Light Hearted

Light Hearted Redux – Episode 9, Annie C. Harris, Bakers Island; Monster of Piedras Blancas; Eddystone part 2

This episode of the Light Hearted podcast was first released on July 1, 2019. Host Jeremy D’Entremont interviews Annie C. Harris, director of Essex Heritage. The non-profit organization promotes the cultural heritage of Essex County, Massachusetts, and owns the Bakers Island Light Station in Salem.

In a history segment, Jeremy and co-host Cindy Johnson continue the saga of the lighthouses on the Eddystone Rocks off Plymouth, England, with the story of Rudyard’s 1709 tower and Smeaton’s 1759 tower, which represented a major step forward in the construction of wave-swept lighthouses.

Jeremy and Cindy then discuss the 1959 horror film The Monster of Piedras Blancas, which was shot largely at California’s Point Conception Light Station. Jeremy recalls a phone interview with one of the movie’s stars, Jeanne Carmen.

You can listen using this player, and a full transcript follows.

JEREMY

You are listening to Light Hearted, the official podcast of the United States Lighthouse Society. My name is Jeremy D’Entremont.

We’re back at the Exeter Inn in Exeter, New Hampshire. And with me again is my frequent co-host, Cindy Johnson. Cindy is operations manager of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. And she also works right here at the Exeter Inn.Hey Cindy. I was just looking at some reviews of the Exeter Inn on Tripadvisor and people certainly say some glowing things about you. One of their reviews said, “Cindy at the front was outstanding,” or maybe it was “Cindy was standing out at the front desk.”

CINDY

Uh, I think it was both. In all seriousness, thank you for saying so. And I find that whether I met at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, greeting visitors to go on tours during our Sunday open houses or other special events, or I’m just checking in guests at the Exeter Inn, I love what I do. They’re very similar in that we’re welcoming visitors and tourists and  I do really enjoy that.

JEREMY

Well, it shows.

CINDY

Thank you.

JEREMY

So on today’s edition of Light Hearted, we’re going to talk about a lighthouse not too far to the south of us, Bakers Island in Salem, Massachusetts. And we’re also going to discuss a 1959 movie that I personally think is one of the classic lighthouse movies of all time. I use the word classic loosely, but the movie is The Monster of Piedras Blancas. We’re going to start with Baker’s Island Light Station, which is owned by the Essex National Heritage Commission, also known simply as Essex Heritage. Cindy, could you please help me tell our listeners about Essex Heritage and our guest?

CINDY

Sure, Jeremy. Established in 1997, Essex Heritage is a nonprofit organization created to oversee the Essex National Heritage Area, which is composed of all of Essex County, Massachusetts. Essex Heritage promotes the cultural heritage of Essex County with public and private partnerships and with the National Park Service by developing programs that enhance, preserve, and encourage awareness of the area’s unique, historic, cultural, and natural resources.

JEREMY

One of the properties under the auspices of Essex Heritage is the Bakers Island Light Station in Salem. Bakers Island is a 60-acre Island, the rest of which is in private ownership. The light station, which dates to 1798, was deeded to Essex Heritage through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in August 2014. The station consists of an 1820 lighthouse tower, two keepers’ houses and outbuildings. Through Essex Heritage, tours of the historic light station are available and also overnight stays. I met with Annie C. Harris, director of Essex Heritage, at the Essex Heritage offices in Salem, and we spoke about the tours and other programs at Bakers Island Light Station. Let’s go now to my interview with Annie C. Harris.

MUSIC INTERLUDE

Bakers Island Light Station, photo by Jeremy D’Entremont

JEREMY

With me today to discuss the programs related to Bakers Island Light Station is Annie C. Harris, chief executive officer of Essex Heritage. Thanks so much for spending time with us today, Annie. Bakers Island is among the oldest light stations in the country, Annie, and for quite a few years, there were two lighthouses there. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about the history of Bakers Island Light Station?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Sure. I’d be happy to. The first recorded notation about Bakers Island was John Winthrop in his diary in 1630. So there’s been a lot known about the island for many, many years. It stands at the mouth of Salem Harbor and in the 1700s and 1800s Salem was a very important harbor. And in fact, right after the American Revolution, there were just a lot of international trade that occurred out of Salem Harbor. Bakers Island only sort of guards the entrance to the harbor, but it also is surrounded by a lot of rocks and ledges and kind of dangerous underwater hazards. And so in 1791, the Salem Marine Society petitioned to be able to build a tower out there to try to guide ships better into Salem Harbor. And so they did build a day marker out of wood in 1791.

It wasn’t all that successful, though, because it was just a day marker. So in 1798, George Washington actually approved an appropriation to build a lighthouse. And it was a twin lighthouse. The house was a single house with two lights on either end of the gables. And we only have one drawing of that, from a map that Nathaniel Bowditch did. That lighthouse and those lights got destroyed in a storm, and in 1816 a single light was built. And then quite soon after that, in 1820, a second taller light was built and they became nicknamed Ma and Pa, with the smaller and the bigger one. And the smaller lighthouse was taken down in 1926. And so that’s why we only have Pop that’s left out.

Early 1900s postcard of Bakers Island Light Station, when the two lighthouse towers were standing.

JEREMY

I know there’s a lot more history you could tell us about. It’s a very, very historic, rich in history, station. But thank you for that capsule history. So what do you see as the mission of Essex Heritage with the Baker’s Island Light Station?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Well, when the property was turned over to us, it was turned over with the stipulation that we would take care of the property. It’s very stark as you said, and we preserve and enhance the buildings and the lighthouse. But also it was very important that we open it up to the public for the public’s enjoyment and also for education. So we’re very focused on trying to get the public out to the property. We don’t have a dock, so it is a unique way we have to land on the beach. It’s a stone beach. You’ve been out there so you know. And we have a landing craft that can carry 18 passengers out there.

Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont

JEREMY

Oh, the landing craft is perfect. I’ve done it a few times. It’s very enjoyable. It’s maybe slightly strenuous, but not so bad. I think it’s a lot of fun. And it’s just a great thing that you’ve been able to start these tours for the public there, it’s just a wonderful thing. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what Essex Heritage has accomplished since taking ownership as far as preservation projects.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Sure. The priority project was a lighthouse itself and it had been rebuilt in 1996, but by the time we got the property was in pretty rough shape. Its exterior was in very rough shape. And so we were able to raise money and restore the stucco exterior — really do a lot of patching and it also had a lot of mold and lichen on it, and really clean it up and repair the rust and repaint the lantern house. So it’s very nice now and I hope it’ll last a few more years, but it is a very rough climate out there. We’ve also had to do a lot of work on the two keepers’ houses. We put new roofs on them and we’ve done a lot of interior improvements and we’re still working on them —  windows, eaves, roofs, siding. There’s a lot to do.

JEREMY

Yeah. And it’s never finished. That’s the thing about lighthouse preservation.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Well, you know, it’s a very, they’re very harsh environments these lighthouses are in — a lot of winter storms and salt water. So there are challenging to take care of.

JEREMY

Absolutely. Are there any more specific projects planned at this point?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Well, the big project for this summer is to install a better solar power system. We have a pretty minimal system and as we open the island up and get more people out there, particularly overnights, we need a stronger solar power system. So we’re working on that. I hope to get that installed this summer. And then we are looking at other ways to have people stay overnight there. So eventually it would be nice to build some other small outbuildings, but we don’t have  that in the works just yet.

JEREMY

By the way, a I’m a local guy, you know, I grew up in Lynn right next to Salem, just down the road from here. And I kind of grew up going to Salem Willows, which is not, not too far from here, a park in Salem. And I was very aware of Bakers Island as a place that was kind of a private community. I kind of admired the island and the lighthouse from afar growing up. And I really think the fact you’ve been able to establish public tours of the light station is a great thing for local people, and for visitors to the area. Have other local people expressed this kind of thing to you, that it’s just such a wonderful thing to be able to visit the light station?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Yes, people are very pleased to be able to go out there. You know, if you look at the old records, people used to visit the lighthouse, they used to go out for picnics. But for about the last 70, 80 years, it was pretty closed to the public. And so the fact that people can get out there and actually get on the island itself is very exciting. So we’ve had a lot of people that are just thrilled to be able to do that. People like you who’ve seen the lighthouse on the shore or that have gone out on the water and boating for years and haven’t been able to stop. So people are very pleased.

JEREMY

Well, on behalf of other North Shore people, I thank you for doing this. Could you tell our listeners — you described it a little bit already — but if you could tell listeners a little bit more about how the tours work, where they leave from that kind of thing.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Sure. So we do regular tours on Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays in the summertime. We started about mid-June and we go through Labor Day. The tours leave from Salem next to the Salem ferry dock, Blaney Street. There’s a commercial wharf there and our boat leaves there. It takes about 25 minutes to get out to the Island. And we do a little bit of tour as we go out to go along the Gold Coast of Beverly and then pass Misery Island over to Bakers. We pull up to the beach, the bow of the boat lets down, and people have to climb off the front of the boat on a calm day. That’s pretty easy. On a rough day it’s not so easy. It’s a little more exciting. So people do need to be able to be pretty able on their feet, be able to walk pretty surely. And then you climb up a rocky beach and then we spend about a half hour doing a tour of the lighthouse property. And then people are free to wander around for the next hour. We have some trails, we have some great views, some things you can do out there. And then we bring people back and that’s the basic tour. We also take people out for overnights. We do rent the assistant keeper’s house. And so people can come out and spend essentially 24 hours out there.

JEREMY

And how do people sign up for the tours?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

So they can go online, Bakers Island or through Essex Heritage’s website. We also sell tickets at the National Park Service’s visitor center in Salem.

JEREMY

Obviously if people Google Bakers Island lighthouse tours, they’ll find it very easily

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Yeah, it pops up pretty easily.

JEREMY

And you mentioned the overnight accommodations. Maybe you could expand on that a little bit.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Sure. They’re, they’re kind of basic. But the house will hold up to six people, so people can sign up for four to six people. And we have a pretty good waiting list now. So if someone wants to spend overnight, it’s really important that they sign up early. The system is a solar power system, so you’re off the grid. You can charge your cell phone and we do have wifi out there, but you can’t really watch television. Most people don’t want to do that. The experience is kind of going back to how it used to be, and having fun on a special island. You’re very close to everything and yet you aren’t. It’s a very different environment. And it’s really like going back in time, 50, 75 years, without all the television, the noise, and everything else. So we have a lot of families that have really enjoyed doing it.

JEREMY

And you have occasional special events as well, special tours. And I happen to know a little bit personally about that. I have been involved in some of those. Maybe like to say a little about that.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

We do, we do. So we, we have this boat, we take it out. We do the Lighthouse Lovers Tour that you do, and it’s a very popular tour. We’ve also done wild edibles. We have a gentleman that has introduced some more native species out on the island and will take people out and talk to them about native plants. And also what’s edible. We have birdwatching tours, we’ve had shipwreck tours, lots of different things. And again, people can find that on the Essex Heritage website or by Googling Bakers Island.

JEREMY

When we do the lighthouse lovers tour, which I’ve done a couple each year and I hope we will be able to do a couple this year. We go close to the other lighthouses in the area — Derby Wharf Light in Salem, Fort Pickering Light, and Marblehead Light, Hospital Point Lighthouse in Beverly as well. And I give people some historical background on those lighthouses and I help with the tour on Bakers Island as well.

Hospital Point Light Station in Beverly, Massachusetts. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Yeah. And so in that, on your tour, people see five lighthouses and can get very close. One of the nice things about our boat is it’s very stable, so you can get right up close to, for example, Hospital Point, and take great pictures when you’re telling about the history. So it’s very nice.

JEREMY

Yeah. We get really nice views of those other lighthouses. So people again, can check out the website for the schedule of those tours as well. So looking forward to it. So anything else you’d like to say about to listeners about Bakers Island in general? Anything you’d like to add?

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Oh, I don’t know. We just really enjoy the project. We work with a lot of sites and historic resources all around Essex County. This is actually the only one that we own. It’s a great experience for us. And it gives us a lot of sympathy for people that have old buildings, and all that goes into taking care of these old buildings. But it’s also lots of fun both to get people out to the property and share it with them, but also to learn and do more history into the property. And we’re developing programs for kids based on the history, but also the nature out there. So we’re having a lot of fun with it.

JEREMY

Yeah. Well, that’s great. Annie C. Harris of Essex Heritage, thank you so much for taking time with us today and talking about Bakers Island Light Station. Thanks so much.

ANNIE C. HARRIS

Well, thank you for the opportunity and I hope a lot of people will come visit us.

MUSIC

CINDY

Time for our lighthouse history segment. Last time we told you about Henry Winstanley, the first man to build a lighthouse on the dangerous Eddystone Rocks in the open ocean 13 miles southwest of Plymouth, England. Winstanley died along with his creation in the great storm of November 1703.

JEREMY

The next tower at Eddystone was designed by John Rudyard. A London silk merchant. Rudyard was commissioned by Captain John Lovitt, who held the lease on the Eddystone Rocks, to build the lighthouse. Lovitt died just a few years later, and it’s believed that he had financial problems due to the high cost of the construction of the lighthouse

CINDY

Rudyard’s tower, built in 1709, was a conical wooden structure around a core of brick and concrete. In spite of the fact that Rudyard had no background as a builder or architect, his tower proved much more durable than its predecessor. And it was in fact, the first successful offshore waveswept or rock lighthouse in the world. It stood for 47 years.

JEREMY

During the night of December 2, 1755, a fire was ignited in the lantern, possibly from a spark from one of the candles that provided the lighthouse’s illumination. Henry Hall, the 94 year old keeper, rushed into the lantern and tried to extinguish the fire with buckets of water. At one point, looking up, he was showered with molten lead that fell from the ceiling of the lantern. The lead burned his head, neck, and shoulders. And some of it went into his mouth.

CINDY

Hall screamed, “My God! I’m on fire inside.” As the lead went down his throat, he and the other keepers continued to fight the fire, but their efforts were in vain. A boat arrived after the fire had raged for eight hours and the keepers were rescued. The fire burned for five days until the lighthouse was completely destroyed. Keeper Henry Hall lived for another 12 days. After he died, a flat oval piece of lead was found in his stomach. The piece of lead, weighing more than seven ounces, is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

JEREMY

The next tower at Eddystone marked a major leap forward in the design of wave-swept lighthouses. The third lighthouse was designed for the first time by an actual engineer. The man chosen for the job was John Smeaton, an English civil engineer responsible for the design of bridges, canals, harbors, and lighthouses. He was also a mechanical engineer and a prominent physicist, and is often regarded as the father of civil engineering.

Smeaton’s tower (USLHS archives)

CINDY

Smeaton’s tower, built between 1756 and 1759, was the world’s first to be constructed of granite blocks that were connected to each other with dovetail joints. Dovetailing was a method used often in carpentry, but not in masonry. Smeaton’s tower was joined to its horizontal neighbors using tabs and notches. In addition, Smeaton cited the strength of the oak tree, which is widest at the bottom. He mimicked nature in the design for his tower at Eddystone, making the lighthouse wider at the bottom, tapering toward the top. The tree-like shape and dovetailed granite blocks of Smeaton’s lighthouse were adopted as standard elements in wave-swept towers everywhere.

JEREMY

The 1759 lighthouse at Eddystone served for more than a century and it would have lasted longer if the rock beneath it had not been undermined. It was dismantled and moved to shore, and it remains a tourist attraction on dry land in Plymouth, England. On the next edition of Light Hearted we’ll finish the saga of Eddystone Lighthouse by telling you about the present structure, which has been in service since 1882.

JEREMY

And now it’s movie time!

AUDIO FROM TRAILER FOR THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS

Famous Monsters of Hollywood magazine names it Shock Award winner! The Monster of Piedras Blancasi! The Monster of Piedras Blancas, the world’s most shocking monster stalks its unsuspecting prey. Feasts its eyes on the next victim to writhe in its slimy arms. The screen’s most nightmarish beast — a claw-fingered, scaly skinned, half human crustacean. Turning a lonely lighthouse village into a frenzied bedlam of blood curdling horror. Never have you known such cringing terror.”

From The Monster of Piedras Blancas

JEREMY

For connoisseurs of low budget horror flicks, The Monster of Piedras Blancas occupies a special niche.  It is possibly the only monster movie ever made that takes place largely at a lighthouse, with a keeper and his daughter as central characters. Although the lighthouse in the movie is purportedly the one at Piedras Blancas, the shooting was actually done at California’s Point Conception Light Station. Director Irvin Berwick later told Filmfax magazine, “We found this one lighthouse at Point Conception, with rocky shores and a perfect look, very photogenic.”  The lighthouse at Piedras Blancas was not so attractive, as its lantern had been removed a few years earlier.

CINDY

The monster was the creation of producer Jack Kevan, who also designed the famous Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Irvin Berwick was another Hollywood veteran who had worked with director Jack Arnold on such movies as It Came from Outer Space and Tarantula. The Piedras Blancas monster was largely a recycling of earlier designs, but the head was completely original.  It wore a perpetual scowl that no doubt lived in the nightmares of countless children.

JEREMY

As the movie begins, we see a mysterious, inhuman hand reaching over rocks by the ocean. We’re soon introduced to the salty lighthouse keeper, Sturges, played by John Harmon. While on his way into town on his bicycle, he runs into a crowd gathered on the beach. Two local fishermen have been savagely killed, and their decapitated bodies have been drained of blood. This puzzles the town doctor, played by veteran character actor Les Tremayne.

CINDY

Keeper Sturges arrives at a grocery store to pick up supplies. The storekeeper thinks the deaths of the fishermen are related to the local legends of the “Monster of Piedras Blancas.”

MOVIE CLIP

Kolchek: “Now we should pay more attention to these legends. It would explain many things that happened in the last 30 years.”

Sturges: “Kolcheck, you’re a bigger fool than I thought!”

CINDY

Meanwhile, Sturges’s daughter Lucy is cavorting on the beach with her marine biologist boyfriend. Their picnic soon dissolves into smooches in the surf. As Lucy proceeds to go for a skinny dip near the lighthouse, monstrous hands paw her clothes left on the rocks. Needless to say, this all leads to more mayhem and a violent climax at the top of the lighthouse. 

JEREMY

Besides acting in a string of “B” movies with titles like Untamed Youth and Born Reckless, leading lady Jeanne Carmen was famous as a beauty contest winner and trick shot golf artist. Carmen’s personal life made her most sensational movies seem tame by comparison. Marilyn Monroe was a close pal, and Carmen’s circle of friends and admirers over the years included Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Errol Flynn. When I wrote an article about The Monster of Piedras Blancas for Lighthouse Digest magazine back in 2002 I was lucky enough to interview Jeanne Carmen on the phone. She told me she turned down a small role in a major Hollywood film to take a larger role in Piedras Blancas. She said that her innocent, sweet character in The Monster of Piedras Blancas was actually closer to her true personality than the parts that she usually played. 

Carmen made a perfect lighthouse keeper’s daughter, despite the fact that there was no time for research. “All I did was learn my lines. We didn’t rehearse but we got through it,” she told me.

CINDY

Carmen remembered the movie as a positive experience, but she took her lumps during the filming. In one scene, a character throws an oilcan from the top of the lighthouse toward the monster, who was carrying Carmen on the beach. The can hit her in the leg before hitting the target. And she laughed when she recalled the filming of the supposedly romantic scene in the rolling surf with actor Don Sullivan. “The water was so cold we couldn’t speak,” she said. And for some reason, Carmen’s hair was dyed red for the black and white filming, which caused much of it to fall out.

JEREMY

A stunt man named Pete Dunn played the monster through most of the production, and the costume was so stifling that he could only wear it for half-hour stretches. Carmen remembered that Dunn became ill and had to be replaced for the climactic scenes at the lighthouse. The lethargic Dunn was replaced by Carmen’s press agent, which according to Carmen explains why the creature was so much more animated in the final scenes.

CINDY

Character actor John Harmon’s portrayal of the keeper is surprisingly believable, and lighthouse buffs will appreciate the emphasis on “keeping the light” despite personal hardship.  And there’s a nice scene of Harmon polishing Point Conception’s beautiful first order Fresnel lens.  The crew wasn’t supposed to film inside the lighthouse, but legend has it that the official assigned to watch over the filming was lured away to a local bar while certain scenes were shot.

JEREMY

All in all, The Monster of Piedras Blancas was fun for those involved.  “Nobody got mad, nobody yelled. There was a lot of love on that movie — we had fun together,” said Jeanne Carmen. And despite a bit of black-and-white gore, it’s a fun movie that showcases the picturesque Point Conception Light Station, which is, unfortunately, off limits to the public.

It’s no cinematic classic, but The Monster of Piedras Blancas is available on DVD and blu-ray, and it can also be seen on You-Tube. It’s worth a look. What did you think of it, Cindy?

CINDY

Jeremy, I actually liked it. I found it pretty entertaining. I would recommend it, but maybe just to people like us that are lighthouse buffs.

[NOTE: THE TRIVIA CONTEST IS CLOSED.]

JEREMY

Yeah. I would agree with that. All right, time now for a trivia question. The first two people to answer the following question correctly will win prizes. Here is today’s question. It’s actually a two-part question. What was the name of the keeper who died as a result of the 1755 fire at Eddystone lighthouse? And how old was he when he died again? What was the name of the keeper who died as a result of the 1755 fire at Eddystone lighthouse? And how old was he when he died?

CINDY

If you listened to all of this edition of Light Hearted, you should know the answer. This time we’re offering two new prizes. The first person to answer correctly gets a copy of the book Lighthouses of America, published in association with the U.S. Lighthouse Society. It’s a beautiful 176-page hardcover book featuring stunning photographs of lighthouses across the country, taken by society photographers. The second person to answer correctly gets an official U.S. Lighthouse Society passport. The lighthouse passport program provides enthusiasts the opportunity to help preserve lighthouses as well as a wonderful way to keep a pictorial history of their lighthouse adventures. You can learn more about the passport program at USLHS.org.

JEREMY

To enter, send your answer in an email to me at jeremy@uslhs.org. Be sure to say that you are answering the trivia question in Light Hearted episode nine, and again, send it in an email to jeremy@uslhs.org. And again, the first two people to answer correctly will win prizes.

MUSIC

That’s it for this edition of Light Hearted. Thank you to the staff of the Exeter Inn.

CINDY

Thanks to all the staff and volunteers of the United States Lighthouse Society, including Maria, Cassandra, Jeff, and everyone in Hansville, Washington.

JEREMY

Be sure to check all the information on the USLHS website at uslhs.org, including the new J. Candace Clifford research catalog, which is a tremendous resource. Also check out the USLHS social media pages on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Anything you’d like to add, Cindy?

CINDY

Just that folks visiting the Seacoast of New Hampshire this season to visit our website at portsmouthharborlighthouse.org, to see what’s going on in New Castle, New Hampshire, at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

JEREMY

Good idea. Very special thanks to our guest Annie C. Harris of Essex Heritage. Check them out online and learn about the tours to Bakers Island Light Station at essexheritage.org. That wraps up another edition of Light Hearted. Until next time –

CINDY AND JEREMY

Keep a good light!

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