Little island, big history

If you stand on the shore of Marblehead, Swampscott, Lynn or Nahant and look out to sea to the northeast, you’ll see a small nondescript island about a mile away.

That three-acre piece of land — Egg Rock — has a rich history.

In the mid-1800s, Swampscott was home to a growing fleet of about 150 fishing vessels. After five died in an 1843 schooner wreck, many petitioned for a lighthouse on the island to guide Swampscott’s fleet safely to port. The first lighthouse was built in 1856 at a cost of $3,700 with Congressional funding, and its bright white light first shined on Sept. 15 of that year. 

Its first keeper, George B. Taylor of Nahant, lived at the lighthouse with his wife, Mary, and their children, along with chickens, goats, a tame crow, and the family dog, Milo ― a Newfoundland-St. Bernard mix of considerable size. In foggy weather, Milo also served as a kind of fog signal, barking at vessels as they came too close to Egg Rock, and newspapers made Milo a national hero for his rescues of children. 

That lighthouse burned down, but it was rebuilt in 1897. It was reported at the time that a 19-year-old local resident named Joe White was in charge of bringing materials out to the island in a dory, and it was said that he made the round-trip more than 300 times. The new lighthouse consisted of a square brick tower connected to a six-room, wood-frame dwelling. An oil house was built in 1904, and a new pier and boathouse were added in 1906. 

During World War I, the light at Egg Rock was dimmed because of fears of enemy submarines in the area. 

A series of keepers ran the lighthouse until 1919, when an automatic, gas-operated beacon was placed in the tower. 

The Daily Evening Item of Jan. 31, 1919 chronicled its arrival: “It gives one a queer, unromantic sort of feeling to look out upon the sightly landmark of Egg Rock on a winter’s evening and see the clear white gas beacon which now shines from the famous rock, untouched by the hand of man. For the long-to-be-pitied, forlorn, lonesome light keeper of Egg Rock is no more. Modern invention has supplanted this heroic figure of the north shore by an automation, in the shape of a huge tank, which quite uncannily, feeds the great beacon light of Lynn, Nahant and Swampscott shores.”

In 1922, the light was discontinued. The government sold the buildings at auction for $160, requiring the new owner to remove the buildings from the island. During this move, a cable snapped and the house tumbled into the ocean. For some time, the remains of the dwelling washed up on local beaches.The state of Massachusetts took over Egg Rock in 1927 and maintains it to this day as the home of the Henry Cabot Lodge wildlife sanctuary.