Winter Island, connected to the mainland in Salem, Massachusetts, has had a colorful history. It was the site of the 18th century Fort Pickering, much of which still survives. The island's Execution Hill was the scene of several 19th century hangings. Winter Island also served as a militia training ground. In the late 19th century an amusement park called Salem Willows grew up nearby.
Fort Pickering Light, also known as Winter Island Light, was built in 1871, the same year as Derby Wharf Light in Salem and Hospital Point Light in nearby Beverly. For many years before, Baker's Island's twin lights had served as the only guides into the harbor. With the addition of the new lights, mariners would line up Fort Pickering and Derby Wharf Lights after passing Baker's Island on their way into Salem Harbor.
Fort Pickering Light, built of iron, lined with brick, exhibited a flashing white light 28 feet above sea level. The lighthouse, originally painted red, was built slightly offshore on a concrete foundation. The walkway connecting the tower to the mainland had to be rebuilt in 1879 and again in 1904, after it had been destroyed by ice. The walkway, keepers house and other out-buildings, including the barn, no longer exist.
One keeper of Fort Pickering Light accepted a job as superintendent of the Plummer Home for Orphaned Boys just up the road from the lighthouse. This violation of his contract cost him his job as a keeper.
A Coast Guard airplane hanger was put on Winter Island in 1934. The Coast Guardsmen lived temporarily in the lighthouse keeper's house until new quarters could be built. In 1934, a blizzard imprisoned 30 men in the house until a plow could get through. Their heating fuel had just about run out with the temperatures dipping to 12 below zero. The lighthouse keeper's house later became the officers club for the Coast Guard on Winter Island.
The area around Winter Island and Salem Willows was the scene of a flurry of UFO sightings in the early 1950's. One famous photograph showed several lights apparently flying in formation over the nearby power plant.
The Coast Guard left Winter Island in 1969, and at the same time the lighthouse was replaced by an offshore buoy. With no one watching out for it the old tower soon fell into disrepair. The infamous Blizzard of 1978 took the door right off the tower and it remained underwater for several years.
A group of concerned citizens and businesses formed the Fort Pickering Light Association in the early 1980's. They fished the door out of the harbor and put it back in the tower. The lighthouse was refurbished, and Fort Pickering Light was re-lighted in 1983 as a private aid to navigation.
The lighthouse went dark for a few months in early 1995 when conduit erosion cut off the power supply from shore. It was converted to solar power in April 1995, with a white flash of four-tenths of a second every four seconds. The $2300 cost of the new light was split by the City of Salem and the Fort Pickering Light Association.
The old light has received a recent face-lift, thanks to a community development block grant. The American Steeple Corporation of Salem, which had previously restored Boston's Old North Church and Quincy's Church of Presidents, has completed $13,800 worth of iron work repairs, painting and lantern replacement. Salem Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz said, "The time has come to focus the care and attention of Winter Island that will help restore luster to one of Salem's priceless jewels. The work on this important navigational aid is one such effort."
Gary Moore is manager of Winter Island Marine Park and pretty much the keeper of Fort Pickering Light. He has called the lighthouse Salem's "Motif No. 1," and it is certainly a favorite of photographers and painters.
It's easy to drive to Winter Island and there's plenty of parking. Winter Island today is the site of an annual blues festival and other summer events. There are campsites for recreational vehicles, a boat launch, picnic areas, a bath house, and a short beach dubbed Waikiki Beach when the Coast Guard was on the island. A visit here makes a pleasant trip in combination with nearby Salem Willows Park, a great spot for picnicking and strolling by the water.
This story appeared in the
July 1999 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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