Thursday, December 19, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Baxendales and Amrita Island

     Cape Cod hides many fascinating out of the way locations, especially for a place that is less than 400 square miles in size. Nestled snugly in the Cataumet section of Bourne lays an island. Surrounded by Squeteague Harbor and sheltered from Buzzards Bay by Scraggy Neck this island is as difficult to find as a parking spot at the Cape Cod Mall on a rainy summer afternoon. It is a hidden gem with a mesmerizing story. It is Amrita Island.
     Located on the way to Megansett Beach in Cataumet is Baxendale Road. This rural side road heads west toward Buzzards Bay over a creek to an island of roughly 430,000 square feet. Today there are ten homes on the island however at the turn of the 20th century there was only one. It belonged to Thomas Baxendale.
     Born on February 29, 1840 in Blackburn, England, Baxendale dreamed of the American life and emigrated to the United States in 1867. He settled in Brockton where he met and married Esther Minerva Simmons in 1871. Baxendale would make a fortune in the shoe business in the latter decades of the 19th century by perfecting the ‘box toe’ boot. These tougher, rounded toes helped the leather toes of boots last longer and added to their appearance.
     Thomas and Esther made a fortune in business in Brockton with Thomas running the plant and Esther keeping the books. Eventually the couple purchased land along Buzzards Bay in 1890 as a summer residence and christened it ‘Amrita Island.’ The word Amrita is from Sanskrit, the language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and means ‘immortality’ and in mythology it is the name for the nectar of the gods which gave said immortality.
Island Haven

     The Baxendales brought in scholars and deep thinkers of the day to deliver lectures at their estate on the western tip of the island which they named ‘Island Haven.’ One such topic they often hosted lectures on was animal welfare, of which they both cared deeply. The couple frequently donated money to the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Established in 1899, Esther was dear friends with the organization’s founder Anne Harris Smith. Esther even wrote a book written as an ‘autobiography’ of her Italian-gazelle hound Fairy in 1904 entitled Yours with All My Heart. A loving tribute and further proof of her love of animals.
     Baxnedale hired a Portuguese builder named Manuel Brazil in 1908 to add a unique entrance to the island. Brazil was born in the Azores Region of Portugal in 1836 and emigrated to Provincetown in the mid-19th century. He constructed medieval castle towers, eight in all, which beckoned you across the 120-foot bridge leading to Amrita Island. This bridge to this day seems out of place for Cape Cod and creates a feel as if one is heading into a different world.
The Bridge to Amrita Island

     Once the lectures got going the Baxendales made Amrita Island more inviting for scholars by having cottages built for visiting Harvard professors. These had names like Sorrento, Castle-la-Mare, and Guardian. Eventually Thomas and Esther retired from business leaving the reins of the company to Esther’s brother John Simmons.
     In 1909 Thomas Baxendale began having stone carted across the bridge to the island. Reports at the time thought it was for a sea wall, in reality it was for a mausoleum. His health failing Baxendale commissioned the elaborate final resting place that was christened ‘Sunset Terrace.’ It was built on the bluff on the west side of the Baxendale mansion facing the sunset. Sunset Terrace was complete with forty-four steps and three broad piazzas leading to the mausoleum. Thomas died on March 31, 1910 at age seventy at his home in Brockton. He was buried in Sunset Terrace in December of that year with a big dedication of the mausoleum.
     Esther Baxendale continued spending summers at Amrita long after Thomas’ death. She and Thomas loved Harvard so much in fact that after Esther’s death on March 17, 1927 the entire island was bequeathed to the university. Shortly thereafter Harvard in turn donated the land to the Animal Rescue League of Boston in 1934 who opened a school of humane education there. Until 2007 there was a summer camp for inner city children held on the island.
The Sunset Terrace mausoleum

     The Baxendales never left Amrita though. They, along with the previously mentioned dog Fairy, are interred in a striking mausoleum on the western edge of the Island Haven property. It faces the sunset and the phrase ‘Love Is Eternal’ is inscribed on the mausoleum door. Beautiful words on a beautiful hidden gem of an island. With no more summer camp held there it is important to remember that the homes across the bridge are private residences and they must be respected.

View my previous blog posts: In My Footsteps: My Cape Cod Roots

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

1 comment:

Dennis Weeks said...

Great article Christopher. I especially found it interesting, because yesterday I was in the Scraggy Neck area and saw the Amrita Bridge out the corner of my eye. I crossed the bridge and turned around when I got to Island Haven. What a beautiful spot with a fascinating history. The Baxendales were way ahead of their time. I just purchased Esther Baxendale’s book, Yours With All My Heart, about her beloved dog, Fairy, who is entombed in Sunset Terrace Mausoleum.
I plan to walk out to Lawrence Island this week to get some shots of the Mausoleum, with my camera.
I really enjoy learning about local history. I live at the Coady School in Bourne, in one of the old, now converted classrooms.
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you I enjoy your work very much.
By the way, I grew up in the Newburyport area, and visited Adventureland a few times. I just read your Storyland article.

Dennis Weeks