From Tragedy to Beauty: Thacher Island and the Fresnel Lens

As an occasional “lighthouse keeper” on Thacher Island, CAM Docent, Suellen Wedmore shares her enthusiasm for both this beautiful island of 50 acres, the site of the only operating twin lighthouses in America, and for the stunning Fresnel lens, “the invention that saved a million ships,” now beautifully housed in the Cape Ann Museum:

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Welcome to a little piece of Rockport’s Thacher Island at 27 Pleasant Street at the Cape Ann Museum in the heart of Gloucester!  
Shown here: Fresnel Lens originally designed by Augustine Jean Fresnel. In 1819, the French government commissioned 34 year old Fresnel to develop an improved lighting system for lighthouses. 

Those of you who have visited Thacher Island on a summer day will attest to the island’s beauty. Despite their beauty, the 124-foot light towers weren’t erected for our admiration, but rather out of a community’s need for protection from the dangers of an unpredictable sea. Understanding the history of the island will help us appreciate the splendor of its lights and its magnificent lens.

What is now called Thacher Island was noted in the writings of Samuel de Champlain and John Smith, who both circled it in the early 17th century. The island became a part of Cape Ann’s geographical and literary history after a devastating shipwreck in 1635.

In August of that year, recent emigrants from England, Anthony Thacher, his wife and four children, his cousin Reverend Avery and his wife and six children, boarded a pinnace (an early schooner), [or a bark], the Watch and Wait, in Ipswich to establish a church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Tragically, the “Great Colonial Hurricane,” one of the worst storms remembered by those who experienced it, blew in from the south. The Watch and Wait, seeking the calm of Sandy Bay Harbor, lost its mast and the anchor broke loose, causing the ship to crash against a ledge north of Straitsmouth Island.

Thacher later wrote of the ordeal, relating how he was helplessly tossed by the sea until he was able to creep onto dry land. When the storm subsided, only he and his wife, out of the 23 passengers and crew, had survived.

The General Court, sympathetic to Thacher’s loss, gifted him ownership of the island. Though Anthony never returned to what he labeled “Thacher’s Woe,” the island remained in the family for 80 years.

In this era of 24-hour weather forecasts and global positioning devices, it is difficult for us to appreciate the dangers presented to our ancestors by the sea’s storms and unseen ledges. Patriot John Hancock, with shipping interests in the area, was well aware of the dangers. He petitioned the General Court to build lighthouses on Thacher Island, the cost to be reimbursed by tolls to ship owners.

In response, two 45-foot rubble and wood towers were lighted in 1771, enabling mariners to discriminate Cape Ann Light Station from Portsmouth Light to the north and Boston Light to the south. They were the only towers at the time to mark a danger to mariners (the Londoner Ledge, southeast of Thacher Island) rather than the safety of a harbor. The towers were erected on a perfect north/south axis, which enabled fishermen to line up the lights to determine true north.

Unfortunately, only 18 months later, the keeper, accused of being a “Tory,” was removed. It wasn’t until 15 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed that the government took over maintenance of the lighthouses.

During the following years, despite experimentation with fuels and types of lamps, ships continued to founder off Cape Ann. It was time to talk of replacing the two towers with taller ones of sturdier construction.

In 1858, Congress appropriated funds for two new towers, these to be much taller, at 124 feet and of granite construction. They were lighted for the first time in October, 1861.

Twin Lights, Thatcher’s Island from Brier Neck. Photographer: John Heywood, ca. 1864-66. Benham Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

In 1861, the towers were rebuilt with granite to their new height of 124 feet and a first order Fresnel lens was installed. The light of the whale oil lamps could now be seen as far away as 22 miles at sea. 

It was soon after this that Cape Ann’s local heroine, Maria Bray’s courage and stamina were tested.  

On December 21, 1864, her husband and keeper of the light, Alexander Bray, a Civil War veteran who had recently become principal keeper, rowed to shore to seek medical help for an ill assistant. A heavy snowstorm blew in that afternoon, making it impossible for him to return to the island.

According to most versions of the story, Maria and her 14-year-old nephew, Sidney Haskell, braved the high winds and heavy snow, climbing the 156 steps of both towers every three hours to keep the lanterns burning. On December 24th, the wind quieted and Alexander made a run for the island, where he found an unharmed Maria and her nephew asleep.

One of Maria Bray’s tasks as a keeper’s wife would have been to help polish the beautiful and imposing Fresnel lens, then at the top of the tower.

What would it be like to undertake such a task? 

Polishing the Fresnel Lens  – a poem by Suellen.

I dress in layers  
against the wind,  
struggle toward the tower,  

how many were lost  
before Monsieur Fresnel  
sharpened light  
& tilted it  
toward the horizon?  

pull open the heavy iron door  
to begin the spiral ascent,  
156 stairs from ground to sky,  
step into the lantern room,  

a glass bubble floating  
above the blue-green world;  

the metal floor rings  
as a boot heel  
strikes a rainbow, 

a prism splinters light  
into indigo, red, green & gold,  

pluck a chamois  
from the worn brass box,  
step toward the lens  
on its iron pedestal,  

a shimmering glass beehive  
taller than a man,  
mélange of diamonds & star,  

swirl away night’s soot.  
How does the lens work?  
visitors ask.  

Imagine slicing a magnifying glass  

into a hundred concentric rings,  
each one thinner than the last,  
so that it splinters,  
refocuses the flame,  

or imagine feathered light  
squeezed by great hands  
into a single beam  
& hurtled toward the horizon. 

Hard Times at the First Congregational Church of Rockport

By CAM Docent, Sarah Mowitt.

Sunday mornings came and went, but the pews of the First Congregational Church of Rockport remained empty. No, the year was not 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic has emptied the pews this year, but it is not the first time during the church’s history that congregants were unable to join together for worship in the sanctuary. Since the church was founded in 1755 and the building erected in 1804/1805 its tall steeple has been an enduring landmark in the center of town. However, the very future of this institution was threatened for financial reasons in the 1870’s. The threat was far graver than the bombardment of its steeple during the War of 1812. The financial crisis resulted in an empty sanctuary and shook the confidence of congregants for its future stability. But the church has flourished and survived to this day. Indeed, the church has more than doubled its age since that time and the impact of the financial crisis has been mostly forgotten. During our current crisis, it is worthwhile to study the history of previous times of peril.

Tibor Gergely (1900-1978), Back Beach, Rockport, n.d.. Watercolor. Gift of Linda Schreyer, 2017 [acc. # 2017.64] From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

Following the Civil War, there was an explosion of industry and trade, including a large expansion of the nation’s railroads. Between 1860 and 1873, railroad mileage doubled and employment in railroads was second only to agriculture. Unfortunately, much of the growth was supported by speculation and a financial crash occurred in 1873. Panic followed, with the New York stock exchange actually closing for 10 days, many banks failing, unemployment rising to an astonishing 14% and businesses going under in large numbers. The panic of 1873 was felt directly in Rockport. The Annual Report of the Town Officers in March 1877, noted the “… long-continued stagnation in business, the few avenues open to employment for the laborer, and the depression which hangs over our community…” Times were tough for our nation and for our town. 

The eighteen hundreds had been good for our Church which experienced a period of considerable growth under two remarkable pastors.  In 1805, the church was close to extinction with only eleven members who “were far advanced and stood trembling on the brink of the grave.” (Pastor’s Membership List 1805 to 1887). Fortunately for the church, the new pastor selected in 1805, Reverend David Jewett, (1805-1836),  brought in 305 new members, including 150 new members in just two years during the Great Revival of 1827 and 1828. During the period 1836 to 1864, when Rev. Wakefield Gale was our pastor, another 328 new members were added to our rolls. With membership gains like these, the most pressing problem was overcrowding. It is not surprising that an extensive building project was undertaken in 1872 to increase the size of the Meeting House. The building was cut in two and the two pieces were pulled apart to lengthen the church by 20 feet. When everything was filled in between the two parts, there were new pews, a new pulpit, new windows, a new gallery; in short, an entire new interior. The cost was $28,000, with financing provided by a mortgage from the Rockport Savings Bank. 

Ann Brockman (1896-1943), Untitled [view of Sandy Bay], c.1940. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mary Craven, 2015 [acc. # 2015.79] From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

The timing of the new addition could not have been worse, with the economic crises of the Panic 1873 following shortly after the construction. The Rockport Savings Bank was one of the calamities of the financial depression, closing in February 1878. According to Lemuel Gott’s history, “The closing out of this useful institution was one of, if not the greatest financial disasters that ever befell this town.” Depositors eventually received 85 cents for every dollar on deposit. At the time of the bank failure, the church owed $18,000, one of the largest mortgages held by the bank. By the fall of that year the local newspaper noted that the church had not paid the interest due for about a year and a half (Cape Ann Advertiser, October 4, 1878). The paper reported that following the Sunday services that week, the Rev. C. C. McIntire, read “a letter from the Receivers of the Savings Bank, stating that unless the long delinquent interest were paid, the Society [church] could not continue to use the House of Worship.” We should not be surprised that a meeting was scheduled and a special committee established to determine what amount of money it might raise. Despite several meetings, “protracted discussion,”  and a “zealous feeling in favor of…” raising the funds to liquidate the debt (Cape Ann Advertiser), the church was unable to settle the account.    

The financial disaster meant that for some months, the worship services of our church could not be held in our newly renovated meeting house. Instead, services were held at the chapel of the YMCA, which was located across from the library on the corner of School Street and Broadway. The building had been erected by a short lived (1855 – 1870 ) Second Congregational Church of Rockport. While our congregation was meeting at the YMCA, Rev. Roland B. Howard came as a supply minister and later became our next permanent minister (1880 – 1883). He was able to work with the receivers of the Bank to reclaim the church for a payment of $10,000. Under his leadership, the monies were raised from those within the parish and from out of town donors.    The sanctuary was once more open to our members for worship. Looking back, a later minister, Rev. Ainsworth, said that “The Parish Society owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Howard for his great and good services in saving this meeting house for the church and Society.” Indeed, we are indebted to Rev. Howard and to all the members of his church for rescuing our church for the use of the many later generations that have followed and found support in this congregation.  

Fire on Middle Street

By CAM Docent, Miriam Weinstein

“We almost lost downtown tonight”

On the frigid morning of December 15, 2007, members of Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim were awakened with terrible news: their beloved synagogue building had burned. A fire that started in the Lorraine Apartments next door on Middle Street (the cause was later determined to be faulty wiring) had resulted in the death of one resident, Robert Taylor. Flames from that aged wooden building spread to the historic 1843 structure. Built as a Congregational church, it had been home to the synagogue since 1951.

Photograph provided by Miriam Weinstein.

There had been devastating fires in Gloucester before. In 1830 and 1864, fires destroyed much of the downtown. But this was the 21st century. Fires like this were not supposed to happen. The fear was that, if the fire spread beyond the Temple, the Sawyer Free Library would be next. Luckily, the fire was contained. “We almost lost downtown tonight,” Mayor John Bell told firefighters.

Saturday morning, when the news spread, was the time for the weekly service. What to do? Members soon learned that the Unitarian Universalist church further down Middle Street, had opened its doors. With smoke in the air and firefighters from eight towns still fighting the smoldering blaze, congregants hugged and cried and began their service. Partway through, the doors opened, and a line of firefighters appeared, carrying prayer shawls and books that had not been burned. It felt like a small miracle.

In time, the congregation, which is the only Jewish institution on Cape Ann, rented space at 33 Commercial Street, and began a process of deciding their future. They had been part of Gloucester life for over a hundred years, meeting first in homes, and then in larger venues. As the owners of the Lorraine Apartments began to rebuild, TAA members decided that, even though they could have found a more spacious site outside of town, they wanted to remain. Community trumped parking. They received gifts from members of the Gloucester community, and from supporters well beyond Cape Ann. They never missed a service, a holiday, or a social event.

The Lorraine Apartments were rebuilt. And, three years after the fire, members of Temple Ahavat Achim carried their donated Torah scrolls to their new building—a light-filled flexible space in the historic downtown. The congregation has continued to thrive in its new/old home.

Photograph provided by Miriam Weinstein.

The Intrepid “Centennial” Johnson

By CAM Docent, Doug Stewart

A centerpiece of the museum’s maritime galleries is a 20-foot decked-over sailing dory with traces of red, white, and blue paint on its sides. Launched in Gloucester 124 years ago, the craft was sailed across the Atlantic Ocean by a 29-year-old Danish immigrant named Alfred Johnson. The taciturn bachelor was caught up in “centennial fever” in 1876. Having saved up $200 working in the Gloucester fishing fleet, he paid to have his new dory equipped with two watertight compartments, a fold-down mast, and a tiny cockpit. Johnson thought that sailing alone across the Atlantic—a feat never accomplished before—was a fitting way to pay tribute to his adopted country. 

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No longer watertight: Alfred Johnson’s original 1876 sailing dory, Centennial seen here in the Maritime & Fishing Industries Gallery at the Cape Ann Museum.

In June 1876, when Johnson set out for Liverpool, many of the bystanders on Gloucester Harbor expected they’d never see him again. Johnson, too, evidently had his doubts: he planned to record his boat’s progress on a card every two days, place the card in a bottle, and toss the bottle overboard. If he disappeared without a trace, a record of his voyage might survive. Johnson was a daredevil, to be sure, but he was a highly methodical one. He made sure to have iron bars lashed inside Centennial’s hull as ballast, rather than just piling stones in the hold. This, and a rope around his waist, no doubt saved his life when he capsized in 30-foot waves off Ireland and was thrown overboard. The ballast stayed put, so he was able to splash back to the overturned hull and right it. 

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The newly launched Centennial under sail in 1876 with Johnson at the helm. From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

Despite persistent headwinds and three gales, Johnson reached the British Isles in 59 total sailing days. (The blue-water passage alone, from Nova Scotia to Wales, took just 46.) Johnson had brought enough food and water for three months, but his kerosene stove had been unworkable, so the odd figure who appeared out of nowhere on a Welsh beach on August 12 was not only exhausted but emaciated. At a triumphant welcoming ceremony in Liverpool the following week, Johnson confessed he wouldn’t repeat the stunt for a million dollars. 

“Centennial” Johnson lived quietly in Gloucester for another 50 years, dying in 1927 at age 81. As a schooner captain for 27 of those years, he was said never to have lost a man. 

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A latter-day Alfred Johnson (1846-1927), Gloucester schooner captain and owner. From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

Cape Ann Museum docent Doug Stewart is a retired freelance magazine writer and one-time ocean sailor who used to edit books at Sail Magazine.