In 1635, Englishman Anthony Thacher was sailing his vessel, the Watch and Wait, around a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, when a nasty, quick-moving storm hit. The Watch and Wait was wrecked, and 21 people perished, including Thacher’s five children. Thacher’s cousin the Reverend Joseph Avery, and his wife and six children, also died. The only survivors were Thacher and his wife, Elizabeth.
The General Court gave Thacher the island “at the head of Cape Ann” in sympathy and to help compensate for his losses. The small outcropping was dubbed Thacher’s Woe, and, understandably, he didn’t want much to do with it.
Today, Thacher Island, located about a mile offshore from Rockport, is open to the public, and a lovely place to visit, rich in seafaring history and abundant scenic beauty. The 52-acre island is home to two towering, pre-Civil War lighthouses, lightkeepers’ homes, a small museum, a wildlife refuge, and 3 miles or so of trails. US Fish and Wildlife Service owns part of it; the rest is under the stewardship of the town of Rockport. But it’s the all-volunteer Thacher Island Association that maintains the trails and buildings and raises the funds necessary to continue its preservation.
We visited on a late spring day, before the visitor season kicked off, traveling with a group of volunteers and a cage of chickens (fresh eggs for the island’s volunteer summer staff). It was a choppy, 15-minute or so ride aboard a rectangular-shaped steel boat, resembling a tiny D-Day landing craft, with a ramp that folded down for easy access and egress. We listened to the friendly chatter of the crew, talk of families and friends and projects that needed to be completed on the island before the season started.
About the island volunteer crew: These are mostly seasoned folks, who have been dedicated to the island’s preservation for years. The Thacher Island Association was formed in 1981 to raise funds to save, restore, and maintain the island. At the time, it was destined to be abandoned, and its lighthouses and buildings destroyed. The Coast Guard, which owned it at the time, was done with it. Today, about 75 volunteers put in hours of work each year, including lighthouse keepers, boat crews, maintenance and project workers, fund-raisers, and docents who are on island during the summer to guide visitors.
“We’re just a bunch of old men and women playing,” one volunteer on the island told us later, as he sanded and painted a door to the keeper’s house. “But we’ve been at it a long time.”
Paul St. Germain, president of the Thacher Island Association for 23 years and author of “Twin Lights of Thacher Island, Cape Ann,” had agreed to show us around. Our first stop was the keeper’s houses, now housing a small museum of artifacts, furniture, and photos that help tell the story of Thacher Island. There are two renovated keeper’s houses on the island.
“At one time, in the late 1800s, five families were living out here, with 13 kids,” St. Germain said. “The keepers would have to row the kids across Loblolly Cove and then walk a mile to get to school.”
If the weather turned bad, they’d stay at a boarding house on the mainland, sometimes up to a week. Eventually, the town of Rockport provided an on-island teacher, who didn’t last long, as she ran off with an assistant keeper to be married and live at another lighthouse.
We continued to the south tower and climbed the spiraling stairs to the top of the 125-foot tower. The parapet was closed for repairs, but we still had gorgeous views through windows and doors. On clear days, you can see Mount Agamenticus in Maine to the north and the Boston skyline to the south.
Twin lighthouses were originally built on Thacher Island in 1771. They were the last lighthouses built under British rule in the colonies and known as the Cape Ann Light Station. They marked the ends of the dangerous Londoner Ledge, and guided mariners safely around the island. Eventually the federal government and the Coast Guard took over the island and new towers were built in 1861. These still stand today, and the Cape Ann Light Station, including the towers and historical buildings, are designated a National Historic Landmark.
We walked along partially restored tram tracks, once used to haul supplies and coal to the lighthouses, and then headed out to the southern edge of the island, walking along Annie’s Way trail. We had company, lots of company! The proprietary seagulls were everywhere, protecting their nests and roosting territory. We walked past several nesting great black-backed gulls, the largest gulls in the world, and were serenaded (and dive-bombed) by others as we meandered the easy-to-do trail.
At one fork, St. Germain led us down a side trail simply marked Grave, to a pile of stones. “We believe this could be a grave of a Thacher child,” St. Germain said. “We’ve read Thacher’s writings, and he describes the location of this site. We’ll get an archeologist out here to confirm it someday.”
Back on the trail, we headed to the edge of the island, with a steep drop-off to a rocky beach and open ocean. We had views out to Milk Island, where cows once grazed, and watched a lobster boat crew set traps.
“We keep losing the island,” St. Germain said, pointing down the cliff and to the obvious results of erosion.
But for now, the island remains for us (and the seagulls) to enjoy.
If you go . . .
Thacher Island Association offers boat trips to the island Wednesdays and Saturdays, June through August ($30 adults, $10 under 12). Trips are limited to six people at a time, with a two-hour stay on the island. Docents are available to offer information and guidance. You can also take your own kayaks and dinghies to the island ($5 landing fee) and there’s a small, rustic campground (donation of $5 per night, per person is suggested). Trips are also offered on Tuesday mornings to Straitsmouth Island, a nearby 31-acre island, largely owned by Mass Audubon and maintained as a wildlife refuge, and home to a historic 1896 lighthouse.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com