The Beacons Are Lit: The Lighthouse Keepers of Bakers Island (MA)

42°32'11.2"N 70°47'09.6"W

Since the time of ancient Greece, lighthouses have been built as navigational aids to warn mariners of dangerous waters. The men and women who served as keepers of these lighthouses braved lonely and harsh conditions to tend the lights and save the lives of mariners.

“I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.” - George Bernard Shaw

The Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Illustration by German archaeologist Prof. H. Thiersch, 1909)


Salem was one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in America from the late 1700s into the early 1800s. Salem ships circumnavigated the globe to bring back exotic goods from the Far East. (Lane, Fitz Henry. Salem Harbor. 1853, oil on canvas)

Bakers Island marks the safe passageway into Salem Harbor. The harbor entrance is obstructed by ledges and shoals. In stormy weather, in fog, or at night, it is extremely difficult to navigate into Salem as attested by the hundreds of shipwrecks nearby.

The Salem Marine Society erected an unlit beacon on the island in 1791, followed by twin lights in 1798. A storm severely damaged the twin lights in 1815. They were replaced by a single tower, but the wreck of the Union in 1817, along with other accidents, led to an outcry for a second light.

A second, taller light was constructed in 1820. The twin lights were nicknamed “Ma” and “Pa.” In 1926, “Ma” was torn down. “Pa” remains today.

An Act authorizing the erection of a lighthouse on Bakers Island in the State of Massachusetts, signed by President George Washington on December 7, 1795.
Lighthouses were considered essential to the success of the new nation. President George Washington commissioned many lighthouses along the East Coast. (Stuart, Gilbert. George Washington. 1796, oil on canvas)
A sketch of the Salem Marine Society’s unlit day beacon, built on the northern end of Bakers Island in 1791. It stood 57 feet to the top of the ball and measured 19 feet in diameter at the base. (Shreve, Racket. Salem Marine Society Beacon built on Bakers Island 1791. Watercolor)

THE EARLY YEARS (1798-1825)

George Chapman was appointed the first Bakers Island Keeper in 1798. He was almost sixty years old and had had a long career as a ship captain. He served for nearly two decades as the keeper.

Joseph Perkins succeeded Chapman in 1815. He was 30 years old and was an able ship pilot in Salem Harbor. Perkins tended the light, continued to pilot ships, and kept a garden and livestock.

The keeper’s life was fraught with discomfort and sometimes danger. The third keeper was Nathaniel Ward. In late October 1825, Ward and his assistant, Marshall, were returning from the mainland with supplies when a squall hit them. Both men drowned. The 49-year-old Ward had a large family left destitute by his death.

From left, clockwise: Joseph Perkins was keeper at Bakers Island Light from 1815 to 1819. Keepers kept detailed accounts of all their purchases, which included fuel and provisions. (Page from the logbook of Joseph Perkins. Courtesy of the Phillips Library); An image of the first twin lighthouses at Bakers Island, constructed in 1798. The structure consisted of two towers built atop the keeper’s house. (Detail from Nathaniel Bowditch’s 1806 chart of Salem Harbor);The frequent boat traffic in and out of Salem meant that the lighthouse keepers often had visitors. Diarist Rev. William Bentley was a frequent guest. On June 22, 1818 he recorded “had an annual dinner on Bakers Island … between 30 & 40 (people) … we dined at Perkins’ near the light House under a tent” (Frothingham, James. William Bentley (1759-1819). Before 1826, oil on canvas)

Saving USS Constitution in War of 1812

USS Constitution was one of early America’s most powerful warships. During the British-American War of 1812, her battle with HMS Guerriere earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

On April 3, 1814, USS Constitution was almost lost. Chased by two British 38-gun war frigates near Bakers Island, people on shore watched in horror as the British ships closed in for the capture. But harbor pilot and Bakers Keeper Joseph Perkins was able to guide USS Constitution to safety in Salem Harbor.

The Salem Register proclaimed, “she now triumphantly rides in safety to the great joy of our citizens”.

Bakers Island keeper Joseph Perkins assisted USS Constitution as she fled from British warships HMS Tenedos and HMS Endymion during the War of 1812. (A plate from The naval battles of the United States in the different wars with foreign nations... by Horace Kimball, 1857. Accessed via Hathi Trust, courtesy of Harvard University)

Shipwreck of the Union

The sea around Bakers Island is littered with shipwrecks, but fortunately, many of the ships’ crews were saved, often with the assistance of the lighthouse keepers.

On February 24, 1817, the ship Union was returning loaded with pepper and tin from a long voyage to Sumatra. While Union was at sea, the light station at Bakers Island was altered. The twin lights had been replaced by single tower.

Just off the island, Union was caught in a raging snowstorm. Her captain seeing only a single light through the fury of the storm thought they were approaching Boston Light instead of Bakers Island. The ship wrecked on the island.

Miraculously, with the aid of keeper Joseph Perkins, all the crew survived and found shelter on the island. Some of the cargo was saved, but Rev. William Bentley visiting in August reported the wreckage - including pepper corns - along the island shore.

The ship Union was built in Salem in 1802 and owned by Stephen Phillips. In 1817, returning to Salem after a year-long trip, her captain was confused when he saw only a single light on the island. Not realizing that the lights were changed while they were away, Union’s crew thought they were nearing Boston and mistakenly steered onto the island’s rocky shore.

The Middle Years (1825-1911)

Bakers Island Light in the mid-nineteenth century consisted of “Ma” and “Pa”, the twin light towers, and a keeper’s house with an ell connecting it to the lantern house so that keepers were spared from the elements. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection)

Keepers worked around the clock, seven days a week. When government funds were scarce, the conditions could be very uncomfortable. Keeper Ambrose Martin reported in 1842 that the lighthouses and keeper’s dwelling were leaking and “exceedingly cold and uncomfortable.” In the 1840s, Martin’s only neighbor on the island was Ephraim Brown, who kept cattle and horses.

In the decades following the American Civil War, people started going to the coast to recuperate from illness and enjoy the benefits of sea air and exercise. By the 1880s, summer residents began to construct cottages on Bakers Island.

The Winne-Egan Hotel was built in 1888 by Salem doctor Nathan Morse as a therapeutic retreat. In the early 1890s, keeper Walter S. Rogers gave tours of the lighthouse to thousands of hotel guests each season, harvested ice for the hotel, and performed other odd jobs until the hotel burned to the ground in 1906. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of Nelson Dionne)

Keeper Walter S. Rogers (1874-1881 and 1892-1911)

A veteran of the Civil War, Rogers was in poor health when he began as keeper, weighing only 101 pounds. By 1881 he weighed 216 pounds, crediting the fresh air and exercise on the island with improving his health. He served on Bakers Island for 28 years. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection)

Starting in 1855, assistant keepers began living on the island. The longest serving keeper, Walter S. Rogers, began as assistant keeper in 1872 before advancing to head keeper two years later.

Keeper Rogers and his assistant were constantly busy. The twin lights required daily maintenance including cleaning the lenses and transporting fuel. In 1879, Rogers wrote, “I wish this thundering oil was where it would ignite the minute it was exposed to air.” The keepers also maintained the fog bell, repaired the buildings, grew crops, and kept farm animals.

During Roger’s tenure, a new fog siren was installed in 1907. It made such a loud noise that there were hundreds of complaints on the mainland. A large megaphone was eventually installed which redirected the sound out to sea.

When the fog was thick, keepers used fog sirens and bells to warn incoming ships of the rocks and shoals. This photo, taken circa 1925, shows the fog siren with a large megaphone to direct the sound out to sea. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of USCG)
The obituary for Keeper Walter S. Rogers in 1926 noted that “during his career he assisted in 21 wrecks...he pulled six live men out of the raging sea, but nearly perished, and also saved the bodies of three dead sailors. He furnished no less than 410 meals for shipwrecked mariners.” (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection)

THE LATER YEARS (1918-1972)

Assistant Keepers House with Main Keepers House, Lighthouse, and fog siren in the background. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection)

The conveniences of the modern world made their way slowly to Bakers Island. Keeper Arthur L. Payne (1918-1943), brought the first car to the island. In 1938, the light and houses became electrified, and in 1972 the light was automated.

Payne was the last civilian keeper at Bakers. After him, the keepers were U.S. Coast Guard service members. Arthur and his wife, Mae, lived at the light during World War I when a Naval Reserve unit was stationed on the island to watch for German submarines.

From left to right: Ernest Allison Sampson, Jr. (“Allie”), son of assistant keeper, Ernest Allison Sampson, Sr., circa 1936. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of Anne Cambon); Assistant Keeper Ernest Sampson, Sr. tending to the garden with “Pa” visible in the background. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of Anne Cambon);Children of Assistant Keeper Ernest Allison Sampson, Sr.: Priscilla and Allie, circa 1936. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of Anne Cambon);During 1968-69, Randall K. “Andy” Anderson, along with his wife Lorraine and young daughter, were the last family of keepers to live at the light. Lorraine wrote in her journal,“24 hours a day, it was about the light. The keepers stood 12-hour watches to make sure the light was operating properly and that the fog signal was turned on...We were always aware of the weather. I could be doing the dishes and looking out the window and see the fog start to roll in and dry my hands and walk down to the engine room just to see if the on-duty keeper was aware.” This photo shows Anderson and his daughter, Rhonda. (Courtesy of Randall Anderson)

Families at the Lighthouse

The work of maintaining a lighthouse was seldom done by one or two men alone. Most of the keepers had families who lived on the island and worked beside them farming, cooking, cleaning, keeping watch, and helping with the lights.

All the keepers and assistant keepers who served on Bakers Island were men, but Keeper Ambrose Martin’s daughter Jane, who lived on Bakers Island with her father in the 1840s, later served as the Marblehead Light Keeper from 1860 to 1862.

Essex National Heritage Commission Collection (courtesy of Anne Cambon)
In 1929, the Paynes were joined by Assistant Keeper Earnest Sampson, Sr., his wife Maude and their three children. After Maude’s death in 1938, Sampson remarried and continued to serve at the light with his new wife and stepdaughter. This photo, circa 1940, shows Sampson and his family (clockwise): second wife Clara; son Allie; daughter Bessie; daughter Priscilla. (Essex National Heritage Commission Collection, courtesy of Anne Cambon)

For a while there was a schoolhouse for the keepers’ children. Keeper Elliott Hadley and his family were the last to use it between 1911-1918.

During the warmer seasons, the keepers and their families socialized with the summer residents, but the wintertime could be very bleak. Assistant Keeper John Krebs said, “In wintertime, you’re all alone, really alone,” with the only company being “a lobsterman now and then.”

To alleviate the isolation at Christmastime, the Flying Santa dropped presents from a small plane to many of the lonely lighthouse children along the New England coast. This image shows The Flying Santa above Bakers Island in 1936. (Courtesy of Friends of Flying Santa, Inc.)

The Present

In 2014, the US Government deeded the lighthouse and the surrounding 10-acre light station to the Essex National Heritage Commission. Since 2015, the Commission has made the light station accessible to the public during the summer season for their education and enjoyment.

Essex Heritage is the non-profit organization that operates and maintains the 10-acre light station at Bakers Island, with the mission of public access and preservation.

Bakers Island Light Station is located on Bakers Island in Salem Sound, a 60-acre island with a large summer colony. The 10-acre light station is located in the northwest quadrant of the island, and has been owned and operated by the federal government since 1798. The rest of the island is in private ownership including the Bakers Island Wharf. Currently the only way for the public to access the island is aboard our landing craft the Naumkeag.

The deed to historic Bakers Island Light Station was transferred on August 27, 2014 from the United States government to the Essex National Heritage Commission (Essex Heritage). Thanks to all of the "Bakers Backers", restoration was completed on the masonry lighthouse, two keepers’ houses, lantern and oil buildings.

Funding for this exhibit provided in part by the Colonel Timothy Pickering Chapter of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution; research for this exhibit was conducted by David Moffat and Susan Baker Leavitt along with Essex Heritage staff Ryan Conary, Cheri Grishin, and Annie Harris.

For more information about visiting Bakers Island Light Station, check out