Winter Island, now connected to the mainland in Salem, has had a colorful history. It was the site of eighteenth century Fort Pickering, much of which still survives. The island’s Execution Hill was the scene of several hangings in the 1800. Winter Island also served as a militia training ground, and in the late 1800s, an amusement park called Salem Willows grew up nearby.
Fort Pickering Light was established in 1871, the same year as Derby Wharf Light in Salem Harbor and Hospital Point Light in nearby Beverly. For many years before, Baker’s Island’s twin lights had served as the only guides to the harbor. With the addition of the new lights, mariners would line up Fort Pickering and Derby Wharf Lights after passing Baker’s Island on their way into Salem Harbor.
The lighthouse, built of iron lined with brick, exhibited a flashing white light 28 feet above sea level. The lighthouse, originally painted red, was built slightly offshore. A walkway connected it to the shore.
John Harris, an Ipswich native and Civil War veteran, became keeper in December 1882. On the occasion of his retirement in 1919, when he was 75 years old, it was reported that Harris had been absent from the lighthouse for only five nights in 37 years. He ventured only occasionally into the city, about two miles away, for supplies.
Harris often rode his horse, which had reached the ripe old age of 28 in 1919, into the city. Until his retirement, he never saw the streets of Salem after dark, and he never rode in a car. “It seems as though we have been out of the world for a long time, ” he said, “and it will take some time for us to learn how to act among people.” On the night he retired, Harris attended his first motion picture.
A Coast Guard airplane hangar was erected on Winter Island in 1934. The Coast Guardsmen lived temporarily in the lighthouse keeper’s house until new quarters could be built. In January 1934, a blizzard imprisoned 30 men in the house until a plow could get through. Their heating fuel had just about run out with temperatures dipping to 12 below zero. The lighthouse keeper’s house later became the officers’ club for the Coast Guard’s Air Station Salem on Winter Island. In 1944, Air Station Salem was officially designated the first Air-Sea Rescue station on the eastern seaboard. (from: New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide)