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Seeking the light: A coastal drive to north-of-Boston lighthouses

Something about lighthouses is consoling. (And you can view them while remaining socially distant.)

Derby Wharf Light Station in Salem was erected in 1871.
Derby Wharf Light Station in Salem was erected in 1871.David Lyon

Not to get too touchy-feely, but something about lighthouses is consoling, even reassuring. They are constants in an otherwise uncertain world, showing the way through the darkness. One of us was a commercial fisherman in his pre-GPS youth, and his heart would leap when he would round Sears Island in the dark and see the pint-size lighthouse of his home harbor glimmer in the distance. The Coast Guard tags lighthouses as ‶aids to navigation,″ and nothing could be more apt. Beyond warning of the rocks below, they guide the way home.

OK, that’s a pretty heavy burden of symbolism to load onto the modest on-shore lighthouses north of Boston. These are hardly the majestic, towering shafts you’ll find on the Outer Cape or along Maine’s rocky coast. But they are honest markers of the interstices of hard shore and rhythmic sea, and each of the four you can reach on this driving tour marks a special place.

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Derby Wharf Light Station in Salem practically hides in plain sight at the end of 2,045-foot Derby Wharf. They are both part of the open-air landscape of the nine-acre Salem Maritime National Historic Site (nps.gov/sama), the first National Historic Site in America. The wharf was originally constructed in 1762 by sea captain Richard Derby and his merchant son Elias Hasket Derby, who later enlarged the structure to accommodate his fleet of large vessels known as East Indiamen. As you walk the gravel path of the wharf, you’ll pass Friendship of Salem, replica of such a ship originally built in 1797.

The lighthouse on the point of the wharf is a handsome blocky structure, 12 feet square by 20 feet high. Part of a triangular system of lights marking the entrance to Salem Harbor, it began signaling the final destination of merchant ships in 1871. The original oil lamp and low-order Fresnel lens are long gone. Now automated and solar-powered, Derby Wharf Light Station still emits a piercing red flash every six seconds.

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Fort Pickering Light guides vessels into Salem harbor from the tip of Winter Island.
Fort Pickering Light guides vessels into Salem harbor from the tip of Winter Island.David Lyon

You can easily spot your next stop if you look northeast from Derby Wharf toward Winter Island. Fort Pickering Light, also erected in 1871, was part of the lighthouse triumvirate that lit the path into Salem Harbor from the open Atlantic. It’s only a two-mile drive to reach this spot with a long maritime history. Salem’s fishing industry began here in 1636–37 and Winter Island was the site of the shipyard that built the Essex, a 32-gun frigate launched in 1799 to a cheering throng estimated at 12,000 strong.

The conical lighthouse was constructed of cast iron and lined with brick. It stands on the rocks just offshore from the site of 18th century Fort Pickering. Its white light originally flashed through a fifth-order Fresnel lens just 28 feet above sea level at high tide. During much of the 20th century, Winter Island served as a Coast Guard property, including the first air-sea rescue station on the eastern seaboard. When the Coast Guard departed in 1969, the light was decommissioned and replaced by an offshore buoy.

The Blizzard of 1978 ripped the door off the already decaying tower. Shortly thereafter, the Fort Pickering Light Association was formed to restore the tower (with the original door). They relit the lighthouse in 1983 as a private aid to navigation. When the underwater power cable failed in 1995, the light was converted to a solar power flasher that winks every four seconds.

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There’s plenty to do on Winter Island beyond viewing the light. Winter Island Maritime Park (salem.com/winter-island-park) is now a recreational site with tent and RV camping, a boat ramp, and a swimming beach. You might want to linger awhile with a picnic. Day-use parking fees for nonresidents are $10 weekdays, $15 weekends and holidays.

Eastern Point Light Station in Gloucester looks like an Edward Hopper painting.
Eastern Point Light Station in Gloucester looks like an Edward Hopper painting. David Lyon

A little more than 20 miles northeast by road, Eastern Point Light Station looks like an Edward Hopper painting, and Hopper indeed painted it in watercolors in 1923. But Winslow Homer discovered it first. He spent 1880 living with the keeper’s family as he turned away from urban life to embrace his almost mystical attachment to the sea. (Princeton University owns his luminous watercolor over graphite night scene ‶Eastern Point Light,″ that he made during his tenure there.)

The current tower of Eastern Point Light was erected in 1890, although there’s been a beacon on the point since 1832. The white brick tower is only 36 feet high, but the white light of the automated beacon is on a 21-foot bluff, making it visible for more than 20 miles out to sea.

The light station stands at the far end of Eastern Point Boulevard in Gloucester. You’ll have to pass through a pair of granite pillars marked ‶Private–No Entry″ to reach Mass Audubon’s parking lot for the Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary (massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/eastern-point, nonmember parking $10). The lighthouse and 1879 keeper’s house are fenced off, but the best views are from the rocks below the parking lot or from the 2,250-foot Dog Bar Breakwater, a granite jetty at the mouth of Gloucester Harbor. A path from the parking lot follows the fence through a thicket of beach roses. The breakwater is a popular spot for fishing, particularly once the stripers start running. Monarch butterflies are often spotted at the small wildlife sanctuary in the fall.

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The current iteration of Plum Island Light was erected in 1898.
The current iteration of Plum Island Light was erected in 1898.David Lyon

The 31-mile drive to Plum Island Light at the mouth of Newburyport Harbor mostly follows the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway, a.k.a. Route 133, through the picturesque towns of Essex, Ipswich, and Rowley. Situated at the northern tip of Plum Island, the 45-foot conical lighthouse marks the end of the scenic byway. The current tower was erected in 1898 as the last of a sequence of lighthouses on the spot since 1788. The location on a grassy flat seems incongruous, but the lighthouse was situated inland to stay safe from erosion of the sandy river-mouth soils. Still using its original fourth-order Fresnel lens from 1856, the steady green light is eclipsed twice every 15 seconds. Friends of Plum Island Light normally offer tours of the structure, but open houses are on hold this year.

The Plum Island Beach lot across the street from the lighthouse is the only available public parking. Since you’re already here, end your journey with a long walk on the beach or a dip in the ocean. Parking fee is $10 resident/$15 nonresident on weekdays, $12/$20 weekends and holidays.

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Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com. David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.