By Ian DeWeese-Boyd
“We stood there marveling at the sight—the expanse of sea, the brilliant blue sky, the craggy coast of Cape Ann.”
Thacher’s Woe. That’s what the tiny island of rock and scrub a mile off the coast of Rockport came to be called after Anthony and Elizabeth Thacher finally found their footing there one harrowing day in 1635. The Watch and Wait—the ship they’d been traveling on from Ipswich to Marblehead—had been reduced to splinters on the Londoner reef, and their four children, along with the dozen other souls on the ship, had been swallowed by the stormy sea.
Two lighthouses were built on the island more than a century later, so that sailors could readily distinguish the location from the single lights at Boston Harbor to the south, and Portsmouth to the north. The original wood structures were replaced with the current granite towers in 1861.
About two years ago my wife, Margie, noticed a blurb in the Boston Sunday Globe about free ferry rides out to the island, provided by the Thacher Island Association. Always game for freebies, we reserved a spot for the next month.
Standing on T-Wharf in Rockport with brooding gray skies and drizzling rain, though, we had our doubts about this outing—free or not. But the sky began to clear during the short trip that took us past Straightsmouth Island, with the Dry Salvages, commemorated in T. S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, to the northeast.
When we finally disembarked and walked up the landing ramp onto Thacher Island, the sky was blue and clear. Amid the din of gulls, we hiked the lush grass path to the north tower, climbed the 156 steps to the top, then ducked our heads through an iron door in order to emerge onto the two-foot ledge encircling the lighthouse. We stood there marveling at the sight: the expanse of sea, the brilliant blue sky, the craggy coast of Cape Ann.
This past June, we spent a week volunteering as intern lighthouse keepers. Most mornings we were roused by the cacophony of gull cries just shy of 5 a.m. Before we’d even gotten our first cup of coffee, our 11-year-old son, Jesse, was ready to start mowing the three miles of trails that guide visitors around the island and through its interior. In addition to trail maintenance, we scraped, scrubbed, painted, swept, and welcomed visitors; our 9-year-old daughter, Aida, handed out sticks and warnings to the newcomers about aggressive black-backed gulls.
Now, when we look out and see those lights, it’s impossible not to wonder how things are going over there. Is the composting toilet operational? Is the solar up and running after the lightning strike? Has someone finished painting the upstairs hall? Are the gull chicks flying yet? While the island marked Thacher’s woe, for us and the many who visit and volunteer there now, it is a shelter from the frenzy of life ashore. It is also a reminder of the lives—and ways of life—that have come and gone since the Thachers first found refuge among its rocks.
Ian DeWeese-Boyd is associate professor of philosophy at Gordon. He and his wife, Margie DeWeese-Boyd, associate professor of social work, have two children. Photos courtesy of the DeWeese-Boyds.