Sunday, October 02, 2016

Beautiful Thacher Island: Anne's Eyes

When I first moved to Massachusetts, one of the first things I did was buy several books about the area lighthouses. Of all the lighthouses that dot the New England coast the ones I found most fascinating were the Twin Lights of Thacher Island, known locally as Anne's Eyes. Though the 54 acre island on which the Twin Lights are situated belong to the town of Rockport, they are visible from Gloucester's Back Shore and Good Harbor Beach. They are also the background for this blog and they have quite a history.
North Tower in the foreground, South Tower and Cottages in the background
In 1605 Samuel de Champlain wrote about the island and 10 years later John Smith dubbed the three islands along Cape Ann the Turk's Heads. Thacher Island was named for Anthony Thacher, who, in 1635, was traveling from Ipswich to Marblehead when a terrible storm rose. The ship rounded Cape Ann and its sails were shredded so the captain put in to Sandy Bay, but the anchor did not hold and the ship was swept out to sea. Anthony and his wife were washed ashore on Thacher Island. All five of their children were lost along with his cousin, his cousin's wife, and all eight of their children. The body of one of the children was washed ashore and is buried there to this day. Thacher and his wife survived and the colonial government, out of pity, gave him the island which he named Thacher's Woe.
Keeper and Assistant Keeper Cottages as they appear today.
The family never occupied the island and sold it some 80 years later to a man from Gloucester who used it to pasture cattle. In the early 1700s shipping magnate John Hancock petitioned the Colony to build a series of lighthouses along the Massachusetts coast and 2 lighthouses were built on Thacher Island. The first set of towers were only 40 feet in height and the first lighthouse keeper was assigned to the station by Alexander Hamilton. In 1861 two new towers were built. These were 125 feet high, made of granite with a brick interior and beautiful wrought iron spiral staircases. Fresnel lenses were added and the lights could now be seen from 22 miles away. Also, houses were built for the keepers and assistant keepers. There was a whistle house and wooden ramps with rails going to both towers to facilitate moving supplies between the towers and up from the dock.
The same cottages in the early 1900s.
There are a lot of legends that surround these towers. Probably the most famous is that of Maria Bray, the wife of lighthouse keeper Alexander Bray. A few days before Christmas in 1864, Alexander decided to take his assistant keeper to the mainland for medical treatment. A freak snowstorm blew in and he could not return. Maria, alone except for a 12 year old nephew staying with them, knew if she did not keep both lights lit her husband would never find his way back to the island. For three days and nights she and her nephew traveled back and forth between the two lighthouses—a quarter mile trip—hauling oil, climbing the 157 steps, polishing glass, and trimming wicks. Each light had to be tended every 4 hours. Her husband made his way home after three days thanks to her incredible work.
An early Keeper with his wife and children.
As many as five families of keepers lived on the island at one time.
The lighthouses now belong to the Coast Guard. The South Tower is fully automated and run with solar power. The North Tower has a light burning 24 hours a day but does not act as a navigation guide. When I first visited the island in the early 1990s a family of goats had moved into the North Tower and the entire island was a refuge for Black-Back Gulls and terns. They were so aggressive, protecting their nests, that we had to carry poles to ward them off.
Early Keepers raised their own livestock and kept their own gardens.
I climbed the North Tower and it is an experience I will never forget. The view was spectacular. A couple years later I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in the Assistant Keeper's Cottage with a group of other artists who had rented it for a retreat. We spent the entire weekend wandering the island, painting and drawing, and just reveling in the absolute beauty of the place.
At one time there was a Keeper's cottage for the North Tower but that is now gone.
In 1967 the island was host to a notorious guest. Mafioso Joseph “The Animal” Barboza was held there as part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.
I took this photograph out of a window in the North Tower, looking at the South Tower.
Notice the abundance of guano on the windowsill.
Perhaps the most amazing story about Anne's Eyes was told to me by Gloucester fisherman and my dear friend, Mark S. Williams. One of the lesser known things about the twin lighthouses is that they have been carefully constructed on an axis that can be used for navigation. If a ship approaches from the north and brings itself around to align the two lights to appear as one, that trajectory will bring the boat straight to Gloucester's Outer Harbor.
Today visitors arrive by kayak, motor boats, sailboats, and more.
Mark told me that he was returning from Nova Scotia bringing back his newly purchased boat, F/V Black Sheep, when he lost navigation. It was night and, while he knew he did not have far to go, he was sailing blind. He was mightily relieved when he spotted the twin lights of Thacher Island ahead and, remembering the old axis on which they were built, he maneuvered his boat into position and sailed right up to where he could see Eastern Point Light, round Dog Bar Breakwater, and bring his new boat home.
South Tower lens room. The original Fresnel lens is now in the Cape Ann Museum
Today Thacher Island is managed by the Thacher Island Association out of Rockport. They sponsor events throughout the summer. Check their calendar for visitor's information, transportation, and other news. There are also two web cams--one from the South Tower and one from the Keeper's house. Thacher Island will always be one of the most special places in the world to me and I highly recommend a visit there.
Sunrise reflected on rock
Thanks for reading.


20 comments:

  1. Hi, Kathleen!

    This is another fascinating and informative post complete with excellent then and now photos and tales of survival and heroism. I enjoyed learning the history surrounding Anne's Eyes, the Twin Lights of Thacher Island. Imagine all the human triumphs and tragedies those eyes have witnessed over the centuries. It would be devastating to lose all of your children in a vicious storm. Keepers and their families needed to be made of sturdy stuff to endure the harsh weather and related hardships. I checked out those two live webcams and was reluctant to log off for fear of missing something. In the coming week hurricane Matthew might stir up rough seas causing the waves to crash on those rocks with greater ferocity.

    You are very fortunate to live in such a scenic and history rich part of the country, Kathleen. Thank you, dear friend, and enjoy the week ahead!

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  2. Hi, Shady, thanks for coming by and reading my article. It is indeed a fascinating place but, as you observed, the home to a great deal of sadness as well. I cannot imagine what those poor Thachers went through. The island is doing well and lots of artists go there to paint every year so I am hopeful it will survive.

    Yes, those web cams are gorgeous. I check them all the time!!!

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  3. Fascinating. Tragedy, beauty, determination and triumph.

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  4. A very interesting read. Thank you for the lesson. Personally, I really loved that final picture. Did you take that?

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    1. No, but I think it is by a local photographer named Les Bartlett. He has spent a lot of time out there photographing it.

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  5. Lighthouses are fascinating. (Sorry, it's late on a Sunday night. Words not working tonight.)

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  6. Interesting post. So much thought went into the positioning of the lighthouses.

    My favourite lighthouse is in my hometown - Plymouth, UK. It was moved from its position, when it was retired, and rebuilt brick by brick on the shore as a monument/museum. I'm scared of heights, so I've only ever been to the top once - when I was about 6.

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    1. I didn't realize how overwhelming it would be to be up that high. I don't think I'd ever do it again.

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  7. I love lighthouses. You've got some great pictures of them. I really like thee old black and white ones. It's also a great background on your blog.

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    1. Thank you. I'm sure you've seen many of them in your travels.

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  8. What a wonderful spot. Being able to stay and explore the place sounds like a great trip. I wonder why so many of us are enthralled by the lighthouses. I've always wanted to live in one. I'm a solitary person, sounds like the ideal place for someone like me. :)

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    1. I am also, Yolanda. I think that is what attracts me to them.

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  9. Oh, this was heartbreaking. Did Anthony Thacher and his wife ever have any more children?

    It's a beautiful little island.

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    1. I actually do not know what happened to the Thachers after the wreck.

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  10. Lighthouses are always so interesting to see and read about. I really enjoyed the beautiful story of the wife who kept two going so her husband could find his way home.

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  11. Hi Kathleen - what a fascinating history the island has - incredible the couple survived to tell the tale of their loss of so many of the rest of their family. Clever too that the lighthouses align ... and as Lee says - the wife and nephew keeping the lights 'burning' so her husband could return.

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Back when navigation was far less sophisticated than it is now, that was quite innovative.

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