North End

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 7:45am

Last week someone came into the photography gallery where I work, intending to show companions photos of the North Light. He was, he claimed, a descendant of the first keeper, something I thought unlikely, based on knowledge even more narrow than I realized. The first keeper was Hiram Ball; that he was the brother of my great-great grandfather was a fact I stumbled upon some years ago, one, weirdly enough, no one ever mentioned when I was young.

Or that he was the father of Uncle Ansel, who built the Cottage Farm on Corn Neck Road, which he passed along to his daughter Alice, my father's father’s second or third cousin, depending upon the line one followed.

But, the man from California with the oddly familiar name (it was days before I finally remembered meeting his father twenty odd years ago) had with him a small chart, including a chain I know to be in a notebook in a drawer in my house, one of those things I can always look up if I decide I need to clarify the information.

I and my “I-have-it-somewhere” attitude must horrify people who spend years tracing genealogies, but I do have it, both in my mother's neat hand in an old college notebook, and in my aunt's less precise but very legible writing on a chart so large it is rolled and kept in a tube. . . somewhere.

Hiram Ball was the keeper of the third lighthouse on Sandy Point before the last and current North Light was constructed and he moved into it. I must have known that, once upon a time, but like so many things in local family history, it was generations back and, as such, put aside. There is also the very slight possibility I wasn't paying attention. . .

I do not know when I first visited the North Light. It is not that I do not remember the visit, I do, clearly, but the time is uncertain. It was after the light had ceased to be manned, but before I started school, so the window is relatively narrow, a year to a year-and-a-half at most.

In retrospect, it makes sense that I had to be older than I once thought; the walk was longer than it is today, starting at the little turn-around on the northern part of the east shore of Sachem Pond. The road to Settlers' Rock had been damaged by a round of hurricanes in early the 1950s, and for several years was not passable with a regular vehicle.

It was a grand adventure, that trek to the lighthouse with my mother.

We could see it, of course, across Sachem Pond, its beam clear on those summer nights when we went for rides, to the harbor, up to the Southeast Lighthouse and way down the Neck. My mother talked of a keeper who had rowed his children across the pond to the school bus when she had first come to the island as a teacher.

It was not the remote nature of the place that held me, back then so much was remote. The year-round population was at a nadir; we had a “building boom,” the Providence paper declared, citing a handful of new houses one year, four or five.

While people had lived at the light, and snippets of background offered to a little girl were interesting, it was the surroundings that seized the imagination.

The structure sat, as it does today, on a brick apron, but not one of memorial pieces carefully gathered over time and precisely set. It was, my mother said, the work of a keeper or keepers. How bricks had been transported to the site was never a question, after all, they surrounded a whole lighthouse made of big blocks of stone, of what matter were a few bricks?

The image forever imprinted on my mind is one of black boxes, spent batteries, my mother explained, used to power the lantern and changed by Coast Guardsmen. I imagined them tossed from the tower, a distraction for young men, many of whom likely thought themselves stationed in a God-forsaken place, although now I realize that was unlikely as they were whole, not shattered on impact.

Then there was an expanse of carefully chosen and well placed beach stones covering the sloping sand to the north of the light, a hillside of cobblestone unlike anything I had seen outside the pages of a book. It did not seem an attempt to conquer nature, rather to protect it from the omnipresent wind. Again, the work of folks stationed on the remote North End.

The cobbles flowed down into a hollow and another surprise, a magical cottage, all red roof and white walls and crazy angles. It had to have been much later I learned it was a subject of an annual conversation between my dad and an older gentleman who visited once a summer to discuss the relocation of it to a lot he owned at the end of Corn Neck Road. He had begun working in the Life Saving Service, which would merge with the Revenue Cutter Service and form the Coast Guard, as a teenager, and during a very brief command of the Sandy Point Station – long gone by the time I was born – had secured a previous officer's long term lease for the right to have the building on-site.

There was no trace of the one-time Life Saving Station but out beyond the dunes, alternatively vegetated and shifting sand, lay our own world's end, ironically pointing toward the mainland. Near that place where the waters collide on even the calmest of days, was the remnant of a foundation, solid mortared stone, the tangible ghost of an earlier lighthouse.

We go “down the Neck,” still, despite the fact it is north. It is all about elevation I tell visitors but considering our forebears who handed down such terms, perhaps it was always just down to the sea, to those great waters.