Salt Island—A History
Mary Ellen Lepionka, July 2021
Little Salt Island off Good Harbor Beach stands as a monument—an iconic testament—to the long, rich history of Gloucester. As Gloucester prepares to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2023, residents and visitors may want to take action to safeguard iconic landscapes such as Salt Island to help preserve Gloucester’s cultural heritage. Salt Island is presently under threat of potential development by a new owner, development that could reduce the rocks, eliminate the vegetation, introduce pollution, and interfere with public access. From the beginning Salt Island has been privately owned but publicly accessible for recreational purposes, reachable by foot at low tide from Good Harbor Beach. For most of its history Salt Island has been allowed to exist in a natural state. Many generations of residents, visitors, artists, and photographers have appreciated the view of this little pristine island from the beach with Brier Neck and the twin lights of Thacher Island in the distance.
Over the past 3,000 years or more Indigenous people—Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodland Indians—lived on Little Good Harbor River, at first seasonally and later in year-round settlements. They occupied the Sayward Street area with access to the Inner Harbor at Smith Cove as well as to the sea at Good Harbor. The Algonquians would have dug sea clams and gathered horseshoe crabs at Good Harbor Beach and trapped fish in tide nets they would have strung between Brier Neck and Salt Island. They would have raided Salt Island rookeries for seabird eggs and feathers and taken their ocean-going canoes out to sea to fish and hunt marine mammals.
The first written record of Salt Island is on a map that Samuel de Champlain drew when he visited the “Islands Cape” (Cape Ann) in 1606. In his account he referred to it as a “Little rocky islet, very high on the coast” (Les Voyages 1607). In his 1616 description of New England, Captain John Smith referred to opportunities to make salt as an encouragement to English settlement:
Salt upon salt may assuredly be made; it not at the first in ponds or pans, yet til they be provided this may be used: then the ships may transport kine [cattle], horse, goats, coarse cloth, and such commodities as we want; by whose arrival may be made that provision of fish to fraught the ships that they stay not: and then if the sailors go for wages, it matters not. It is hard if this return defray not the charge: but care must be had [that] they arrive in spring, or else provision be made for them against the winter (Smith 1616, p. 32).
What Capt. Smith is saying is that successful settlement depended on making salt, because then the ships bringing settlers and their goods could drop them off in spring and immediately go fishing. With salt they could preserve their catches to sail back to England in the fall and sell the fish in Europe. The money they made on the fish would defray the cost of bringing the settlers. Otherwise, provisions would have to be made for the sailors to winter over. And this is exactly what happened in 1623 when John White’s Dorchester Company’s first expedition landed at
Fishermen’s Field. Half the sailors went fishing and home and half were left to winter over. Erecting a salt works and fish stages were the first priorities.
Salt Island (lower right corner) on Samuel de Champlain’s map
In the 1640s, James Babson and later Thomas Witham were the first owners of Little Good Harbor and Brier Neck, including Good Harbor Beach and Salt Island. They developed farmsteads and businesses supplying the earliest fisheries with barrel staves, fish boxes, and salt. Salt was produced on Salt Island and other locations on Cape Ann using sea water. The sea water was filtered, boiled down, evaporated in pans, raked out, sun dried, and barreled. Throughout the seventeenth century barrels of salted fish were shipped from Good Harbor, first to England and later to the West Indies. In the West Indies Cape Ann salt cod fed enslaved Africans and Native Americans on American and British slave plantations. In 1665, the old salt-works was still operating on Salt Island—then, as now, it was accessible from Good Harbor Beach by foot at low tide.
By the 1660s the Good Harbor area and Back Shore were becoming deforested as trees were harvested for salt barrels, fish boxes, and house shingles, and as land was developed for farming. In 1667 the town restricted the cutting of cordwood to the area between Little Good Harbor River where it empties at Good Harbor Beach and Brace’s Cove in East Gloucester. In 1708 a roadway was built between Long Cove in Sandy Bay (Rockport Harbor) to the landing at Little Good Harbor, called Starknaught Harbor Beach at that time. By 1757, all the pine trees in the Good Harbor area had been cut down and the mouth of Little Good Harbor River and the beach became filled in with sand after a great storm.
Salt Island saw its share of shipwrecks in great storms. In the winter of 1796 the ship INDUSTRY was shipwrecked on Good Harbor Beach after crashing into Salt Island during a violent snowstorm. In 1878 a little 6-ton Gloucester boat, the HOPE, with Anthony Frances, John Conley, and Joseph Adams aboard, dragged anchor and chopped ice to survive a winter storm in Salt Island’s lee.
The men had just been picking their trawls and had a dory load of fish and trawl lines, and seeing the squall coming, made all possible haste to get on board the boat. This they succeeded in doing just in time; but it was so rough that the dory collided with the boat, knocking off a piece of her rail, and came near staving a hole through her. Finding they could not tow the heavily-laden dory, they were obliged to cut her adrift and she soon capsized, and dory and contents proved a total loss. The squall had by this time come upon them in all its fury; but the little craft behaved well, and they got her up under the lee of Salt Island and came to anchor; but the anchor would not hold and commenced dragging, carrying them off to sea. After dragging some four miles it finally held ; but it was so rough, and the wind ahead, that they dared not attempt to get underway, so they hung to it, determined to take their chances. The cold was so intense that the water shipped on deck froze almost as soon as it struck, threatening to sink the little craft, and this danger was most to be dreaded. When men's lives are in the balance, however, they will accomplish almost incredible tasks, and so it proved in the case of these poor fellows. Notwithstanding the cold winds, which pierced them like a knife, notwithstanding the showers of freezing cold spray which constantly broke over them, there they stood at their posts, beating ice the livelong night — a night which none of them will ever forget — and by their almost superhuman efforts they kept their little craft afloat, and the next afternoon brought her safely into port (The Fishermen’s Own Book 1882, p. 147).
In 1787, Rev. William Bentley wrote about seeing Salt Island on his tour of Cape Ann. He and his travel companions had stopped in Gloucester Harbor to be shaved (by an accomplished woman barber by the name of Betsy, whom they found quite remarkable), Then:
As soon as we left the Town we had a view on the right of Salt Island so memorable by the fate of our mariners. It lies at a small distance from the shore, has a sand beach within it & is almost a bald rock of considerable elevation (Bentley 1799, p. 156).
The “fate of the mariners” Bentley mentions refers to shipwrecks there and a decline of the inshore fisheries at that time. Gloucester had actually allocated funds to purchase alewives from Jebacco (Essex) and other towns to use as baitfish.
In 1880 an estate was constructed in the tidewater at the western end of Good Harbor Beach, protected by a heavy seawall that served as a breakwater. Today that estate is the neighborhood of Brier Neck and parts of the wall are still there near the tidewater path to Salt Island.
Guy Parson on Salt Island in 1940s with Brier Neck in the Background
During the 1880s the Parsons family operated a seasonal lobster company on Salt Island. The lobstermen built small shacks equipped with cots and stoves so they could spend summers on the island and operate their business there, making traps and lobstering. There was even a small pier. Old photographs show five shacks and one outhouse. The lobster business lasted until the 1950s when the shacks were abandoned, vandalized, and burned down.
In 1914, Good Harbor Beach was extensively mined for sand used in construction, which contributed to the destruction of the large dunes that years of winter storms had built there. The dunes and the plants and animals of the dunes continue to be threatened today by erosion, sea level rise, and people. Some sea birds still roost on Salt Island, but fewer piping plovers return each year to nesting sites in the Good Harbor Beach parking lot. Photos of their precious eggs make front page news.
In 1919 Fox Film Corporation filmed a movie on location at Good Harbor Beach and Salt Island, called “Bride” Number 13, for a 15-part serial silent film that cost a million dollars to make. A huge white castle facade was erected on Salt Island, covering nearly the whole surface, and scenes included a ship attack and the blowing up of the facade. Other than seasonal fish shacks up to the 1950s, that was the last time any structures were erected on Salt Island. It is zoned as residential private property, as an extension of Brier Neck, but the island is regarded as undevelopable today. In 2021 a new owner nevertheless has dreams of building a mansion, swimming pool, and boat launch there, preceded by a poison-ivy eradication program involving a herd of goats that could denude the island of natural vegetation.
Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865)
Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)