- Associated Press - Monday, July 11, 2016

SALEM, Mass. (AP) - In the distant past, it must have felt like the loneliest place on Earth. Today, the Essex National Heritage Commission is taking steps to make tourists regular visitors to the Bakers Island Lighthouse. And why not? It offers history, stunning vistas and refreshing salt sea air.

But not everyone is eager to share it.

The commission, which was awarded the property by the Coast Guard, currently runs regular trips from the Salem Ferry dock in Salem, Massachusetts, on the Naumkeag, a unique aluminum boat designed to deposit up to 18 passengers on the beach. Its front end drops like a World War II landing craft, allowing tourists to scramble ashore.

“It’s an interesting boat to drive,” jokes captain Ed Wolfe. “You have to crash it on the beach.”

There isn’t any hostile fire, but there might be hard looks from the island’s 55 cottages, containing summer residents resentful of the intrusion on their car-free, road-free paradise. There is a dock, but the island dwellers have made it clear that visitors to the 10-acre lighthouse site are not welcome to use it.

Despite the cool reception from islanders, Essex Heritage director Annie Harris is determined to open this treasure to its owners - the public.

On a recent trip, she noted, “There are quite a lot of people from this area who have never been out on the water.” She pointed toward land, Marblehead, Salem, Beverly. “They get a thrill just looking back.”

Harris raised money for this with an initial $10,000 grant from the Daughters of the American Revolution and a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign last year. The $225,000 craft, National Parks surplus, was free, but it’s expensive to maintain.

To keep the attraction financially viable, she plans a small souvenir shop in a lighthouse building. A home, built for the lighthouse keeper’s assistant, is being restored for a pilot program to allow people to purchase an overnight stay.

“It will be an opportunity to get an experience of island life,” Harris said.

Lighthouse volunteers Bill and Brenda Simmons will keep them company. They expect to live in the main house throughout the summer. Bill is the retired director of Assateague State Park in Maryland - also an island and famous for feral horses. The pair previously served as keepers of Seguin Lighthouse in Maine.

“It had a Fresnel lens that sparkled like diamonds,” Brenda remembered fondly.

The couple maintains the property, restoring the buildings and mowing the grass, breaking trails that snake through the brush toward spectacular views of Salem Harbor, Massachusetts Bay and the lighthouse.

The Simmonses express disappointment that their neighbors have been so unwelcoming. The couple is barred from the island store and community center.

“We don’t let the public go over there,” he said. They are hoping relations might change over time.

Meanwhile, they can reach the mainland on their own boat and shop for food or dine out. Drinking water must be brought in. Cellphones, television and the internet keep them in touch with the outside world. Power is limited, coming from solar panels and a gasoline generator. Even so, they seldom leave.

The beacon atop the lighthouse, alternating between red and white, and the foghorn are maintained by the Coast Guard and powered by solar panels. The main attraction, the lighthouse itself, remains too dangerous for tourists to climb. Built in the 1820s, its spiral stone stairs are so narrow they barely provide a toehold.

For their part, the Simmonses have no regrets regarding their decision to live out there.

“Look around, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Bill Simmons said, gesturing to the blue sky, blue water and the ancient lighthouse looming over all.

Yet, at night, he added, “The light is not very bright. It doesn’t interfere with the stars.”


Information from: The Salem (Mass.) News, https://www.salemnews.com

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