Long before the Cape Cod Canal connected Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay, and long before the villages of Marion and Mattapoisett separated from Rochester, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse on Bird Island. It would be the first lighted navigational aid along the southerly coast. Built in 1819, the light would guide boats in the busy waters in and around Buzzards Bay, then a thriving hub of commerce dependent on boats to transport goods.
Only accessible by water and thereby protected from human intrusion, the island has historically been a nesting site for marine birds, especially the severely threatened roseate tern. The 1.4-acre glacial till is 10 percent salt marsh, 70 percent coastal beach, and 20 percent tidal wash according, to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
When the lighthouse was being constructed, a riprap rocky collar, or seawall, was placed around the island in an effort to hold back tides that, if left unchecked, would eventually wash the entire island away. A cottage was also built on the tiny landmass to house the lightkeeper. The first lightkeeper was William Moore who was paid the princely sum of $300 per year.
Today, the driving force behind the lighthouse is former harbormaster and lighthouse enthusiast Charles “Charlie” Bradley. On September 14, he and over 100 Marion residents celebrated the bicentennial of the lighthouse. But many in attendance also were celebrating Bradley and his tremendous contributions in preserving both the structure and its history.
Bradley has been researching the history of the lighthouse for more than a decade and was eager to sit down with The Wandererand tell the story.
Bradley had provided a well-prepared timeline of the lighthouse’s history starting in 1819 to 2019, which was no small feat.
“There were three reasons why they wanted to build a lighthouse out there,” began Bradley.
First, the Cape Cod Canal had not been constructed, so boat navigation via a natural river was the primary way lumber and other products could reach the Cape. “They traveled out to Aptucxet, you know, over there under the Bourne Bridge. It was a trading post,” he said.
He went on to explain that the Tremont Nail Company in Wareham was a “growing concern”, and that, in addition to the tremendous demand for lumber, heading south made a lighthouse necessary. Thus, the Bird Island Lighthouse was the first lighthouse in Buzzards Bay.
“It was the only logical place to put a lighthouse,” he said, adding,” The original light was fueled by whale oil.”
When asked how he managed to pull together such a comprehensive history after so many years, Bradley responded, “It wasn’t easy.” To accomplish the task, he plumbed every scrap of local paperwork available, such as annual reports, but for other details he had to seek out publications and read through back copies.
In the 1938 hurricane that wreaked havoc throughout the southeast, the lightkeeper’s cottage was torn apart. By then the cottage had already been deserted; the light had been decommissioned on June 30, 1933.
A very long period of neglect followed, much to the delight of the seabirds. It wasn’t until 1994 that interest was reignited in preserving the island and illuminating the light. “There was a lot of resistance,” said Bradley. After all, the lighthouse had been forgotten for 60 years. But those headwinds couldn’t stop a favorable movement to preserve and conserve Bird Island. In January of 1994, the Bird Island Preservation Society was formed with Bradley as the chairman.
With a light chuckle, Bradley told the story of how several workers busily restoring the lighthouse one December were nearly stranded. “We didn’t know bad weather was coming but I noticed winds picking up from the south.” Racing against the blow, Bradley made it to Bird Island, but the gale winds were pushing his small craft towards the beach. “I couldn’t get as close as I needed to because the wind would have driven me right up onto the beach.” The men had to walk in the freezing water to the shore.
Bradley said that the International Chimney Corporation that specializes in historic preservation of large stone structures such as lighthouses did repairs on Bird Island light in 1996 and, by 1997, the light was once again shining – at 9:00 pm, to be exact. Bradley was appointed the keeper.
Today, collaboration between the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Town of Marion keeps the light shining as a private aid to navigation. It should also be noted that conservation of the island was also funded in part from federal monies available from a superfund site in New Bedford because, Bradley said, “The birds couldn’t nest there any longer.”
The island’s value to the roseate tern is priceless. It is the largest nesting site for this endangered marine bird. And make no mistake about it, the birds are not without their defenses on their precious breeding ground.
Marion Harbormaster Isaac Perry shared his experiences overseeing the ongoing maintenance on the island and the birds. He said the majority of work has to take place in early spring or late fall when the birds are not nesting. He described a scene where one might observe a bird or two and think all is safe, but intrusion into a nesting area can cause hundreds of birds to ascend from the ground and swarm the unsuspecting.
Perry said that researchers who are tasked with the challenge of counting birds and collecting nesting data have to wear protective clothing, including a hat affixed with a pole that sticks out above their heads.
“It discourages the birds from attacking,” Perry said. He also likened the aggressive birds to those seen in Hitchcock’s thriller – that’s right, ‘The Birds’.
Perry said that only boaters have access to the island and that the area is posted with signs warning of the nesting birds and restrictions if boaters disembark. He also said that Marion’s Natural History Museum takes young students to the island once or twice a year as part of its science programming.
The celebration included a silent auction, which featured artwork depicting the lighthouse. One was a painting donated by local artist Anthony Days of Mattapoisett. There were also commemorative coins for sale. All funds resulting from the bicentennial celebration will be used to further conservation work on the island.
By Marilou Newell