Twin Beacons of Hope Borne of Tragedy
Just off of the coast to the east of Rockport, Massachusetts you will find Thacher Island and its famous twin lighthouses. The 54-acre island is one of three islands due east of the historic coastal village and is actually the only operating twin lighthouse in the United States.
When visitors come to Cape Ann, they love to get a good look at the lighthouses and there are many interesting vantage points along the shore. But not many know the tragic history of the Thacher Island Lighthouses.
Let’s take a closer look at the history and details surrounding the naming of the island and the erection of the Thacher Island lighthouses.
The history of the Thacher Island name dates back to August 14, 1635. It was on that day that Anthony Thacher and his family set sail out of Ipswich aboard the vessel, Watch and Wait.
Thacher was traveling with his cousin Reverend Avery, and his family, to Marblehead, where the pastor was to establish a new parish. There were 23 passengers aboard the vessel in all.
The weather was already unsettled when the crew set sail from Ipswich. They sailed three days into the wind, in a square-rigged vessel, and rounded the cape to head south. But the weather conditions worsened.
Little did they know it, but they were in the middle of what would later be known at the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. Believed to be the worst hurricane in the history of New England.
The vessel was ultimately lost, as it was thrown upon Rockport’s Crackwood’s Ledge, and 21 of the 23 passengers perished. The lone survivors were Anthony Thacher and his wife Elizabeth. The couple managed to scramble to the island and scrounge up enough of the ships supplies to survive.
The only body that was recovered was one of Reverend Avery’s 8 children. The couple buried her on the island where survived for a number of days until they were finally rescued. It was at this point that Anthony Thacher named the island Thacher’s Woe.
The colonial government later ceded the island to Anthony Thacher and it would remain the family for approximately 80 years, until it was sold to Gloucester farmers to pasture oxen.
The 3 islands off of the coast of Rockport have always been a hazard for sailors. Straitsmouth Island, Milk Island, with Thacher Island in between. Back in 1605 Samuel de Champlain dubbed the islands, “Les Trois Sauvages.” Then just 10 years later explorer John Smith referred to them as the Three Turk’s Heads.
As colonial trade increased, the danger of Thacher Island and its submerged twin, the Londoner, became a significant problem for those in the shipping industry. Hundreds of ships met their destiny on the rocks adjacent to Thacher Island, many of which were heading to London. Hence its name.
In order to remedy this situation, none other than John Hancock himself petitioned the colony to build a Cape Ann light. Hancock proposed shipowners pay a lighthouse tax in order to fund the project.
In 1771 the colony went to work on the acquisition of the island and the construction of the light houses. They decided on using 2 lighthouses to differentiate the Cape Ann light from the lighthouses in Boston and Portsmouth.
In addition, this was actually the first set of lighthouses that marked a hazard and not an open port, as was traditional at this time.
Thacher Island’s twin lighthouses were erected, and they were actually the last lighthouses built under British rule.
Joe Barboza, a hitman for Boston’s notorious Patriarca crime family, was a resident of the island back in 1967.
The FBI placed him on the island under the witness protection program after the Patriarca family attempted to kill Barboza by placing a bomb in his attorney’s car. His attorney lost is right leg below the knee, but Barboza survived.
Barboza, nicknamed “The Animal” was right in the middle of the legendary rivalry between the Patriarca family and Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. It is believed that he was involved in over 20 murders. He is pictured above at a congressional hearing on organized crime. Sunglasses inside Congress…that’s how Barboza rolled.
The nickname was actually received one night in a Revere Bar. He got in a fight and was told by his boss to keep his hands to himself. Showing a flair for creativity, Barboza later bit the man’s ear off and stated, “Hey, I didn’t touch him with my hands.”
But Barboza later had a falling out with the family and turned informant. He was transported back and forth to the Boston federal court via undercover lobster boats and laundry trucks. He testified against Raymond Patriarca, Sr. and many other members of the family.
Barboza ultimately met his demise at the end of 4 shotgun blasts at close range. His former lawyer F. Lee Bailey stated his death was, “no great loss to society.”
Today, the southern end of Thacher Island is actually owned by the Town of Rockport, while the northern end of the island is owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The maintenance of the Thacher Island is managed by Rockport’s Thacher Island Committee along with the Thacher Island Association (TIA). The TIA is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to raising funds for the ongoing maintenance and restoration of the island and its structures.
The current Thacher Island lighthouses were constructed in 1861. They are each 124 feet high, 22 feet in diameter and have 156 steps to the top of the towers. They are constructed of 10 ton granite blocks and feature a two foot inner wall made of bricks.
There are a number of great vantage points to view the Thacher Island light houses. There are some great locations on the local beaches. You can view the twin lighthouses from Good Harbor Beach, Pebble Beach and Cape Hedge Beach. You can also get a really great view from the rocks on Loblolly Point.
Of course, the best way to view the Thacher Island Lighthouses is up close and personal. You can only reach the island via boat or kayak. In Rockport, you can rent a Kayak from North Shore Kayak and embark on the 3-mile journey.
If you have a party of 6 or more, you can take the 3.5 hour guided tour for about $70 per adult. The paddle is not for a novice, it can be a little tiring so be cautious of your fitness level and the weather. The island has a number of cameras that you monitor to keep an eye on conditions.
Another great option to get out to Thacher’s is to make arrangements for a boat trip out of Rockport. Parties can also visit the island via private boat and tie up at one of the island’s 3 public moorings. If you are feeling particularly outdoorsy you can also arrange to camp on the island for the night.
If you’re interested in camping you will need to make a reservation ahead of time with the keeper. Visitors can camp on Thachers Island from June 1st through September 15th. There is just a $5 donation per night per person.
If you decide to make the visit you can tour the lighthouses and climb the 156 steps to the top. Visit the Thacher Island Museum and you can also take a nice stroll along the island which has a 3 mile groomed walking trail known as Ann’s Way.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed our exploration of the history of Rockport’s Thacher Island. It is yet another in a series of local Rockport treasures. If you plan of visiting Rockport, we would certainly love to host you at our Rockport MA Hotel and our team would be more than happy to help answer any questions that you have about Thacher Island or Cape Ann.