Light Hearted

Light Hearted Redux – episode 10; Paul St. Germain, Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse, Massachusetts; Eddystone part 3

This episode was originally posted on July 4, 2019. The guest is Paul St. Germain, president of the Thacher Island Association and a Cape Ann author. The main topic of discussion is the Thacher Island Association’s stewardship of Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse. Also featured is part three of a discussion of lighthouses built over the years on England’s famout Eddystone Rocks.

You can listen with the player below, and a complete transcript follows.

LIGHT HEARTED episode 10

Paul St. Germain, Straitsmouth Island; Eddystone part 3, July 4, 2019

JEREMY

You are listening to Light Hearted,  the official podcast of the United States Lighthouse Society. My name is Jeremy D’Entremont. We are once again coming to you from the Exeter Inn in Exeter, New Hampshire. And with me again today is my cohost Cindy Johnson. Happy Fourth of July, Cindy.

CINDY

Hi Jeremy, happy Fourth!

JEREMY

On this edition of Light Hearted, we’ll have our usual trivia question and a segment on lighthouse history. But first we’re heading just about an hour down the coast. Actually it’s a little over an hour by car from Exeter, New Hampshire, to Rockport, Massachusetts, but it’s a little less than 30 miles by sea. We’re going to start with a discussion of Straitsmouth Island off Rockport, Massachusetts.

CINDY

That’s right. Let’s give our listeners a little background. Rockport grew up around an indentation in the northeastern part of Cape Ann known as Sandy Bay. It was determined that Straitsmouth Island, which is about 1600 feet off shore, would be a perfect place for a lighthouse to guide vessels toward the busy harbor at Pigeon Cove, and also to help vessels pass through the channel between that’s between Thacher Island to the south and the rocks known as the Salvages northeast of Straitsmouth. A lighthouse was first established on Straitsmouth Island in 1835. The tower was rebuilt in 1851 and again in 1896.

Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse with the twin lights of Thacher Island in the distance.
Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont

JEREMY

The 1896 Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse, a 37-foot brick tower, along with 1.8 acres of land, became the property of the Town of Rockport in 2010 under the guidelines of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. In 2014, the Town of Rockport signed a 30-year lease with Massachusetts Audubon for the use of the keeper’s house and oil house.

The 1851 tower seen in a c. 1859 photo.

CINDY

The nonprofit Thacher Island Association raises money for the historic preservation and operation of Thatcher and Straitsmouth islands, Thacher Island, about a mile and a half south of Straitsmouth Island, is home to twin granite lighthouses and is designated a National HistoricLandmark. The island is accessible to the public via boat tours from Rockport. You can learn more at thatcherisland.org.

JEREMY

Paul t. Germain

Paul St. Germain is the president of the Thacher Island Association and a Cape Ann author and historian. He has lived in Rockport for more than 25 years. He’s written four books for the popular Images of America series, all focused on Cape Ann’s maritime and industrial heritage. I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with him about Straitsmouth Island Light Station. Let’s listen to that conversation now.

MUSIC INTERLUDE

JEREMY

Thanks so much for spending some time with me today, Paul. I really appreciate it.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

My pleasure.

JEREMY

Paul, you and I go back quite a few years. It’s got to be close to 20 years at this point.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

At least. At least. I’ve been involved with Thacher Island for 25 years. I think we met up maybe a couple of years after I started, so at least 20 years.

JEREMY

And as we get started here, I just want to congratulate you on all the progress that’s been made over the years on Thacher Island with the restoration of all the buildings there. There’s been so much that happened there over the years. I’ve watched the progress there personally since the late 1980s, when the Thacher Island Association got started. Thacher’s one of my favorite light stations. And I certainly want to recommend to all our listeners that they make an effort to visit there sometime.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

That’s great. We offer trips out to Thacher Island every summer. We go out there on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So if anybody’s interested, check out our website and all the information to get a ticket to ride, as they say is on the website, thacherisland.org.

JEREMY

We’ll mention that again before we’re through here today. So another time I definitely want to sit down and talk more in depth about Thacher Island. Definitely. There’s a lot to talk about there, but today we’re mainly going to concentrate on Straitsmouth Lighthouse. I first visited Straitsmouth nearly 20 years ago, and I know what terrible condition the keeper’s house and the oil house were in at that time. The keeper’s house was basically falling apart. It was an eyesore, and I honestly thought the keeper’s house and the oil house might’ve been beyond saving at that point. It’s amazing to me to see what’s been accomplished in recent years since the Town of Rockport and the Thacher Island Association have become the stewards in recent years for the island. It had to be a daunting project. When you took over, can you tell us a little bit about the process of how you’ve been able to save the buildings?

 PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Back in 2008, the Coast Guard offered up the lighthouse on Straitsmouth Island to any group that would agree to maintain it as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. We as a group, when the board of directors of the association felt it was incumbent on us to go to the Town and at least offer up to the Town the possibility of taking over that island. And that’s basically how we did it 20, 25 years ago with Thacher. We brought it to the board of selectmen. They thought it was a great idea. And so, a bunch of us applied to the Coast Guard and the Park Service and General Services Administration, who’s in charge of selling the property or offering the property to basically nonprofit groups. So we did that.

Everything was approved by 2010, and now the town owns 1.8 acres of land on Straitsmouth, including the lighthouse. So our first project, you, you mentioned the oil house falling apart. Our first project was to repair the oil house. A lot of people don’t realize the island’s actually owned by Mass Audubon and Mass Audubon have become great partners with us. And so we went to them because they own the oil house and said, how about if we repair the oil house and then we can use it to put our tools in as we progress in restoring the rest of those structures on the island. And they thought that was a great idea.

So our first project was, we totally restored the old brick oil house that was built, I think in 1905. The next step was the lighthouse itself. Now that the town owned the lighthouse, it needed a lot of work. The brickwork both inside and outside needed a lot of pointing some of the brick, a sleeve on the inside had slipped. But the main problem with the lighthouse was the metal beam that supported the floor below the lantern room was all rustjacked out, which means it was pushing through the brick and actually becoming dislodged. All that metal work had to be redone. We got that done. We ran a fundraising campaign and raised $150,000, which International Chimney that did the work, charged us to do that project. And that was very successful. The lighthouse looks brand new. It’s been repainted, reappointed. All the metalwork is nice and shiny and black. So we were happy with that. So the next step was the keeper’s house. And as you say, the side of that house literally fell off. It slid right down. So you could see the floor of the second floor right open to the weather. Mass Audubon had wanted to give us the house.

And we said, that’s a great idea. We’d love to have it, but it was in such poor condition. We said, we’ll accept it on one condition that you at least seal it up to the weather to let us get to it the following year. And they said, okay, we can do that. They literally spent $200,000 to reseal it up, which we were very happy with. So they said they weren’t really weren’t interested in keeping the house because, as they said, they said to us often they’re into birds, not buildings.  So they got their lawyers together to offer up a contract to offer the house. And as they were going through the deed and the paperwork, they realized that they couldn’t give us the house for free. They had to sell it to us because the gift from William Gibbs, who had owned the island before that, his gift stated that, uh, any of the structures had to be sold and couldn’t be given away.

So we were disappointed in that, but we went back with them and had another discussion and offered up the alternative of how about if we took a long-term lease for 30 years on the house. And they thought it was a great idea and the town thought it was a great idea. So here we are, we now are leasing the keeper’s dwelling for a dollar a year. So that gave us impetus to start working on the restoration of that house. We hired a contractor because it was a huge job. Even though we’ve got — the association has 70 plus volunteers who work on both islands during the summer months. This job was pretty extensive, probably a little bit more than we could have handled. So we did a lot of the clapboard work on the outside, some of the simpler projects, but then the contractor did all the more complicated things inside. So that went on for about three and a half, four years. And just this past fall, we completed the restoration of the house. So this June of this summer, we will install our first summer resident, keepers out on Straitsmouth, as we do on Thacher. And so we’re looking forward to that.

JEREMY

It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing to see, see what’s what’s happened with the progress that’s been made. Now tell me about the access, the public access that’s happening. Is there going to be public access?

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yes, there certainly is. We are, as I said, in our most recent newsletter, having a soft opening this summer.

JEREMY

I just want to make the point that we’re recording this in mid-May 2019, but I believe that people will be hearing this in early July. So I just want to make that point.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yes. It will be open to the public. This summer, what we plan to do, is the island will in fact be opened to the public this summer. As we do on Thacher. We have trips out to Thacher on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the general public. We are not planning to do that on Straitsmouth this summer, but we will begin trips out to Straitsmouth the following summer of 2020. What we will be allowing is kayakers to come out to Straitsmouth or anybody else who has their own boat. They can anchor right off the island and get on the island. The major access is a boat ramp that we’ve just completed this past November, similar to the boat ramp that we have out on Thacher, and we don’t have a dock or a pier, and it’s never been that way. On either island they’ve only had ramp boat ramps. We have two aluminum specially designed boats with flat bottoms and rollers on the bottom. Our boats land on the ramp. And then we have a winch that pulls the boat up the ramp. The ramp was just completed, as I say, in November. We raised close to $400,000 to build that ramp. We were just out there recently, had the engineering inspection with the contractor.

So we’re ready to go. What we will be planning to do in the summer of 2019 here is installing the boat winch and the winch motor that will allow us to pull the boat up the ramp. It’s interesting that this ramp existed. The first boat ramp existed starting in like the 1860s and was in existence right up to about 1930. 1934-35 is when the Coast Guard actually left the Island. They still managed the island, but they didn’t live there. After that point, they then actually sold the island to individuals. In 1941, the first owner took it over. And since that time it’s been owned by a series of individuals right up until 1964 when William Francis Gibbs bought it. And then three years later on his passing, his brother donated the island to Mass Audubon.

We’ve done a lot of other work on the island over the last four or five years. We’ve built a new barn, which is a storage and maintenance barn to store our tractors and other equipment. We’ve widened the trails. We have a three quarters of a mile long trail that runs the length of the Island. The ramp is on the western end at what they call the Gap End of the island, which is exactly where the original ramp was. And there was a boathouse there back in the late 1800s. So we’ve duplicated that.

So that’s where we are so far. And then again, this summer we’ve got plans to — there’s a walkway that runs from the keeper’s house to the lighthouse. And that was there in the mid-1800s and had been repaired a number of times over the years and up until about 40-50 years ago, it just collapsed. And it was built up on granite piers. So we’re going to be replacing that. We found all 32 of the granite piers. We’re going to set them up again and build a new walkway. And once we get that finished, it’ll allow us to have the public actually be able to go into the lighthouse and climb the lighthouse from that. So we’re looking forward to that.

JEREMY

Do you think that will happen by the time the 2020 boat tours start?

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

I don’t think so. We’ll probably have one or two of the sections completed this summer and we’ll finish it off in 2020. But what’s interesting about it over the years, since 1835, when the very first lighthouse was built, the public hasn’t been allowed on that island for all those years. So literally 180 years later is the first time the general public would be allowed to go on the island. So that’s kind of an exciting thing.

JEREMY

Yeah. I know the one time I got on the island with the Coast Guard almost 20 years ago, I felt pretty special to be one of the few people who was able to get on there. So it’s going to be really exciting when the public tours start there. Now the keeper’s house again is being made livable for a caretaker or so-called keeper to live there in the summer. Will there be part of that that will be open for the public tours when they —

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yes, our plans in the keeper’s house is to open up at least one of the rooms, maybe two of the rooms to the general public. What  we’re planning to do is recreate a Victorian parlor in that house. That houses dates to 1878. It’s kind of a Victorian styled house anyhow. So we’ve been collecting antique furniture and settees, and beds and all kinds of other Victorian paraphernalia. We’ve been collecting a lot of marine artifacts. We just got a Lyle gun; we’ve got a signal gun from a fishing schooner. We’ve got a sextant, all from ships and areas around here that people have collected over the years and have donated to us. So we’ll have a nice little artifact room for people to get a feel for how keepers lived in the 1800s out there.

JEREMY

What a great addition to the area that’s going to be.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yeah, we’re very proud of this. The fact of the matter is that it really gives Rockport a whole brand new venue for visitors. I mean, Rockport is, as you know, very much of a tourist town. And so this gives just another reason for people to come out. So especially where it’s so close to Rockport Harbor, it’s very simple and very easy for kayakers to get out there. It’s only like a mile from Rockport Harbor.

JEREMY

Yeah. From Bearskin Neck, right?

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yeah, exactly.

JEREMY

You can actually, if you crane your neck just right from the end of Bearskin Neck, you can see Straitsmouth.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

We have put up a sign, an interpretive sign at the end of Bearskin Neck, and it’s lined up so if you stand in front of that sign — it’s got all kind of the history of the three different lighthouses that had been built there over the years. And if you stand behind the sign and you look straight ahead, you can see what you’re seeing on the sign. You see light and the house from that distance. It’s pretty cool.

JEREMY

For listeners who might not know, Bearskin Neck is the kind of touristy part of Rockport where all the shops are, art galleries –

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

And the t-shirt shops.

JEREMY

And restaurants.And lobster rolls and all that stuff. Right. So before we wrap it up, let me just mention this year’s annual Thacher Island Association,sunset cruise, I believe this year is scheduled for July 10, which is going to be soon after we plan to play this interview in the podcast. Do you want to say a little bit about that?

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Yeah. I’m glad you brought it up, Jeremy, because you’ll be narrating that. So I’m glad you have it on your calendar. So it’s a great take. We take a whale watch boat out of Gloucester and we run through Gloucester Harbor up the Annisquam River around Ipswich Bay, and back down by Halibut Point and Rockport Harbor. We go by six different lighthouses and usually try to catch the Thacher lights just around sunset. So it’s a great photo op for people who love lighthouses. And so we fill the boat every year; we have room for 150 passengers and already we’ve sold 50 tickets.

JEREMY

That’s great. Yeah. That’s one of my favorite things and I’ve narrated most of them for more than 15 years, I think, but I’ve missed the last couple. So it’s going to be good to get back.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

I had to fill in for you.

JEREMY

Sorry about that. I’m sure you’ve done perfectly well, but it’s going to be great to be back. So I’m really looking forward to that again, July 10, and tell us again the website where people can get information on that and all the other things about the Thacher Island Association.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

I mean, all the things you ever wanted to know about Thacher and Straitsmouth, frankly, is on thacherisland.org. Very simple.

JEREMY

Yeah. I imagine you’re also on Facebook and other social media as well.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Exactly, exactly. We’ve got all that. So I would strongly recommend it. If anybody’s interested to know more about both islands, we’ve got some videos on there. We’ve got some great photography. The history of both islands on there, it’s a good informational source. Plus you can buy hats and t-shirts.

JEREMY

You don’t want to forget about that. Anything else? Any closing words, anything you’d like to add, Paul?

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

One other thing about Straitsmouth. I’m in the process of writing a book on Straitsmouth. This will be kind of a history book, going all the way back to the 1600s when the first owner of Straitsmouth was actually given the island for his role in the French and Indian Wars. And so we’re hoping to publish it sometime in 2020 to coincide with the official opening to the public in 2020. Looking forward to that.

JEREMY

Excellent. Those two things go together very well. Congratulations on both. And thank you so much for spending this time with us today. Thank you, Paul.

PAUL ST. GERMAIN

Thanks, Jeremy.

MUSIC

CINDY

Now it’s time for our lighthouse history segment. In the last two editions we detailed the first three lighthouse towers on the Eddystone Rocks, southwest of Plymouth, England. The first one fell in the Great Storm of November 1703, taking the life of its designer, Henry Winstanley. The second tower burned down in 1755, killing the 94-year-old keeper, Henry Hall. The third tower, designed by John Smeaton, lasted more than a century and was considered a major advancement in the construction of offshore wave-swept granite lighthouse towers.

JEREMY

Smeaton’s tower probably would have stood much longer if it wasn’t undermined by the action of the seas. It was dismantled and moved to shore in Plymouth, where it remains a tourist attraction. Many visitors climb its 93 steps for a view of Plymouth Sound and the city.

The present, still active Eddystone Lighthouse, built between 1879 and 1882, was designed by James Douglass. He was a civil engineer and a prolific builder of lighthouses. He was the oldest son of Nicholas Douglass, also a civil engineer, and both of the Douglasses worked on the building of Bishop Rock Lighthouse off the southwestern tip of the Cornish Peninsula.

CINDY

Trinity House, the English lighthouse authority, engaged James Douglass to design the Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Pembrokeshire. He based the design on Smeaton’s Eddystone tower, and he finished the Smalls Lighthouse in an impressive two years. He went on to design 20 lighthouses for Trinity House, including some in Sri Lanka. James’s brother William became the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1878.

JEREMY

The achievement that defined James Douglass’s career was his design of the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse. When the tower was completed in 1882 with no loss of life and nearly 19,000 pounds under budget, the Duke of Edinburgh laid the final stone. A short time later Douglass was knighted in recognition of his distinguished career as an engineer and designer of lighthouses.

CINDY

For years, three keepers continuously staffed the lighthouse. Entry was by breeches buoy and was difficult when the seas were rough. Around Christmas there were always news items reporting on the delivery of mail and turkey for the keepers. Eddystone Lighthouse became the first so called rock lighthouse, or wave-swept lighthouse, under the management of Trinity House, to be automated in 1982. To enable the automation to be carried out, a helipad was installed above the lantern. The automated light was activated on May 18, 1982, 100 years to the day after the light had first gone into operation.

JEREMY

By the way, the song The Eddystone Light, popularized by the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, the Weavers, Burl Ives, and others, has its roots in a longer English version called The Man at the Nore, which was a big hit in British music halls in the mid-1800s. It was made popular by Arthur Lloyd, a specialist in comic songs, and the original version was about a sailor on a lightship who has an affair with a mermaid. It was changed to the Eddystone Light by the late 1800s. It’s the song, along with the dramatic demises of the first two lighthouses, that have made Eddystone probably the world’s most famous lighthouse.

The version of the song you’re about to hear is by Shannachie, a duo composed of Pat Heffernan and Patrick Keane. Pat Heffernan happens to be a volunteer of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. So here is The Keeper of the Eddystone Light.

SONG

[NOTE: The trivia contest is closed.]

CINDY

Time for our trivia question. The first two people to answer the following question correctly will win prizes. If you listened to all of this edition of Light Hearted, you should know the answer. Here is the question: Who designed the lighthouse tower that was built on the Eddystone Rocks in England in 1882 and still stands today. Again, who designed the lighthouse tower that was built on the Eddystone Rocks in England in 1882, and still stands today.

JEREMY

To enter, send your answer in an email to me at jeremy@uslhs.org. Be sure to say you are answering the trivia question in Light Hearted episode 10, and again, send it in an email to jeremy@uslhs.org. That’s jeremy@usls.org. And again, the first two people to answer correctly will win a prize.

CINDY

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

MUSIC

JEREMY

And that wraps up this installment of Light Hearted. Happy Fourth of July, everyone. And thank you to the staff of the Exeter Inn.

CINDY

Special thanks to the staff and volunteers of the U.S. Lighthouse Society out in Hansville, Washington, including Jeff Gales, Cassandra Rowland, Marie Vincent, Catherine Clint, Rena Guevara, Maria Guevara, Sabrina Errecalde, Jerry Rowland, Margie Rwoland, Chad Kaiser, Peter Raffa, Skip Sherwood, and Mary Lee Sherwood.

JEREMY

There are many, many other people who volunteer for the USL HS around the country and actually in other countries as well. And in one of these editions to the podcast, we’ll name more of them. They all deserve our gratitude for the very important work they do on a continual basis.

Speaker 2 (30:30):

CINDY

Listeners should also check out the USLHS social media pages on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and be sure to check out all the information on the USLHS website at uslhs.org, including the J. Candace Clifford Research Catalog.

JEREMY

I also want to mention the U.S. Lighthouse Society news blog at news.USLHS.org. Also, I hope some of our listeners will be able to visit us during our open houses at Portsmouth Harbor lighthouse in New Castle New Hampshire this summer. You’re usually there on Sunday afternoons, of course.

CINDY

Yes. Barring anything unforeseen I’m there every Sunday. We’re open to visitors for tours from 1:00 to 5:00 PM on Sundays from Memorial day weekend until Columbus Day weekend in mid-October. And we will be there tomorrow, Sunday, July the fifth.

JEREMY

And people can check us out online at portsmouthharborlighthouse.org and or the Facebook page as well. And that does it for now. So until next time, keep a good light.

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