A visit to Thacher Island, where tragedy and beauty meet

Welcome to Thacher Island, a charming place to visit, rich in maritime history and abundant picturesque beauties.Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe

Today Thacher Island, located about a mile off Rockport, is open to the public and a charming place to visit, rich in maritime history and abundant scenic beauties. The 52-acre island is home to two imposing pre-Civil War lighthouses, lighthouse keepers’ houses, a small museum, wildlife refuge, and approximately 3 miles of trails. US Fish and Wildlife Service owns part of it; the rest is under the control of the Town of Rockport. But it is the entirely voluntary association of Thacher Island that maintains the trails and buildings and collects the funds necessary for its continued preservation.

We visited in late spring, before the visitor season started, traveling with a group of volunteers and a chicken coop (fresh eggs for the island’s volunteer summer staff). It was a hectic ride of about 15 minutes aboard a rectangular shaped steel boat, resembling a tiny D-Day landing craft, with a ramp that folds down for easy entry and exit. We listened to the friendly chatter of the crew, talking about families and friends and about projects that needed to be completed on the island before the start of the season.

About the Island Volunteer Team: Most of them are seasoned people who have been dedicated to preserving the island 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 doomed, and its lighthouses and buildings destroyed. The Coast Guard, which owned it at the time, was done with it. Today, approximately 75 volunteers put in working hours each year, including lighthouse keepers, boat crews, maintenance and project workers, fundraisers and guides who are on the island during the summer to guide visitors.

“We’re just a bunch of old men and women playing,” an island volunteer told us later as he sanded and painted a door to the keeper’s house. “But we’ve been there for a long time.”

The keeper's houses on Thacher Island now house a small museum.  At one time, in the late 1800s, five families lived here, with 13 children.
The keeper’s houses on Thacher Island now house a small museum. At one time, in the late 1800s, five families lived here, with 13 children.Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe

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 home to a small museum of artifacts, furniture, and photos that help tell the story of Thacher Island. There are two renovated caretaker’s houses on the island.

“At one point in the late 1800s, five families lived here, with 13 children,” said St. Germain. “Guardians should row the kids through Loblolly Cove, then walk a mile to school.”

If the weather turned bad, they would stay in a boarding house on the mainland, sometimes for up to a week. Eventually, the town of Rockport provided a teacher on the island, which didn’t last long as she escaped with an assistant warden to get married and live in another lighthouse.

We continued to the south tower and climbed the spiral stairs to the top of the 125ft tower. The parapet was closed for repair, but we still had a great view through the windows and doors. On a clear day you can see Mount Agamenticus in Maine to the north and the Boston skyline to the south.

The 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 Lighthouse. They marked the ends of the dangerous Londoner Ledge and guided sailors safely around the island. Eventually, the federal government and the Coast Guard took control of the island and new towers were built in 1861. These still stand today, and the Cape Ann Lighthouse Station, including the towers. and historic buildings, is designated a national historic monument.

We walked along the partially restored streetcar tracks, once used to carry supplies and coal to the lighthouses, then headed to the southern edge of the island, following the Annie’s Way trail. We had company, lots of company! Owner seagulls were everywhere, protecting their nests and roosting territory. We passed several large nesting black-backed gulls, the largest gulls in the world, and were cradled (and dive-bombed) by others as we walked the easy-to-walk trail.

Seagulls love Thacher Island;  here is one with its newly hatched egg.
Seagulls love Thacher Island; here is one with its newly hatched egg.Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe

At a fork, Saint-Germain led us on a secondary path simply marked Grave, to a pile of stones. “We think this could be the grave of a Thacher child,” St. Germain said. “We have read the writings of Thacher, and he describes the location of this site. We’ll have an archaeologist come here to confirm it someday.

Back on the trail, we headed towards the edge of the island, with a steep descent to a rocky beach and open ocean. We had a view of Milk Island, where cows once grazed, and watched a lobster crew set traps.

“We continue to lose the island,” said St. Germain, pointing to the cliff and the obvious results of erosion.

But for now, the island remains for us (and the seagulls) to enjoy.

If you are going to . . .

Thacher Island Association offers boat trips to the island on Wednesdays and Saturdays, June through August ($ 30 for adults, $ 10 for children 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 advice. You can also bring your own kayaks and canoes to the island ($ 5 disembarkation fee) and there is a small rustic campground ($ 5 donation per night, per person is suggested). Tours are also offered on Tuesday mornings to Straitsmouth Island, a neighboring 31-acre island owned largely by Mass Audubon and maintained as a wildlife refuge, and home to a historic 1896 lighthouse.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be contacted at [email protected]

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