Sunday, September 25, 2016

Baker's Island: A Seventy Year Old Mystery

In 1988 I moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts, to live in a house overlooking Salem Sound. The house was owned by a wealthy family and they needed someone to live there for awhile—“awhile” turned out to be seven years. From my bedroom window I could see three real lighthouses and the fake one in Manchester-by-the-Sea that was built as a watchtower during the Second World War. Another was Baker's Island.
Keeper's House and Lighthouse today
Baker's Island is a sixty acre island about four and a half miles off the coast of Salem to which it belongs. It served as my model for Hephzibah Regrets, the island home of the Ravenscroft family in my book, Depraved Heart. As early as 1630, Baker's Island was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in 1660 it was granted to the town of Salem. Most of the coast is steep ledges but on the western coast there is a stretch of rocky beach. Sometime in the 1790s the federal government took control of 10 acres at the northwest tip of the island and built two lighthouses, one of which still stands. The rest of the land was privately owned.
View of the island from the north
In the nineteenth century a Dr. Nathan Morse from Salem built a large summer home for his family, followed by a 75 room hotel called The Weene-egan. Eventually another fifty cottages were built by affluent families from Boston and the North Shore to be used as summer cottages. A private dock was built and the property owners were very reclusive. No one who was not a resident was allowed to use the dock so access to the island was limited. The hotel burned to the ground in 1903, but the cottages remained.
Ariel view showing the ponds, pier, and rocky coast
The island has three land-locked ponds and numerous wells containing water suitable for bathing and cleaning but not for consumption. There are no roads. People use golf carts and four-wheelers to get around. The only power comes from solar panels and generators. There is a small store and a community center, but people have to go to one of the surrounding towns to buy water and groceries. For over seventy years the island was a mystery to anyone not fortunate to have property there. When I was living in Marblehead a friend and I took her boat out to the island, but there were numerous signs on the only pier warning non-residents to stay away. The natives were most definitely not friendly!
The hotel resort before it burned in 1903
During this time I met a woman who had worked as a caretaker on the island for a few years. The lighthouse was automated so she had no responsibilities there. She lived in the lighthouse keeper's cottage with just her dog and did some maintenance and repair work on a few of the cottages. She told me she was writing a book about the many strange things that had happened while she lived there. She spoke of fog horns that would suddenly sound for no reason and then go silent. She said she often heard voices, laughter, and the moaning and sighs of lovers as she went about her work. I asked if she was ever frightened. At first she said, no. Then she added that she was glad she had her dog with her at all times. I asked if her dog sensed anything and she nodded. She said she quit the job because it was starting to get to her.
A postcard when both lighthouses stood.
In 2003 the Essex Heritage Commission took possession of the ten acres on which the lighthouse is located. They wanted to start tours of the property but the residents put up a fuss. New residents for the lightkeeper's cottage were found and they set to work restoring the remaining lighthouse, the cottage, and grounds. Finally, in 2015, the Heritage Commission started taking tour boats out to their property but signs are posted warning tourists to stay away from the rest of the property. The residents maintain their privacy.
Interior of the remaining lighthouse
The trip to Baker's Island is not an easy one. The boat docks on the rocky beach below the lighthouse and visitors have to scramble over the beach and then climb a steep incline to the property but, once there, the views are spectacular. So far I have not heard any reports of ghosts.
Path leading to the private property and cottages.
A few cottages as seen from the water today
There is one more island I want to write about—Thacher Island, with its twin lighthouses. I have climbed to the top of one of them and will tell about that next time.

Thanks for reading.


24 comments:

  1. Hi, Kathleen!

    It's easy to understand how the mind could play tricks on someone living on that tiny, remote island, cause them to hear phantom noises, voices and moans, give them a good scare and provide enough anecdotal material to write a book. On the other hand, imagine the peace and solitude it affords the lucky people who own summer cottages. So many historic structures were lost to fires and storms, leaving only those old photographs to remind us of their magnificence.

    Lighthouses have always fascinated me and over the years I have explored a couple. I have fond memories of my visit to the Barnegat Lighthouse on Long Beach Island, NJ.

    Thanks for the absorbing background story about Baker's Island and for showing pictures of it, then and now, from various vantage points. I would love to visit the mysterious isle someday. I hope you are having a pleasant Sunday, dear friend Kathleen, and I wish you a happy week ahead!

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    1. Hi, Shady,
      Yes, it certainly is intriguing. I think part of the allure of lighthouses is that they are--of necessity--in such isolated places. I wonder if that woman ever wrote her book. I'm going to have to go looking for it now.

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  2. Definitely intriguing.
    There is something about islands. And lighthouses....

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    1. Yes, their remoteness is ripe for story telling.

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  3. That could be such a lovely place for people to visit. Too bad the residents are so standoffish.

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    1. This is exactly what I was thinking as I read the post.

      The island itself sounds amazing, but the unfriendliness of the people who live there is a real shame.

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    2. Indeed. They cherish their privacy but it just encourages speculation.

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  4. Hi Kathleen - way too much went on I suspect .. which someday might be uncovered. I wonder if the families have left historical records - or if they're all so tightly controlled.

    Definitely stories to write - and that lighthouse cottage tenant and worker ... no wonder she was happy to have her dog around ... cheers Hilary

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    1. I think you are correct--wherever there is an attempt to keep people away, it is for a reason.

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  5. Kathleen, did you ever experience anything out of the ordinary while you lived near Baker's island? It sounds like your trip to visit it was quite interesting.

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  6. What a setting for a story! Beautiful, remote, and a limited cast of characters. I can understand the residents not wanting the place to become a tourist "trap". In the efforts to make money, the quiet aspect of the place could easily be ruined.

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    1. It certainly proved to be evocative for me.

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  7. How fascinating. I never knew this, even though I lived in Salem for eight years and on the North Shore for twenty-five. Thanks for sharing the info and photos.

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  8. That sounds like a really groovy place to live and vacation! I'd love to visit a place like that. It's been so long since I was by the Massachusetts coast, and I've really grown to miss going there in the summer.

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    1. I've been here 30 years and never have a desire to go anywhere else.

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  9. Loved reading this. I, too, ventured out too the island this past summer on the ferry and it was gorgeous beyond words. I can understand how the locals feel. I am downloading your book. Can't wait to start reading it.

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    1. Thank you! I hope that you enjoy it. Good for you for going out there!!!

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  10. Fascinating. I really enjoy your posts. This is particularly fascinating after I read historical articles about North Carolina's Outer Banks the other day. Islanders are fascinating folks and I long for the life. I'll make due for visits, for now. ~grin~ Be well!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words and for visiting, Darla.

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  11. All I can think of as I was reading this is how desperately I'd want to explore this place during a night-storm. Dark, dreary, rain pounding. Maybe I just like spooky too much. haha

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    1. Spooky is good. Plus it's that time of year.

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  12. What a neat place to live. I've been in a few lighthouses and I could see where staying there for years while strange things are going around you would be disconcerting. There seems to be a lot of history in lighthouses.

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    1. I think because they are so closely associated with danger and saving people from the terrors of the sea. I can't imagine living on an island all alone.

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