ROCKPORT — Thacher Island Association and Massachusetts Audubon are celebrating Straitsmouth Island’s first successful open season. Before this summer, the island had since been closed to the public for 180 years.

A ceremony to rededicate the island to the public was held Wednesday morning. Representatives from both groups were all smiles as the ceremonial ribbon was cut by Sydney “Doc” Wedmore, chairman of the Thacher and Straitsmouth Islands Town Committee. Afterward, the Mass Audubon crew enjoyed a quick tour of the island led by Thacher Island Association President Paul St. Germain.

For nearly a decade, Thacher Island Association members and a volunteer crew of contractors have worked to restore the island’s historic landmarks and prepare it for public use. 

In 2013, association volunteers completed an $150,000 effort to repair the lighthouse. Other finished projects include construction of a boat ramp on the west side of the island and a maintenance and storage barn next to the keeper’s house. An oil house originally built 1905 was repurposed as a tool storage shed. 

Despite these efforts, there is still work to be done on Straitsmouth. Thacher Island Association crews are currently working on a compost outhouse; a shed to house the boat ramp’s hydraulic winch system, which will be installed next spring; a stone stairway from the ramp to the island; and groundskeeping on the island’s main trail. Within the coming weeks, however, the volunteers will be reprieved from work for the season.

“It’s been a wonderful partnership with the town’s volunteer help,” said Mass Audubon President Gary Clayton. “The visitor service improvements wouldn’t have happened without their dedication and skills.”

Essential to the island’s public opening was the association-led Straitsmouth keeper program. A new person is chosen to shack up in the Straitsmouth keeper’s house each week and watch over operations on the island.

“The keeper is responsible for just about everything,” St. Germain said. “They welcome visitors, groom trails, do various carpentry jobs, painting jobs, mechanical jobs, any kind of things that need to be done on the island.”

Joseph Napolitano and his wife Peggy Flanagan were chosen to serve as “keepers” during the inaugural week on June 1. In turn, they were the first to live on the island in 80 years. Napolitano and his construction firm, Napco Inc., were responsible for the six-year effort to fully renovate the deteriorating keeper’s house. It was completed just in time for the couple’s week-long stay. 

The keeper program was made possible by a 30-year agreement between the town and Mass Audubon, the island’s majority land owner, to lease the keeper’s house and oil house in 2014. 

“Many of the keepers have been keepers on Thacher Island,” said St. Germain, “so we have a lot of experience (on Straitsmouth).”

Those interested in applying to be a keeper may contact Wedmore, who’s in charge of scheduling, by emailing info@thacherisland.org

“We’re always looking for keepers,” St. Germain said. “People apply and we give them a book on what they’re required to do.”

Straightsmouth Island has a long history of ownership. It was Coast Guard property from 1835, when the lighthouse was established to mark the entrance of Rockport Harbor, to 1934 before it was sold as private property in 1941. The last of the island’s five private owners was William Francis Gibbs. In 1964, after Gibb’s passing, his brother Frederick donated the island to Mass Audubon as a wildlife sanctuary. A plaque was placed on a large boulder on the north side of the island to commemorate the Gibbs family’s donation.

In 2010, the town secured 1.8 acres of land on the northeast side of Straitsmouth, including its iconic lighthouse. Since then, Thacher Island Association volunteer crews have been restoring the island’s historic landmarks. The remaining 28 acres are still owned by Mass Audubon.  

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

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