Visitors are not welcome at Baker’s Island in Salem Harbor, where signs on a private pier warn those who approach to keep away.
Visitors are not welcome at Baker’s Island in Salem Harbor, where signs on a private pier warn those who approach to keep away.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

On a 60-acre island 5 miles off the coast of Salem, about 100 summer residents are fiercely dedicated to protecting their privacy. There are no public roads on the privately owned land, and residents glide along on golf carts to social outings, make do with wells and cisterns for drinking water, and use solar power and propane gas to provide heat and electricity for their cottages.

Baker’s Island is part of Salem, and visitors to it can use its beaches and stand as far as the high water mark on its rocky coast, but they are not welcome. For more than 100 years, residents have been quick to remind the uninvited that they are on private land, and in the past cottage owners have stubbornly refused entry to the likes of former senator and ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Signs on the residents’ private pier warn visitors to stay away from the land, which includes a former Coast Guard station and lighthouse.

But in the coming months and years, the cottage owners will no longer have the final say about who can visit their island retreat.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

For almost a decade, islanders waged a contentious legal debate to wrest control of the Coast Guard station, a 10-acre swath, which the government declared as excess property in 2002. After the land was awarded to the Essex National Heritage Commission of Salem in 2005 — chosen over a nonprofit group set up by islanders — residents began a series of appeals. They were turned down in 2006 by a federal judge, and denied by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010.

As Coast Guard workers complete a $1.6 million project to remove lead paint around the lighthouse and five buildings last used before the lighthouse was automated 40 years ago, islanders and residents on the mainland know that change is coming.

“This is a piece of property that’s been in public ownership for more than 200 years and I thought it was important that there be some public access,” said Annie Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission.

Harris said she envisions offering summer tours to groups of up to 18 for two-hour visits to the island. She said the commission, which has received as much as $1 million a year in federal funding, hopes to partner with the National Park Service to fund a boat that would bring tourists to the island. Harris also plans to restore the former Coast Guard buildings, and said a museum may be built in one of them.

The Coast Guard property remediation is expected to be completed in the fall. Harris said it could take up to two years to begin the tours, which require planning, community input, and logistics.

Visitors will be limited to the Coast Guard’s 10 acres; 5 are cleared and the rest is covered with poison ivy. Visitors will not be allowed to walk near the private cottages.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said she also thinks the planned tours would help educate people about Salem’s role in the early years of the country.

“We’re certainly trying to impress upon visitors about Salem’s maritime history,” Driscoll said. “So many folks come here for witches and then find out there’s so much more. The Baker’s Island lighthouse played an incredible role in the navigational history around that maritime growth. So we think it provides an opportunity to tell that story.”

While the commission is envisioning a future that would include bringing lots of people to Baker’s Island, islanders are leery of anyone controlling the land other than the seasonal inhabitants.

More than 10 residents declined to return phone calls or speak to the Globe on the record. Dan Judson, president of the Baker’s Island Association, also declined to comment on the pending changes. Some seasonal residents, who did not want their names used, said they believe an influx of visitors would bring about a change in tradition on the island, where privacy is cherished. Others said a chief concern is the possibility of fire.

“People worry about fire,” said Robert Pascucci, who has owned a cottage on the island for 40 years.

While islanders maintain a voluntary fire department, they are aware that the hilly earth has been ravaged by a massive fire in the past. A hotel that accommodated up to 500 people a day burned to the ground in 1906.

Once populated by mostly North Shore residents and filled with rustic bungalows passed down through generations, cottage owners now come for the summer from across the country. Residents cherish their independence and only rely on the city to haul away trash, and to send the Salem harbormaster to pick up people in medical emergencies. There are no public roads or other city amenities or services on the island, such as water pipes, sewers, street lights, sidewalks, schools, or municipal buildings. Residents use septic tanks and do not have an undersea electrical cable to the mainland, choosing instead to get their power from solar panels or propane gas. In addition, islanders maintain a private ferry to get on and off the island, and even the dock is privately owned and maintained.

On the island, most residents walk along grassy paths to beaches and homes; some use golf carts. During the summer, children put on plays, and adults hold events such as croquet tournaments. The island has a store, a gift shop, and a meeting hall where church services are held on Sundays and people have been married.

Homes have been modernized over the years and some are large and handsome. Still, the assessments on the island are well below what the average Salem taxpayer who lives on the mainland pays annually. Most of the island homes, including some with five bedrooms, are assessed below $200,000.

There is much lore and occasional bragging rights associated with the island.

Since 1791, there’s been a beacon to help fishermen and sea captains — bearing everything from spices to silk in the decades following the Revolutionary War — avoid the treacherous rocks and ledges that previously claimed numerous vessels. The same lighthouse has stood on the former Coast Guard land since 1820.

Since 1630, it has been the site of a dairy farm, a hotel/health spa/golf course (visited by President Benjamin Harrison), a makeshift hospital for sick infants, and, for the last 100 years, the home of an association of homeowners who live in cottages overlooking the sea. In 1812, an island lighthouse keeper was able to warn the USS Constitution that it was being followed by British warships, and help the vessel reach safe waters in Marblehead.

For centuries, there has been plenty of talk of island ghosts — who have been rumored to blow fog horns during clear evenings — and of spirits who are said to walk the halls of the old cottages.

Salem historian Jim McAllister said changes on the island, from its earliest use of light to help guide ships to its current status as a rustic destination, reflect historical changes over the last four centuries.

“It mirrors what was going on in some segments of the North Shore, whether it was economic or societal,” he said.

Rachel Marino, a Coast Guard environmental branch chief, has worked on the planned transfer of property for years and, like Harris, believes the two groups can get along and also preserve an important part of US history.

“It will be a whole new phase for that end of the island,” said Marino. “Change is not easy for some people but I think it’s a great way for that property to be maintained and restored. Otherwise, it would be run down and nobody would be using it. It will be a great asset to the local community.”