.” The superintendent recommended that boat ways be added as the station was difficult to reach in heavy seas.
Even with all these complaints, it would take more than seven years before a replacement lighthouse was constructed. An inspection report from 1850 noted that “a new tower was soon to be built,” to replace the leaky lighthouse.
In 1851, construction began on the new lighthouse on the island’s northeastern tip, where it could better serve mariners. The new twenty-four-foot-tall, octagonal stone tower was equipped with six lamps, set in fourteen-inch reflectors, until it received a sixth-order Fresnel lens in 1857. The keeper remained housed in the original, leaky dwelling until 1877, when a new six-room, one-and-a-half-story, wood frame house was completed.
To reach the tower, the keeper walked along a raised wooden footbridge, which was rebuilt in 1894. Two years later, the tower itself would require rebuilding. The new thirty-seven-foot, cylindrical brick tower was set atop the same foundation as the 1851 tower. During construction, the station’s sixth-order white light shone from a temporary wooden skeletal tower, erected forty-five feet south of the lighthouse.
In 1905, an oil house was erected to house the volatile kerosene oil then in use. The light was changed from white to its present green characteristic (flashing every 6 seconds) in 1931. Also in the early 1930s, the light was automated, and a local man was granted a license to live in the keeper’s dwelling. Then in 1941, the island, except for 1.8 acres where the light station was located, was sold to Glenn Wilson, a New York resident, for $3,050. For a short time following World War II, a restaurant operated on the island.
An electric foghorn was installed on the active tower in 1974, but the abandoned house was quickly deteriorating, sped along by vandalism. The “Perfect Storm” of October 1991 destroyed the entry house to the tower.
With the efforts of the Thacher Island Town Committee and the Thacher Island Association, Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse will certainly continue to receive periodic care. This is only fitting for a lighthouse owned by the Town of Rockport, which so reveres lighthouses that a pair of them is featured prominently on its seal.
Between 2010 and 2013, the Massachusetts Audubon Society spent over $180,000 rehabilitating the Victorian keeper’s dwelling, which was nearly in ruin. The collapsed eastern wall was replaced, and a new roof was installed. Volunteers from the Thacher Island Association rebuilt the dwelling’s two porches, stairs, and railings and helped with the painting of the structure in 2013. In 2001, Jay Hyland of the Lighthouse Preservation Society proposed moving the dwelling to Newburyport, but Rockport’s selectmen strongly opposed this plan.
The ambitious Thacher Island Association completely renovated Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse in 2013, after having restored the oil house in 2010. In 2014, the association signed a thirty-year lease on the keeper’s dwelling and oil house with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Future plans include restoring the dwelling’s interior to make it habitable for volunteer keepers to spend the summer there.
Head Keepers: Benjamin W. Andrews (1835 – 1840), John Davis (1841 – 1849), Henry T. Lowe (1849 – 1853), Ebenezer Pool, Jr. (1853 – 1860), Sylvester Pearce (1860 – 1861), John S. Wheeler (1861 – 1866), William Cunningham (1866), Nehemiah Knowlton (1866 – 1879), Frank H. Dennis (1879 – 1883), Walter S. Rogers (1883 – 1892), Walter S. Thompson (1892 – 1893), Thomas W. Newcomb (1893 – 1913), Henry W. Newcomb (1913), Thomas J. Creed (1913 – 1918), John E.H. Cook (1918 – 1925), George F. Woodman, Jr. (1925 – 1928), Hoyt P. Smith (1928 – 1933).