Digest>Archives> March 2007

Women of the Lights

Thacher Island's Indomitable Maria Bray

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The twin lighthouses and other buildings on ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

The slender lighthouse towers on Thacher Island, off Rockport on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, are the nation's only operating twin lights. For many decades, the station saw a parade of keepers and families come and go; there were as many as five men employed to help keep the two lights and fog signal. Perhaps the most celebrated of all the island's inhabitants was Maria (Herrick) Bray. She was never an official keeper, but Maria Bray earned the respect and admiration of the public for her herculean efforts during an 1864 storm.

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Maria Bray
Photo by: Courtesy of the Thacher Island Association

Maria was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1828, one of seven children of Theodophilus and Dolly Herrick. The Herricks were an old Gloucester family and were long involved with the affairs of the city, and Maria's father served terms as a selectman and state representative. In June 1855, Maria married Alexander D. Bray,

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The south tower and dwelling on Thacher Island, ...

a Civil War veteran who also came from an old Gloucester family.

Maria Bray was described as a woman of unusual literary abilities. She contributed articles to the local newspapers and wrote short stories, and for a time she served as the editor of a literary magazine called Magnolia Leaves. She was also active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements. She also maintained a lifelong association with the West Gloucester Univeralist church, and was the first president of the church's Ladies Misson Circle and superintendent of the Sunday school for many years.

In 1861, Alexander Bray obtained an appointment as assistant keeper on Thacher Island. He was reportedly the first man to light the new lens in the south tower on October 1, 1861, after the two original (1771) towers were replaced by new, taller ones.

During her time at the island light station, Maria developed an interest in the classification of marine plant life. She assembled an important collection of sea mosses and algae and became a recognized authority on the subject. She also learned to perform all the lightkeeping duties of her husband.

Keeper Albert Giddings Hale left Thacher Island in 1864 for health reasons, and Alexander Bray became the new principal keeper. On December 21, 1864, one of the assistant keepers fell ill with a fever. Keeper Bray and another assistant left for the mainland to take the ailing man to a doctor. They left Maria in charge of the station.

A heavy snowstorm blew in later that day, making it impossible for Alexander Bray to return to the island. Maria Bray braved the high winds and heavy snow to light the lamps in both towers. According to some versions of the story, the only person with her was her 14-year-old nephew, Sidney Haskell, who was in charge of operating the fog signal. Maria Bray's obituary credits two other keepers' wives with helping to keep the station operating through the storm.

The lighthouses were nearly 900 feet apart, and drifting snow blanketed the area between them. Each tower had 148 steps to the top, and Maria had to repeat the trip three times during the night to keep the lamps supplied with oil and the lantern room panes free of soot.

A second night passed before Alexander Bray could return to the island, and not once did Maria allow either light to go out. It was a happy Christmas as the Brays were reunited.

The Brays left the island in 1869, and Alexander died in 1885. Maria Bray spent her last years living on West Gloucester's Lawrence Mountain Road. When she died at 93 in 1921, her obituary reported that she had been West Gloucster's oldest resident.

In the spring of 2000 a new Coast Guard “Keeper Class” buoy tender was christened the Maria Bray. On its way to its homeport in Mayport, Florida, the vessel stopped for a ceremony near Thacher Island. Members of the Thacher Island Association were on board as Coast Guard Cdr. David Foley related the incredible tale of how Maria Bray kept the lights going through the December storm in 1864. A wreath was placed in the ocean in her honor.

This story appeared in the March 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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