The historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote that 55-acre Baker’s Island was named for an early seventeenth- century visitor who was killed on the island by a falling tree. There doesn’t appear to be a record of such an incident, but it is a fact that in 1640 a man named Robert Baker was killed by a falling piece of lumber as a ship was being built on the mainland in Salem. It isn’t clear why—or if—the island was named for this unfortunate man.
A few weeks later they voted to spend the sum of £20 to erect an unlighted beacon. It was soon realized that additional funds were needed, so a public subscription paper was circulated in July 1791:
From the many accidents that has happen’d & frequent Mistakes made by Vessels coming into this Port in the Night & in thick weather for want of a Land Mark to ascertain Bakers Island so call’d we the Subscribers agree to give for the Purpose of building a Beacon on the Northernmost Part of Sd Island the Sums by us Subscribed . . .
Seventy-one persons signed and contributed an additional £89. On July 28, according to the Reverend Dr. William Bentley, “the intended Beacon was raised by a large & Jovial party.” The conical beacon was 57 feet tall, painted red, and topped by a two-foot diameter black ball. The foundation stones, said Bentley, were “very miserably laid.” Nevertheless, for the next five years the tower served as an important daytime guide to Salem Harbor.
The Salem Marine Society proceeded to establish buoys to improve local navigation, but by 1792 they set out to convince the local lighthouse superintendent, General Benjamin Lincoln, and the U.S. Congress that a lighted aid was sorely needed. The inadequacy of the day beacon was proven by the wrecks of three vessels in 1796, with in 16 lives were lost. The Marine Society sent a letter to Congress:
Ten acres of land for the station were ceded to the federal government, and Solomon Blake, a contractor from Boston, constructed the lighthouse in 1797 for $3,674.57. The two lights went into service on January 3, 1798. Two towers were located on top of a two-story, wood-frame keeper’s house, about 40 feet apart at either end of the building. The south light was 95 feet above mean high water, and the north light was 78 feet high.
The first keeper was Captain George Chapman of the Salem Marine Society. He served until 1815, when he was about 75 years old. Chapman later became blind, a condition that was blamed on the brightness of the lighthouse lamps.
Salem’s peak as a port came in the late 1700s into the early 1800s, when as many as 10 ships unloaded each week at the city’s wharves. Vessels from Salem journeyed to far-flung ports in China, India, Japan, and Australia. On their the ships’ return, pilots stationed on Baker’s Island would board the incoming ships and navigate to the wharves.
Joseph Perkins, who received a federal commission as a pilot in 1791, was on Baker’s Island during the War of 1812. One day he was alarmed to see the American frigate U.S.S. Constitution being pursued by a pair of British vessels. Perkins rowed out in his dory, boarded “Old Ironsides,” and deftly guided the frigate to the safety of Marblehead Harbor.
Former pilot Perkins succeeded Chapman as keeper in 1815. The Reverend Dr. William Bentley visited Perkins at the lighthouse in August 1817. He described the visit in his diary:
Captain Perkins has a garden enclosed, three cows, six pigs, and was cutting hay for the winter. Keeps rabbits and sheep. Has many conveniences about his house in a state much beyond what was formerly seen.A “Notice to Mariners” issued by the Massachusetts lighthouse superintendent Henry A. S. Dearborn in late June 1816 announced that the lights would be extinguished for two months while the station was altered. In place of the two lights, there would be a single fixed light, three feet shorter than the lower of the two original lights.
During a snowstorm in the pre-dawn hours of February 24, 1817, the ship Union smashed into the island’s rocky shore with a cargo of pepper and tin, much of which was strewn on the beach. Mariners claimed that having only one light made it difficult for them to distinguish Baker’s Island from Boston Light, a fact that was proven by an increased number of wrecks, including that of the Union.
Near the end of March in 1825, Keeper Nathaniel Ward and his assistant, a Mr. Marshall, left the mainland in a small flat-bottomed boat laden with wood and other supplies, heading for the island. A storm and heavy seas prevented their safe return. Ward was later found dead on the shore of the island, and Marshall died in the boat. According to a newspaper account, Ward was 49 years old and left a large family “in indigent circumstances.”
Ambrose Martin followed Ward as keeper at a salary of $300 yearly, raised to $400 in 1829. Martin’s daughter Jane, who learned to help her father tend the station, later became keeper at Marblehead Light. Another of the keeper’s sons, Elbridge Gerry Martin, 13 years old at the time, made the local newspapers in November 1827 when he shot an eagle, with a wingspan of nearly seven feet, on the island. The bird was presented to the East India Museum in Salem.
In 1833, two sons of Keeper Martin were in a boat about 6 six miles east of the island when they saw what appeared to be a sea serpent of incredible length. This was during a period when sea serpent sightings along the New England coast were frequently front-page news. In this case, as the Martin brothers grew closer, it became plain that the “serpent” was actually a long chain of “blackfish”—pilot whales—that scattered when the boat grew too near. From a distance, they had resembled a single undulating creature with bunches on its back. The New Bedford Mercury asserted that this explanation would “to most minds put to rest conclusively the existence of the Sea Serpent.”
Martin was keeper when the engineer I. W. P. Lewis visited during his survey of 1842. At that time, the taller tower was equipped with 15 lamps and 14-inch reflectors, and the shorter tower had 10 lamps with 13-inch reflectors. Lewis described both towers as leaky and rotten, with and the interiors as plagued with ice in winter. Both towers, he said, required a thorough repair. The dwelling, according to Lewis, was “old and crazy” and uncomfortable in winter, and it needed to be replaced. Lewis stressed the importance of the station and praised Keeper Martin:
The double light here is . . . of high importance to a port where so many valuable ships annually enter and depart from, and should be maintained in the most perfect state of efficiency. Such, however, is far from being the case. No light-house of its class in Massachusetts is so poorly provided for in respect to the quality of the apparatus, which was old when introduced here, and now completely worn out. The keeper is deserving of the greatest praise for the extreme neatness and order 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 winters’ residence in a house little better than a barn entitles a faithful public servant to a comfortable dwelling in his old age.
The Massachusetts Humane Society awarded Eugene Terpeny, an assistant keeper, a medal in 1894 for his role in saving the lives of the crew of the wrecked schooner Hero in October of that year. During a fierce storm, Terpeny and another man had launched a boat from the island and saved six men from the schooner, which was sinking fast.
The hotel was advertised as a “sure tonic for neurasthenia.” Healthful activities were stressed, including sailing, tennis, and fishing. Alcohol was banned. The Winne-Egan attracted as many as 1,000 guests in a summer. For a time, Keeper Rogers had a part-time job on the side, harvesting and cutting ice from the island’s pond to fill the hotel’s iceboxes. The Winne-Egan hotel burned down in 1906, and the island became the exclusive domain of the cottage owners.
For a number of years, regular boat service brought sightseers to Baker's Island. On the Fourth of July in 1898, the tour boat Surf City picked up a load of tourists on the island at 4:00 p.m. and returned to the mainland at Salem Willows, where some of the passengers disembarked. The rest stayed on board to go on to Salem's neighboring city, Beverly. A short time later a sudden squall rained large hailstones on the vessel, and high winds caused it to list. The boat quickly filled with water and overturned. The majority of the passengers survived the disaster, but eight women and children died. One of the crewmen of the Surf City received a lifesaving medal for his part in saving most of those on board.
During World War I, a Naval Reserve unit was
stationed on the island to keep watch for German submarines. The men
were quartered in a house near the light station, and, later, in the
former schoolhouse on the station grounds.
The last civilian keeper on the island was Arthur L. Payne. Keeper Payne served from 1918 to 1943, the longest stint of any keeper in the station’s history. Payne also was appointed constable for the island in 1918, and he brought the first automotive transportation to the island—a Commerce truck in 1921, and later a Briscoe touring car.
Like the keepers before him, Payne kept a sharp eye out for vessels in trouble. Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield officially commended Payne in August 1919 for going to the aid of two women whose boat had been wrecked, and for towing a disabled motorboat with eight passengers from a point three miles off Baker’s Island into the harbor at Manchester. In 1931, he was again commended, along with Assistant Keeper Ernest A. Sampson, for rescuing two men who were stranded on a rock after their boat was lost. Ten days after that, on April 20, Payne put out a grass fire that had gotten out of control at a cottage on the island.
Officials proposed the discontinuance of the smaller of the two lighthouses in 1922. In contrast to what had happened in 1816, nobody in the Salem area voiced any strong objections. The smaller lighthouse was discontinued on June 30, 1926. John Robinson, a mechanic at the lighthouse depot in Chelsea, Massachusetts, spent 10 days on the island overseeing the installation of new equipment in the taller tower. When the lens pedestal was removed, Keeper Payne found an 1847 penny that had been hidden beneath it.
tour group at Baker's Island Lighthouse on August 25, 1940
Ernest A. Sampson was an assistant keeper from 1929 to 1942,
covering most of Payne's tenure. Sampson's wife, Maude, died in 1938
due to complications of childbirth, leaving her husband with three
young children. Sampson went on to serve as keeper at Watch Hill Light
in Rhode Island.
The Coast Guard erected a lookout tower east of the lighthouse during World War II, and a detachment kept a constant watch for German submarines. The men began nightly patrols of the island’s shores, unaware of the presence of much poison ivy. Arthur Payne came to the rescue and treated the itchy Coast Guardsmen.
Payne, called by Edward Rowe Snow a “brave, deserving lighthouse man who faithfully performed his duty to the end,” retired in 1943 and was followed by a succession of Coast Guard crews. After his retirement, Payne remained on the island and was elected president of the Baker’s Island Association in 1945.
The Coast Guard stationed two keepers and their families on the island. In 1967, the only winter residents on the island were Coast Guard keeper Randall Anderson, his wife and seven-month oldtheir baby, and Coast Guardsman John Krebs and his wife. “In the wintertime, you’re all alone, really alone,” said Krebs. “It’s awesome in a storm.” The only company the families had was “a lobsterman now and then.”
The fog siren remained in use until it was replaced by an air horn in 1959. In July 1967, the horn sounded for a record 324 hours and 20 minutes, or nearly half the month. One island resident said, “It doesn’t bother us because you get used to it.”
In 1993, the Coast Guard made repairs to the lantern and the generator house. Three years later, a $250,000 restoration project began. The contractor hired by the Coast Guard, Marty Nally, found that some stones from near the top of the tower had fallen out, and that the foundation was found to be nearly crumbling. A Coast Guard architect, Marsha Levy, who formulated the plans for the restoration, said that the lighthouse’s construction is more sophisticated than most built around the same time. Nally and his crew used mortar similar to what was used when the tower was first built, and the exterior was coated with a rough stucco material that accentuates the bumpy stone construction.
There have been claims that some of the homes on the island, as well as the light station, are haunted. Andy Jerome, caretaker for the Baker's Island Association from 1983 to 1987, reported that the foghorn would start for no apparent reason on clear nights. He sometimes had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to turn it off. The Coast Guard checked and could find nothing wrong. Jerome’s wife, Ruth, said she sensed a “presence” around the fog signal building. She was convinced the station was haunted, even though she previously didn’t believe in ghosts. A team of paranormal investigators once ventured to the island with modern electronic equipment to record the presence of ghosts. They weren’t aware that there’s no electricity on the island—their investigation couldn’t even get started.
In 1988, the Baker’s Island Association, which manages the island, was granted a license to use and preserve the two keeper’s’ residences. In 2002, under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the light station was made available to a qualified new owner. In late April 2005, it was announced that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton had recommended that ownership be transferred to the Essex National Heritage Commission (ENHC). A committee of the National Park Service (NPS) had chosen the ENHC as the most qualified applicant.
The only other applicant was the Baker's Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, Inc. (BILPS), made up of island residents. BILPS challenged the decision of the NPS in court, but a federal judge upheld the original decision in late October 2006. In late 2010, the National Park Service received a $250,000 grant for a landing craft-style boat to access the island, and there are plans to develop limited ranger-led tours.
The lighthouse can be seen from points in Salem, Marblehead and Manchester-by-the-Sea, but is best viewed by boat. Landing is not permitted on the island except by residents and their guests.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
(This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
George Chapman (1798-1815); Joseph Perkins (1815-182?);
Nathaniel Ward (?-1825, died on duty); Ambrose Martin (1825?-1843);
Joseph G. Martin (1843-?); Daniel Norwood (?); Robert Peal (?); ?
Russell (?-1861); Charles J. Williams (1861-1871); George Hobbs
(1871-1874); Walter S. Rogers, assistant (1872-1874), then keeper
(1874-1881, 1892-1911); James F. Lundgren, assistant, (1878-1881), then
keeper (1881-1892); Eugene Terpeny (assistant, c.1893-1894), Elliott
Hadley (1911-1918); Arthur L. Payne (1918-1943); Ernest A. Sampson,
assistant (1929-1941); Benjamin E. Stewart (Coast Guard, c. 1940s);
Baptiste (Coast Guard, 1946-1951); Red Dawson (Coast Guard, ?); Bob
Johnson (Coast Guard, ?); Clifford Willis (Coast Guard, ?); Leonard
Mullen (Coast Guard, ?); Paul Guy (Coast Guard, ?); Paul Black (Coast
Guard, ?); Andrew M. McLaughlin (Coast Guard Third Class Engineman,
February 1956 - July 1956); Richard J. LaLonde (Coast Guard, First
Class Engineman, c. 1956); Tex Blanchard (Coast Guard, ?); Allen C.
Farrell (Coast Guard, ?); Gerald E. Ryan (Coast Guard, ?); Donald G.
Trecartin (Coast Guard, 1962-?); Roger L. Lamascus (Coast Guard
assistant, 1962-?); Randall Anderson (Coast Guard, c. 1967); John Krebs
(Coast Guard, c. 1967); Paul Driscoll (Coast Guard, 1969-1971)