Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife Maintains Beacons During Holiday Storm
At Thacher Island Twin Lights in Massachusetts
In 1864, Alexander Bray, a Civil War veteran, was appointed as Keeper of two newly constructed towers on Thacher Island known as the Cape Anne Lighthouses, or Thacher Island Twin Lights, in Massachusetts. The new taller towers were built in 1861, replacing the two original towers constructed in 1771. Each rose 124 feet high, 166 feet above sea level, and were located about 900 feet apart, serving as the local range lights for shipping traffic and fishermen in Cape Anne passing through or into Rockport and Gloucester. The island lies about a mile from the mainland of Rockport. Bray had been an assistant keeper since 1861 and was the first to light the new south tower. He was appointed the position of Keeper when Albert Hale, the previous keeper, had to leave due to illness from typhoid fever. The two towers involved much work, as they needed tending each day, which involved climbing nearly 150 steps to the lantern room of each tower. One of the many duties would involve carrying up large containers of oil to replenish the lamps to make sure they would continue burning, and to keep the lantern room panes clear of soot. Keeper Bray had at least two assistants who worked with him to keep the two lights and fog signal operating smoothly on Thacher Island. The beams were powerful enough that they could be spotted at sea nearly 22 miles away.
His wife, Maria, was a learned woman of extraordinary talent in writing. She wrote articles for local newspapers, short stories, and served as an editor of a literary magazine called Magnolia Leaves. A woman who was indeed ahead of her time, her literary talents were unique where many women’s abilities were overshadowed in the “man’s world” of that period. She was a woman who enjoyed learning and volunteered to work alongside her husband to understand his tasks and duties. She also became passionate about marine plant life in the region and became a local authority in the field. Maria Bray had assembled quite a collection of sea mosses, algae, and other marine plant life, which became a local attraction for those who visited the island, and for local educators. She was also an activist in the anti-slavery and temperance movements, she served as the first president of the Universalist Church Ladies Mission Circle, and was superintendent of the Sunday school for many years.
On December 21, 1864, one of Bray’s two assistant keepers became very ill with a fever and needed medical attention on the mainland. He and his other assistant loaded the ailing man into a boat bound for the mainland a mile away to find a doctor. Maria Bray and her nephew, Sidney Haskell, remained on Thacher Island, leaving Maria to be in charge of the tower operations. The weather was cloudy and the winds were blowing, but Keeper Bray figuring the trip would be rather short, felt he would be able to return that same day.
Upon safely reaching the mainland, Alexander Bray was able to get the necessary medical help for his assistant and a few hours later intended to head back to the island. As they were preparing to leave later that afternoon, they found an unexpected fierce snowstorm had descended on the region. They could see the raging surf and gusting winds along the shore and knew it would be too risky to try to make it back to Thacher Island. Bray realized his wife would have to take over the strenuous duties of tending both towers during the storm to keep the lights burning.
That afternoon, the snowstorm blew intensely and covered Thacher Island in blinding drifting snow. Maria knew that the lights must be kept burning for the safety of any ship caught in the disaster, and for those on the mainland. She enlisted the help of her 14-year old nephew, Sidney, to help her with the daunting task. She realized there was not only the task of climbing each tower up the nearly 150 stairs carrying oil, then performing maintenance on the lamps, but the towers were 900 feet apart in waist high snow drifts from the biting winds, making the journey a treacherous quarter mile round trip.
The storm was relentless as Maria braved the snow and wind to carry the lantern fuel to the nearest tower up 148 stairs, then trim the wicks and clean the panes. She then would have to descend the 148 stairs, and make her way through the snowdrifts and the bitter winds 900 feet to the other tower and perform the same tasks for the safety of anyone in the region to see the lights burning. The engine room of the whistle house, which also contained the fog signal also needed to be checked and maintained through the storm.
Maria had her nephew help with the preparations and with some of the cleaning. She had to repeat the daunting trips three times during each of three nights to keep the lamps supplied with oil and the lantern room panes free of soot. She and her helper were exhausted from exposure to the snow and winds, and from fighting their way over the snowdrifts to each tower. She would only sleep a couple of hours and had to be awakened routinely to prepare and perform the strenuous tasks at least every four hours at each lighthouse tower. Alexander Bray remained stranded with his two assistants on the mainland, but much to his gratification, at times when the snows would subside, he could see the lights of the two towers were still burning.
Daybreak on Christmas Eve brought a slight calm through the still raging storm. Keeper Bray, fearing for the safety for his wife and for his nephew on Thacher Island, decided to head for the island with his assistants as the lights were still burning to guide him. It was till snowing and visibility was not very good, but the winds and waves had subsided somewhat as Bray and his men pushed the boat through the thunderous surf. The bitter blowing snow continued to cover the men as they climbed over one wave after another using the two lights from the towers on Thacher Island to navigate. After what seemed an eternity, the half frozen men successfully made the mile-long trip to the island. Maria, with help from her nephew, was able to keep the lights burning during the storm and there were no marine casualties. It was a joyful Christmas Eve as the Brays and their assistants were reunited.
There were many variations of this story, even an account that she had children during the ordeal, which is not the case. The keeper’s building was set up for two families, and it is believed that the assistants were not married at the time and lived on the other side of the building.
Keeper Bray and his wife stayed on Thacher Island until 1869, when they moved back to the mainland. Alexander died in 1885, and afterwards, Maria Bray spent her last years living in Gloucester until 1921, when as Gloucester’s oldest resident, she passed away at the astonishing age of 93.
In the spring of 2000, a new Coast Guard “Keeper Class” buoy tender was launched, the Maria Bray. On its way to its homeport in Mayport, Florida, the vessel stopped near Thacher Island where members of the Thacher Island Association, who currently maintain the island and lights, threw a ceremonial wreath into the ocean in Maria Bray’s honor.
You can actually explore Thacher Island if you join the Thacher Island Association. You can then take one of its many shuttles to the island during the summer months. Rustic campsites are also available with reservations. Thacher Island can also be seen up close by catching the Lighthouse Cruise offered by Harbor Tours Inc. of Cape Ann.
Happy holidays everyone!
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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