A Closer Look at Straitsmouth Lighthouse | Rockport MA
“I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.”
George Bernard Shaw
Let’s face it, Rockport, Massachusetts takes its lighthouses seriously. So seriously, in fact, that lighthouses grace the official town seal. Next to Motif #1, the Rockport lighthouses are one of the great draws for photographers, painters, and tourists in search of a view.
The twin lighthouses on Thacher Island get much attention, as well they should. They are the only operating twin lighthouses in the country. But another historic Rockport lighthouse is Straitsmouth light. Located just 1600 feet off of the Rockport mainland, Straitsmouth lighthouse sits on a rugged 32-acre island and has served as a guiding light for many a mariner over the years.
Straitsmouth Island, along with Thacher and Milk Islands, was one of the “Three Turks heads,” so dubbed by Captain John Smith in 1614 as a commemoration of his vanquishing of Turkish gladiators in Transylvanian battles. Vanquishing Turkish gladiators, just a day in the life for Captain Smith. He actually lived a pretty incredible life, and it was Smith who we can thank for naming our region New England!
Anyway, back to moving the Straitsmouth lighthouse narrative forward. The town of Rockport has had many incarnations over the years from fishing village to quarry town to art colony to tourist destination.
In the early 19th century, the Rockport granite industry was exploding, and granite was getting shipped out of Rockport to pave the streets of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. It was decided that a lighthouse needed to be constructed to guide vessels to the busy Pigeon Cove harbor and to guide ships through the channel between Thacher Island and the rocks known as the Salvages. Congress appropriated a $5,000 grant in 1834, to aid in the effort and the Straitsmouth Lighthouse was erected in 1835.
The new lighthouse was 19 feet tall and was made of brick. Along with the lighthouse, a humble keeper’s dwelling was erected.
The first lighthouse keeper, Benjamin Andrews, was chosen because he was not likely to “serve as a juror, or to perform military duty.” He was provided a generous annual salary of $350. Andrews worked until 1840 when he died on the island at the age of 44. He was subsequently replaced by a line of keepers. On the Lighthouse Friends website you can actually view the list of head lighthouse keepers from 1835 to 1933.
The lighthouse that was constructed in 1835 had its problems. The lighthouse was poorly constructed, leaky and was not set in an ideal location for guiding mariners.
As lighthouse builder and engineer IWP Lewis noted:
“The present light is a positive injury to navigation, as it misleads strangers, who frequently get ashore on the low eastern part of the island, or strike on Alden’s ledge, upon which there is no buoy or other mark. The tower is not worth repairing, and should be taken down, and a firm and substantial structure erected on the eastern point of the island. One lamp only is required for this locality, instead of six now used.”
So, in 1851 construction began on a new Straitsmouth Lighthouse that could better serve seafarers from the northeastern tip of the island.
The new lighthouse was 24 feet tall and was outfitted with 6 lamps in 14-inch reflectors and later received a Fresnel lens in 1857.
The lighthouse keepers remained on the property in their humble, leaky abode until 1878 when the current six room one and a half story wood frame house was built.
The lighthouse was reconstructed again in 1896. The new cylindrical brick tower was built on top of the 1851 tower’s foundation. While construction took place, the builders erected a wooden framed tower, about 45 feet south of the lighthouse to keep the light shining.
In 1932 the light was converted from white to green. A 1941 US Coast Pilot reported that the light was 46 feet above the water and was visible for 9 miles. Pretty impressive.
The lighthouse operated for many years. Then in 1941, the island (excluding a 1.8 acre plot where the lighthouse stood) was sold to a New Yorker Glenn Wilson for $3,050. Pretty nice digs if you’re looking for some privacy. Little known fact, for a short period of time, after WWII there was even a restaurant operating on the property.
The island was later sold to William Francis Gibbs who held the property until his death in 1967. Upon Gibb’s passing, the island was donated to the MA Audubon Society. According to the deed, the island was, “to be used to improve the number and variety of wildlife inhabiting the sanctuary, and especially of native species.”
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1967 and the Coast Guard continues to operate the lighthouse as an official aid to navigation.
In 2010 the lighthouse and 1.8 acres were given to the town of Rockport, in accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. And, in 2014, the Town of Rockport and Thacher Island Association signed a 30-year lease with MA Audubon for use of the keeper house and oil house.
Thacher Island Association has done some incredible restoration work on both the light and the keeper’s house. And, for the first time in 80+ years there are lighthouse keepers on the island! Volunteers trade off one week stints on the island through Labor Day each year. The island is also open to the public again for the first time in 180 years! Another fun adventure for visitors to Rockport.
We hope that you have found this deep dive into the history of Straitsmouth Lighthouse interesting. It’s one in a series of explorations of the treasures of Rockport, Massachusetts. If you are thinking of coming out to explore Rockport and Cape Ann we would love to host you here at our Rockport MA Hotel! Our team here at the Addison Choate would be happy to answer any additional questions or help you uncover some of the hidden gems up here on Cape Ann!