“Wickies” – Keepers of the Light
Eighteen miles north of Boston in a town both tony and tough; the Atlantic relentlessly crashes onto its rocky coast, and the eight-legged iron exoskeleton of the Marblehead Light stands tall (105-feet) and silent as it gives mute testimony that when it comes to the ocean, humanity is a renter not an owner.
Fifty-three feet above mean high water, the white light shone into the darkness
The power of the ocean to bring prosperity as well to threaten the men and women who would ply their trades upon it was not lost on Marblehead, MA, native Elbridge Gerry. In between placing his signature upon the Declaration of Independence and serving as the country’s fifth vice-president (under James Madison), as congressman from Massachusetts Gerry filed the United States Lighthouse and Navigation System Bill (H.R. Bill 12) in 1789. Among the byproducts of his efforts and at residents’ requests, a 23-foot white tower was erected on Marblehead Neck and opened on 10 October 1835.
A former chief gunner of the U.S.S. Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides,” Ezekiel Darling (1835-1860), became Marblehead’s first lighthouse keeper or “wickie.” Wickie is a colloquial nickname most lighthouse keepers call themselves, derived from the wicks in the whale oil they had to maintain and keep lit for the lamps in the lighthouses. For a $400 annual salary he tended the property and maintained all equipment in working order, but most importantly, Darling kept the 10 lamps inside its octagonal lamp filled with the whale oil they burned. Fifty-three feet above mean high water, the white light shone into the darkness to lead North Shore seamen safely home again. In clear weather, it could be seen 10 miles out to sea.
Until the U.S. Army took control of the current light tower in 1941, eight men and one woman followed Darling in service. For the first 46 years of their labors, the wickies lived in a quaint New England cottage connected to the squat, traditional-style lighthouse by a covered walkway. An unreliable causeway that washed out in heavy weather linked Point of Neck to Marblehead town. Expected to be self-sufficient and only resupplied twice a year by government boat, the wickies kept farm animals—cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, etc.— and tilled a garden to sustain themselves and their families. When they made their rare trips ashore, the lighthouse keepers traveled by a 20-foot dory, which they kept docked for that purpose as well as for rescue. In 1879, a new two-story wood frame house became the residence for all of the wickies to follow.
Jane Clemmons Martin, thought to be the only female wickie of the time (1860-62) saw prosperity change Marblehead. With the emergence of the Corinthian and Eastern Yacht Clubs, the country’s poshest vessels found their way to the area. A ferry linked the Neck to the mainland. Originally surrounded by pasture, in the 1860s a change in ownership allowed for the land around the lighthouse to be subdivided. Out went the critters, in came summer homes, and by the 1870s they obscured the small tower’s light. Mariners and merchants howled about the original lighthouse’s inadequacy and called for a replacement.
In a poor attempt to remedy the situation, each evening during the veiled years, wickies John Goodwin (1862-1872), James S. Bailey (1872-1892), Albert M. Hortley (1892-1893), and Henry T. Drayton (1893-1928) hoisted a lantern up a 100 foot mast. The “Twin Lights” on the mast and in the original lighthouse didn’t pass muster with local mariners. In 1893, the complaints of merchant marines, fishermen and ship owners were heeded. Interested parties agreed that a 100-foot high brick tower be built and $45,000 be appropriated for the purpose.
Instead of constructing this ocean-front obelisk, at a cost of $8,786 the iron skeleton that is Marblehead Light became the only lighthouse, a light tower to be exact, of its kind in New England. Wickies now climbed the 127 steps inside its iron cylinder to reach the watch-room and then a seven step ladder to the lens. Catwalks at each of these levels are door accessible and connected by an exterior ladder. The white light featured a clear weather range of 10-16 miles; its lens illuminated by a one concentric wick Argand lamp still fed by whale oil. In a pinch, hard lard was the back-up fuel. On 17 April 1896, the existing tower’s lamp first shone.
Keeper Drayton was the first to work in the new light tower. Spending 35 years on the Neck, his skills as a photographer enriched Marblehead Light’s historical record. In 1922, Drayton saw the aspect of the lamp go from white to red, and five years later he oversaw the shift from liquid fuel to electricity. This longest serving wickie retired in 1928.
In 1938, the lamp’s light shifted from red to green, currently one of only three green lamps on the eastern sea board, but it was when it briefly went dim that Keeper Harry S. Marden (1938-1942) became one of Marblehead’s most renowned wickies. Only 20 days on the job and Marden fought the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. On September 21st, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England. Like all of the surrounding area, Marblehead Neck lost its power. Marden brought his car alongside the light tower and jerry-rigged his battery to the interior wiring. Spending the ferociously stormy night in the tower’s watch-room, he kept the light illuminated until morning’s light broke.
Marden was not the first wickie to serve with distinction. During his two decades in service, during one squall Keeper Bailey rescued a man from drowning. Marden was however, the first wickie to see the light on Marblehead Neck go dark. During the years of the Second World War, the U.S. Army extinguished the light; Marden stayed on until 1942 to aid in the transition to beach patrols.
In 1946, Marblehead Light was re-lit. Superintendent of Parks Joseph Barry (1947-1954) lived in keeper’s cottage with his wife Beryle; they were its last residents. The home of 10 wickies and one caretaker and their families was razed and never replaced. The light tower became fully automated in 1960. Now, Marblehead worries that with modern navigational technology having made lighthouses obsolete that the U.S. Coast Guard may declare its tower on the Neck to be surplus and sell it off or tear it down. The fate of the beacon on the Neck at the harbor pointing the way to Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea should be settled by 30 September 2021, when the license between Marblehead and the Coast Guard expires.
Thanks to Tom Brophy and to Bill Conly, Marblehead Light Historian for the wealth of information provided for this subject and the stacks of additional material that, unfortunately, space does not allow for this piece.