It’s not a lighthouse, but the unlighted daybeacon in Boston Harbor known as Nix’s Mate has been a famed aid to navigation for two centuries. The late historian Edward Rowe Snow often referred to it as an “ominous and sinister beacon,” largely because of the pirate lore and legend that add mystery to the location.
The sandbar that the marker surmounts was once a 12-acre island that supported the grazing of sheep. Worn down through the centuries by erosion speeded up by the removal of slate as a building material, the disappearing island and its octagonal beacon are today employed as the symbolic logo of the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands (FBHI), a 25-year-old nonprofit organization that has done much to educate the public about the rich past of the harbor’s islands and lighthouses. Their Nix’s Mate logo represents the danger that the harbor islands could vanish as a public resource without careful stewardship.
In 2001 the U.S. Coast Guard announced that due to its deteriorated condition, the daybeacon at Nix’s Mate would be removed and replaced with a new navigational marker. After objections were raised by the FBHI and local history buffs, the Coast Guard decided to restore the marker instead. The $240,000 overhaul being carried out by Atlantic Mechanical, Inc. began this past October. The same company recently built the new replica breakwater lighthouses on the waterfront of Burlington, Vermont.
There’s some argument about the origin of the name of the island. A legend is often told concerning a vessel that was coming into the harbor, captained by a man named Nix. It’s said that the captain was mysteriously murdered, and that the first mate was charged with the crime. He was quickly tried and was sentenced to be hanged.
When the time came for his execution on the prominent island, the mate proclaimed that the island itself would disappear to prove his innocence. The island did disappear, but there’s no evidence to indicate the tale is a true one. But it is true that several pirates were buried at Nix’s Mate after being executed in Boston. At least one pirate, William Fly, was gibbeted there after death to serve as a warning to others. “Here his bones shook and rattled in the sea air for many months,” wrote M. F. Sweetser in King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor.
Another explanation of the island’s name offered in King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor is that it comes from a Dutch phrase along the lines of “nixie shmalt,” meaning “wail of the water spirits” or “the water spirit is chiding.”
The history of Nix’s Mate as a guide to Boston goes back to the early days of navigation in the area, as the island’s once-high cliffs could be seen for a great distance. In 1803, the Boston Marine Society told the U.S. Congress, “An Island called Nicks Mate situated about three miles within the Light House [Boston Light] and directly on one side of the two principal Channels, was formerly an Island of more than 3 miles circumference, but from its exposed situation to the Sea, this island is now reduced to a small heap of sand... The proprietor Mr. Thomas Knox is willing to cede said Island to the United States for the purpose if Congress in its wisdom shall think fit to appropriate a sum of money adequate for the building a sufficiently strong Stone Wall round the remains of said Island & for placing thereon a Beacon.”
The owner at the time, Thomas Knox, also happened to be the keeper of the first lighthouse in North America, Boston Light. Congress didn’t provide the funds for the wall and beacon, but the state government of Massachusetts under Governor Caleb Strong appropriated $3000, then an additional $4000 in 1805. Under the supervision of Ozias Goodwin a wall, “64 feet long, 31 feet wide, 16 high and 6 thick,” and a daybeacon were soon completed.
The original wood frame beacon was later strengthened with a six-inch layer of wire-reinforced concrete. Over the years much of the wood sheathing rotted, the concrete cracked and the beacon developed a decided tilt, and an unintended opening at the base allowed birds and vandals to enter. Names carved into the interior date back at least to 1897.
The rehabilitation of the wall and daybeacon began in October and at this writing is due to be completed in December, according to Coast Guard inspector Joe Tully. An especially raw Boston autumn hasn’t helped the project. “My fingers are crossed on the weather and seas,” says Tully. “It’s very difficult commuting for workers each day and hard trying to stay dry and warm.” The wall is being repaired and the daybeacon is being stabilized with a new foundation. It will then be jacked up about 24 to 30 inches to a vertical position. The structure will be sealed up permanently and will get a new paint job.
In addition to its spiffy new look, Nix’s Mate may soon receive a new honor - a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands. The FBHI at this writing is awaiting the final word on the designation.
This story appeared in the
December 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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