I would like to tell you a message in a bottle story that is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. It all starts with a lighthouse on a lonely island, a devoted lighthouse keeper, and a New Year’s tradition. When I think of it now, it puts me in mind of one of my daughter’s favorite books, Hello, Lighthouse! by Sophie Blackall. Blackall’s book even notes the tradition of lighthouse keepers sending messages in bottles. Hello, Lighthouse! begins (with emphases provided by my daughter): “On the hiiiighest rock, of a tiiiiiny island, at the eeeedge of the world stands a lighthouse…”
A Brief History of the Thacher Island Lighthouse(s)
Our story begins: On the hiiiighest rock, of a tiiiiny island, off the coast of Massachusetts, stands a lighthouse. This lighthouse stands on Thacher Island, a world unto itself.
In the early days of America–when we were still colonies, actually–there were a great number of shipwrecks in the area. In fact, Thacher Island takes its name from a shipwreck survivor: Anthony Thacher. He and his wife Elizabeth were the lone survivors of an awful shipwreck in 1635. Dozens of others, including their five children, were swept away.
Shipwrecks continued around Thacher Island. This led to none other than John Hancock petitioning the provincial government to build lighthouses Thacher Island. The lighthouses fired up in 1771. According to the video below, these were the last lighthouses to be built in America by the British colonial government
In the following years of conflict, it appeared that the lighthouses were helping the British fleet navigate the area more than they were helping captains and colonists avoid wrecks. So, a company of minutemen headed to the island in 1775 where they destroyed the lights and brought the lighthouse keeper and his family back to the mainland. Eventually, the lighthouses were restored to operation and taken over by the new government of the United States. As the video above explains, George Washington directed Alexander Hamilton to appoint keepers for the nation’s lighthouses, and he did–including for Thacher Island.
Lighthouse Keepers Return to Thacher Island
According to the Thacher Island Association, “The present 123-foot granite towers were completed in 1861 raising the lights to 166 feet above sea level.” About a century later, in 1983, The Thacher Island Association took over care for the island. They restored the lighthouses and keepers’ homes, and began operating the lighthouses with the help of volunteers. This is where volunteer Lighthouse Keeper Ann Hernandez comes into the picture!
A Message in a Bottle Tradition
According to The Boston Globe, “Each year on her birthday, Ann Hernandez and her boyfriend, Alan Tomaska, would settle on the rocky shore of Thacher Island and uncork a bottle of champagne in a toast to the day. When the bottle was empty and the tide going out, Hernandez would tuck a handwritten message inside and Tomaska would hurl the bottle over the rocks and into the crashing surf.”
I always wonder what makes someone send a message in a bottle. What do they hope for? Ann, for example. Did she want a penpal? Maybe she just wanted to see where it would end up? Maybe I read too much into these things, but I wonder: was there something in Ann that made her long for the outside world? For adventure beyond her own daily sphere? She already spent her summers tending the lighthouse on Thacher Island. Ann must have been an adventurous person.
Lighthouse Keeper’s Message in a Bottle, Found!
Six years after sending one of these bottles, a French couple found it washed ashore in their tiny village.
When they looked for Ann, they found that she had passed away unexpectedly the year before they found her note. During her lifetime, according to Boston.com, only one of her bottles was found. It surfaced “in Marshfield, a place that Hernandez dismissed as not exotic enough to merit excitement.”
But according to her friends, “A quaint fishing village on the western coast of France…was just the sort of place where Hernandez would have loved to see her message in a bottle land.”
The French folks who found her bottled note felt the inexplicable power of messages in bottles to connect people. In fact, they befriended Ann’s friends and family! They hoped to visit Thacher Island and the lighthouse that was a home away from home for Ann.
In the meantime, the discovery of the note was a powerful reminder of Ann’s life for her friends and family. It’s the same with so many messages in bottles: Her friends and family must have believed they would never hear from Ann again. But then, all of a sudden, they did.
To me, that’s as close to magic as we can get.
For More on Messages in Bottles
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Teresa Pask said:
Great story Clint. Always good to read your blog.
Kind Regards, Teresa Pask née Euridge (Kelvin’s sister).
Jonathan H. Saunders said:
Great story about Ms. Hernandez. There is a bleaker Thatcher Island story concerning rats, Norway rats.
Meg McDonough said:
What a fine coincidence to read your post today, Clint, as less than 24 hours ago and on a far-flung impulse to consider my sudden desire to look for lighthouses / imagery, had me writing to my family about historical lighthouses and their background. I liked the musical video tagged to go with today’s posting, very nice. I like this connection between coincidence and imagery – it is a pleasant comfort. I still think National Geographic would do well to include your writings and well-researched connections between messengers and recipients of those messages; makes for a new form of history-in-the-making from a personal point of view. Meg, Sarasota, FL
Lorraine Draper said:
Oh how beautifully written. I loved every word. I just love these stories so much but my heart sank when I read Ann had died but youre right, her family and friends did hear from her again. I love Meg McDonough comments…a woman after my own heart. Thank you for sharing…both of you. Now I want to know more ABOUT Ann though! It’s a circle isn’t it?
Janet R said:
Thanks for another great story on messages in a bottle.