Almost but not quite wrapping up my series of posts on our three-day December trip to Salem, Jamie and I took Route 114 out of Salem and headed to a nearby town that had brought me considerable amusement over the years though I had never been there. Long ago when I was a kid we had a book of jokes and light-hearted insults that I don’t remember a thing about except for one of its entries: “They named a town after you in Massachusetts … Marblehead !” Every time I hear or see the name of the town that can be seen from Salem when looking across the harbor, I remember that single entry so it should be no surprise that as Jamie and I headed towards our next destination on Marblehead Neck guess what I was thinking of? Exactly!
The Town of Marblehead was first settled as a plantation of Salem in 1629 before it was incorporated in 1649 and became a town of its own. Originally called Massebequash, after the river which ran between it and Salem, the land was inhabited by the Naumkeag people but in 1633 an epidemic of what was believed to be smallpox decimated the tribe and they ended up selling their 3,700 acres to the Europeans that settled in the area that eventually became northeastern Massachusetts.
In addition to being a yachting capital of the United States (Sandee take note!), Marblehead also lays claim to being the birthplace of the American Navy. On September 5th, 1775, the Hannah, the first vessel commissioned for the United States Navy as a warship, set sail from Beverly Harbor equipped with cannons, rope, provisions, and a crew from Marblehead under the direction of ship owner and Captain John Glover, a Marbleheader. The sailors were under the orders of General George Washington to seize "such Vessels as may be found on the High seas or elsewhere, bound inward and outward to or from Boston in the Service of the ministerial Army." Granted, upon being sighted by the HMS Lively, the Hannah made haste for the safety of Gloucester Harbor but hey – everything’s got to start somewhere, right? Though there are several other towns that lay claim to being the birthplace of the US Navy (including Beverly), I doubt you’d find a single native of Marblehead that didn’t claim the honor for their hometown!
Not a large town with a total area of just over 19 square miles northeast of Boston, Marblehead is located along Massachusetts Bay and Salem Harbor and includes a rocky peninsula that extends into the bay with an isthmus connected by a long sandbar called Marblehead Neck In addition to being a bird sanctuary, that part of town is home to Castle Rock Park and Chandler Hovey Park - also known as Lighthouse Point - at its northern tip. Originally owned by the U.S. Government, the land was purchased by Marblehead Neck resident and well-known yachtsman Chandler Hovey in 1948 who in turn donated it to the town. The park overlooks the mouth of the harbor and it’s where Marblehead Light Tower - my and Jamie's destination - is located.
I had read somewhere that either you loved or hated Marblehead Light as it’s definitely not your quintessential New England lighthouse by any stretch of the imagination so I was quite looking forward to seeing it but as we pulled into the parking lot at Chandler Hovey Park, Jamie took one look at it and said, “THAT’S a lighthouse??” It appeared that she was going to fall into the “hate it” category!
Marblehead Light wasn’t always the tall, brown, spindly tower that looks like something out of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds; once upon a time (in 1835) it was a 23-foot brick and wood tower that had an array of ten lamps that burned whale oil inside an octagonal lantern. A Sixth-Order Fresnel lens and reflectors replaced the oil lamps in 1857 but despite upgrades the tower was in poor condition as well as being obscured by all of the houses that had built up around it when the area was opened up as a residential community. What good is a lighthouse when no one can see the light?
In 1893 the town requested an appropriation of $45,000 for the construction of another brick tower to be built 100 feet high with the request repeated the following year before funds were finally appropriated and a contract was awarded in June of 1895 for the building of a new lighthouse. Instead of a brick tower, though, a 105-foot cast-iron skeleton tower was erected at a considerable cost savings of only $8,786.
The only one of its kind in New England, the pyramidal skeletal lighthouse is composed of eight cast-iron pilings resting upon eight concrete foundation disks which are connected by supports and diagonal adjustable tie rods; four of the pilings attach directly under the watch room while four others run about halfway up. The lighthouse has a central iron cylinder that contains a spiral stairway of 127 steps that lead to the landing below the watch room and from there a slanted ship’s ladder leads up to the lantern room which is surrounded by a gallery. Using the original Sixth-Order Fresnel lens and a kerosene-fueled lamp, the new Marblehead Light was first illuminated on April 17th, 1896 with a fixed white light 130 feet above water. In 1922 the characteristic of the light was changed to fixed red so as to stand out from the lights of the town and then permanently changed to fixed green in 1938.
In 1959 the original keeper’s house was torn down and in 1960 Marblehead Light’s Fresnel lens was replaced with a modern optic which is still an active aid to navigation and maintained by the Coast Guard though the tower is maintained by the Town of Marblehead .
In addition to Marblehead Light Tower, there's another lighthouse that can be seen from the parking lot at Chandler Hovey Park. From there you can get a slightly better view of Bakers Island and the lighthouse there then you can from Salem though even with a 300mm zoom lens, it’s still kind of far! It’s one of those lighthouses best seen from a boat but alas, I didn’t happen to have a boat handy and was just going to have to make due! Seriously, I gots to find me a boat and someone to skipper it so I can get better pictures of some lighthouses!
As mentioned briefly in a previous post, Bakers Island, a small, private residential island, is where the Salem Marine Society erected a 57-foot warning beacon in 1791. The beacon was replaced in 1798 by two lights atop a keeper’s house and then in 1815 and 1820, two round stone towers were added that were affectionately known as “Ma” and “Pa” Baker. Both lights remained in service until 1926 when the older and shorter tower (“Ma”) was removed.
The original 1855 Fourth-Order Fresnel lens that floated atop a bed of mercury (and which can now be seen exhibited at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine) was replaced in 1972 with modern optics and solarized in the summer of 2000; the optics are still maintained by the Coast Guard while ownership of the lighthouse belongs to the Essex National Heritage Commission. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of Bakers Island Light – and it’s a rather interesting one! – you can do so at New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide.
At this point, Jamie and I were both getting somewhat hungry and a little on the chilled side so we decided to head back towards Salem and scare us up some lunch somewhere warm. In my next and - believe it or not - final post I'll tell you about a rather new restaurant in Salem located in a rather unique place that makes a darned fine bacon cheeseburger. Be sure to come back for that one!