Hull and Salem get new access to historic lighthouses
The Columbia Point cut through choppy seas off Hull for just 12 minutes before docking at Boston Light, America’s oldest lighthouse.
About 50 miles up the coast in Salem, the Naumkeag sped through calm water in about 15 minutes before landing at Baker’s Island Light Station.
The historic towers have stood for centuries as sentinels to mariners and fishermen navigating the tricky entrances to Boston and Salem harbors.
Boston Light, built in 1716 on Little Brewster Island, rises just a mile from Hull. The Baker’s Island lighthouse, built in 1798, is 4 miles off the coast of Salem. But until this summer, residents in communities steeped in maritime history had no direct public access to either station.
Public boat tours launched last month from Hull and Salem are shining a new light on the storied structures, whose lights are still used as navigational aids by the Coast Guard.
“I’ve never seen a lighthouse before,” said Amy Driscoll, 19, of Danvers, who visited Baker’s Island recently with her parents. “It’s so tall.”
“It spikes your imagination,” said Jerry MacCurtain, 71, of Braintree, after climbing 76 steps — and two ladders — to reach the top of Boston Light.
The National Park Service is offering Boston Light tours leaving from Pemberton Point in Hull on two Sundays per month through September. The Essex National Heritage Commission is running the first public tours to Baker’s Island in 70 years. Its trips, which leave from a dock on Blaney Street in Salem, run Wednesdays through Sundays through Labor Day.
“I have always been very interested in Baker’s Island,” said Pamela Schmidt, a college professor who has lived in Salem for 30 years. “Now, I’m finally here.”
Ginny Colbert, a summer resident of Hull who also lives in Melrose, enjoyed the trip to Boston Light. “I loved the boat ride out here,” said Colbert, 76. “And it was so easy to get on the boat, right in town.”
The new access comes after both Boston Light and Baker’s Island underwent major restorations.
Boston Light, the nation’s only light station still staffed by the US Coast Guard, reopened in May after the completion of a $1.5 million restoration in anticipation of celebrations marking its 300th anniversary next year.
The National Park Service for years has run tours to the station that left from Boston on weekends from June to October. The Hull tour was added this year to increase access to its closest point on shore.
“The whole town of Hull can see Boston Light,” said Rebecca Smerling, deputy director of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, a nonprofit that helps run the tours. “It’s so much a part of the town’s landscape. Now they don’t have to leave town to go visit it.”
Baker’s Island Light Station got a $36,000 makeover with money raised largely through a Kickstarter campaign. Mold was removed from the exterior of its 59-foot tower.
“We’ve had great public support,” said Annie Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission, which acquired the light station last year from the federal government. “People are excited to be able to visit the lighthouse. It gives them a different view of where they live.”
As the Naumkeag sped toward Baker’s Island, deckhand Ryan McMahon recounted the grand era of 18th-century maritime trade that filled Salem Harbor with ships from around the world.
“It was called the golden age of sail,” McMahon said as the boat zipped along the famed Gold Coast in Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea, where seaside mansions were built as summer retreats. “So, if you look at all the big houses along the coast, and the beautiful architecture in Salem, a lot of them were directly built from the wealth that passed through here,” he said.
The Naumkeag lands on a cobble beach on the north side of Baker’s Island. Most of the 55-acre island is privately owned land that holds about 100 summer cottages. Essex Heritage acquired the light station and 10 acres of land.
The private homeowners once vigorously opposed the transfer of the light station to Essex Heritage. But several island residents attended the official transfer ceremony last August.
Signs clearly mark the boundaries between public and private land. Visitors are asked to respect all corners of the island.
“If you see a shell or rock that you like, I’m going to ask you not to take it,” McMahon said to his boat’s passengers. “We like to leave the island as we found it.”
Once on Baker’s Island, visitors can walk around the lighthouse, but not climb to the top, as the stairs are not yet deemed safe, said Mary Hillery, 68, who shares the job of lighthouse keeper with her husband, Greg Guckenburg, 66.
Visitors can also explore the 10-acre property, much of it covered with shrubbery.
“I like that there is so much open space here,” said Jim Olivetti, 68, of Swampscott.
In Hull, the tour of Boston Light has its own local color.
“How many Hullonians are with us today?” asked Sally Snowman, the keeper of Boston Light, who wears the 18th-century dress of a lightkeeper’s wife.
A few hands shot up among the group of 40 people.
“Did you know that the town of Hull gave Little Brewster Island to the colony of Massachusetts to build this tower?” she asked, pointing up to the 89-foot-tall stone structure. “So that’s why the town seal has Boston Light on it.”
Snowman, dressed in a white bonnet and long calico-print dress, is the 70th keeper — and the first woman — at Boston Light. She’s a civilian employee of the Coast Guard, and has been welcoming visitors to the island for 12 years.
“A lot of people ask why I’m not wearing a Coast Guard uniform,” said Snowman, 64, who lives in Weymouth when not on duty. “When they hired me, the Coast Guard said, ‘Sally, we want to make sure you stand out from the crowd.’ Have I accomplished that mission?”
The crowd chuckled as her blue apron flapped in the wind.
Snowman led a group of eight to a small museum in the base of the tower. She pointed out the rare artifacts, such as a fog signal cannon from 1719.
Soon, it was time for visitors to head to the top.
“The tower that you’re climbing here is not the original one,” Snowman said. “That one was blown up by the British in 1776. This is the new one, built in 1783.”
At the top of the 76 steps is the lamp room, where the 9-foot-tall light flashes every 10 seconds. Its beam is visible for 27 miles.
Sweeping views of the Boston Harbor Islands and Hull await.
“It was gorgeous,” said Nancy Courier, 66, a boater from Hull. “I’ve ridden around the lighthouse before, but I’ve never been up inside.”
Dylan Dukor-Jackson, 10, visiting from Providence, liked what he saw, too.
“I saw the water. It was sparkling a lot,” he said. “I saw Boston and all the islands, too.”
If you go . . .
Boston Light Tours, Hull
Sundays: Aug. 16, Aug. 30, Sept. 13, and Sept. 27 from Pemberton Point (across from Hull High School on Main Street).
Boat leaves at noon and returns at 2:30 p.m.
Adults, $41; children ages 12 and under, $30; students with a valid ID and seniors 65 and over, $37. Tickets can be purchased at www.bostonharborislands.org. 617-223-8667
Baker’s Island Light Station Tour
Wednesdays through Sundays, through Sept. 6, plus Labor Day, Sept. 7.
Boat docks at 10 Blaney St. in Salem. Leaves 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4:15 p.m., and returns two hours after each departure.
Adults, $35; children ages 5 to 18, $32. Tickets can be purchased at www.essexheritage.org. 978-740-0444