Winter Island, now
connected to the mainland in Salem, has had a colorful history. It was
the site of eighteenth century Fort Pickering, much of which still
survives. The island's Execution Hill was the scene of several hangings
in the 1800. Winter Island also served as a militia training ground,
and in the late 1800s, an amusement park called Salem Willows grew up
Fort Pickering Light was established in 1871, the same
year as Derby Wharf Light in Salem Harbor and Hospital Point Light in
nearby Beverly. For many years before, Baker's Island's twin lights had
served as the only guides to the harbor. With the addition of the new
lights, mariners would line up Fort Pickering and Derby Wharf Lights
after passing Baker's Island on their way into Salem Harbor.
Drawing of Fort Pickering Light
Fort Pickering Light circa late
1800s. U.S. Coast Guard.
The keeper's house at Fort
Pickering Light in the late 1800s
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The lighthouse, built of iron lined with brick,
exhibited a flashing white light 28 feet above sea level. The
lighthouse, originally painted red, was built slightly offshore. A
walkway connected it to the shore.
John Harris, an Ipswich native and Civil War veteran,
became keeper in December 1882. On the occasion of his retirement in
1919, when he was 75 years old, it was reported that Harris had been
absent from the lighthouse for only five nights in 37 years. He
ventured only occasionally into the city, about two miles away, for
Harris often rode his horse, which had reached the ripe old
age of 28 in 1919, into the city. Until his retirement, he never saw
the streets of Salem after dark, and he never rode in a car. "It seems
as though we have been out of the world for a long time, " he said,
"and it will take some time for us to learn how to act among people."
On the night he retired, Harris attended his first motion picture.
A Coast Guard airplane hangar was erected on Winter Island in
1934. The Coast Guardsmen lived temporarily in the lighthouse keeper's
house until new quarters could be built. In January 1934, a blizzard
imprisoned 30 men in the house until a plow could get through. Their
heating fuel had just about run out with temperatures dipping to 12
below zero. The lighthouse keeper's house later became the officers'
club for the Coast Guard's Air Station Salem on Winter Island. In 1944,
Air Station Salem was officially designated the first Air-Sea Rescue
station on the eastern seaboard.
You can read more about Air Station Salem on these pages:
The Coast Guard left Winter Island in 1969, and at the
same time the lighthouse was replaced by an offshore buoy. With no one
watching out for it the old tower soon fell into disrepair. The
infamous Blizzard of 1978 took the door right off the tower and it
remained underwater for several years.
A group of concerned citizens and businesses formed the
Fort Pickering Light Association in the early 1980s. They fished the
door out of the harbor and put it back on the lighthouse. The
lighthouse was refurbished and the foundation was repaired, and Fort
Pickering Light was relighted in 1983 as a private aid to navigation.
The lighthouse went dark for a few months in early 1995
when conduit erosion cut off the power supply from shore. It was
converted to solar power in April 1995, with a white flash of
four-tenths of a second every four seconds. The $2,300 cost of the new
light was split by the City of Salem and the Fort Pickering Light
The lighthouse received a facelift in 1999, thanks to a
community development block grant.
The American Steeple Corporation of Salem, which had
previously restored Boston's Old North Church and Quincy's Church of
the Presidents, completed $13,800 worth of iron work repairs, painting
and lantern glass replacement.
Salem Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz said, "The time has come
to focus the care and attention on Winter Island that will help restore
luster to one of Salem's priceless jewels. The work on this important
navigational aid is one such effort."
Gary Moore, former manager of Winter Island Marine Park, has
called the lighthouse Salem's "Motif No.1," and it is certainly a
favorite of photographers and painters. It's easy to drive to Winter
Island and there's plenty of parking. There are campsites for
recreational vehicles, a boat launch, picnic areas, a bath house, and a
short beach dubbed Waikiki Beach when the Coast Guard was on the
island. A visit here makes a pleasant trip in combination with nearby
Salem Willows Park, a great spot for picnicking and strolling by the
For more information contact:
Island: A Marine Recreational Park
50 Winter Island Road, Salem, MA 01970
- (978) 745-9430
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of
Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- Keepers: (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
email@example.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does
so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and
John Harris (1882-1919), James Yates (1919-?)