Bakers Island residents adjust as lighthouse changes hands
By Joel Brown | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT SEPTEMBER 07, 2014
BAKERS ISLAND, SALEM — About 40 people took a chartered boat to this island on a warm, sunny late-August morning for a ceremony marking the handover of the Bakers Island Light Station from the Coast Guard to the Essex National Heritage Commission.
The party included a uniformed Coast Guard rear admiral and the mayor of Salem, but the most significant attendees may have been the dozen or so casually dressed island residents who greeted the Endeavor at the wharf and helped the guests disembark.
“As we welcome our new neighbors today, we do it with the hope of finding a partner that shares our passion to protect the integrity of the land on which we now stand and the buildings that grace this beautiful site,” resident Steve Striebel, president of the Bakers Island Wharf Co., said at the ceremony.
The rocky 60-acre island about 4 miles east of Salem Harbor is home to a proud and determinedly private summer community of about 100 residents, most of whom have cottages that have been passed down in their families for generations. For years they tried unsuccessfully to win control of the Coast Guard property to safeguard the island and its lifestyle.
Now they say they’re ready to work cooperatively, and Essex Heritage leaders appear intent on making the relationship succeed even as they plan to begin a few guided tours of the light station next year. The 10-acre property at the north end of the island includes the masonry lighthouse and two keeper’s houses. The rest of the island is privately owned, with no public roads or utilities except some firefighting equipment.
“We are committed to taking care of this property, and also to opening it up for public enjoyment and education,” said Annie Harris, chief executive of Essex Heritage. “But we know we need to balance these objectives with the concerns of the summer community over fire and safety and their love for this place, this very special place.
“So we will be going forward slowly, probably more slowly than many people would like.”
Harris made it clear that all tours will be scheduled and escorted from Salem, and that the site “is not going to be open to public boaters.”
That kind of talk may have helped bring around the residents. Besides allowing use of the wharf — previous Heritage groups had to land on the beach — residents also loaned dozens of folding chairs and one of their leaders spoke at the ceremony. Small gestures, perhaps, but both sides acknowledged that they represented a shift in the relationship.
“The island community views the transfer ceremony as a good opportunity to start a new chapter in our relationship with Essex Heritage,” said Striebel. “We thought this was a good way to kick it off, a good gesture.”
The two sides do need each other going forward, he said.
“We have seen how delicate and fragile the island can be,” Striebel said. “We have also developed a time-tested and well-earned respect for how hard and ruthless it can become when the weather turns cold. We have seen what happens to [similar] properties when they are not adequately cared for, and frankly, it frightens us.”
In the bright sunshine, the lighthouse property looked like an Edward Hopper seascape. But the Coast Guard has done significant environmental remediation, removing lead paint and other issues, and Essex Heritage already has begun work on the keeper’s houses, including putting on new roofs.
Harris said the organization’s next steps include seeking grants and other funding for needed renovation and upkeep. She also is looking for volunteer keepers, perhaps a couple, to live in one of the houses next season. Someone who doesn’t have to commute to a day job and can handle a boat would be ideal, she said. Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, drew a laugh by raising her hand to volunteer for what looked like a plum assignment, on that morning anyway.
Bakers Island residents are known for turning away uninvited visitors at the high tide line, and even on the day of the ceremony, they politely requested that private houses not be photographed. They’ve long been concerned about visitors undercutting their privacy and sense of community on an island where solar panels and generators provide the only electricity, where walking and a few golf carts are the main modes of transportation over the grassy paths.
“For the past century we as a community have been responsible for protecting and maintaining this very unique place. To say we have become passionate about it would be an understatement,” said Striebel, who added that his wife’s parents met and married on the island.
They have practical worries as well. A hotel on the island burned down in 1906 and, despite hoses and pumps provided by the city of Salem, fire remains a very real concern. Bakers Island Homeowners Corp. president Dan Morse notes that break-ins and vandalism by nonresidents are scourges of island life everywhere, especially in the off-season.
At this point, the homeowners feel Essex Heritage understands their concerns, said Morse, whose son is the sixth generation of the family to spend time on the island. “That’s the reason we reached out, to make sure the dialogue stays open.”
Both the homeowner’s group and wharf company are offshoots of the Bakers Island Association, the main governing body for residents’ affairs.
The first navigational marker went up on the island in 1791, and the first lighthouse was lighted on Jan. 3, 1798. The current lighthouse, built in 1820, is still an active aid to navigation, and will continue to be maintained by the Coast Guard for that purpose.
“The Coast Guard is really just pleased to see this proud maritime history and heritage continue and know that it will be preserved,” said Rear Admiral Linda Fagan, commander of the First Coast Guard District.
“If it goes the way we hope it goes, there will be guided tours and people will be able to enjoy the property and leave it just as they found it,” said Striebel.