March 23, 2019
The History of Marblehead’s Children’s Island
Boaters in the Marblehead/Salem are no doubt familiar with 29-acre Children’s Island, about one mile northeast of Marblehead Neck. The island is currently owned by the Marblehead/Swampscott YMCA, and serves as a summer camp for children.
The island has a long and interesting history. From 1635 to 1655, Robert Cotta, a Salem tailor, used the land to graze sheep. The island was named after Cotta, but, through subsequent misspellings, became known as “Cat” Island.
In 1655, Cat Island was granted to Governor John Endicott in recognition of his service to the king of England. The Endicott family sold the island in 1687 to Richard Reade for 16 pounds. Reade’s son, Samuel, built the first house on the island in 1738 and sold the island to the Wait family of Marblehead in 1761.
In 1773, a smallpox outbreak prompted four prominent local men to build an inoculation facility on the island, which they purchased from the Wait family for 133 pounds. The Essex Hospital, as the facility was called, proved controversial, as the citizens of Marblehead were not keen on welcoming the inoculated patients back to their community, even though they were no longer contagious. The hospital sloop was denied access to Marblehead Harbor, and was later burned. Later, the hospital itself was also set ablaze and forced to shut down.
The four owners maintained possession of Cat Island through the American Revolution. After the war, two of the owners sold their half of Cat Island to Deacon William Williams of the First Church of Christ in Marblehead, who then acquired another part, giving him majority ownership. After Williams’ death in 1787, his widow sold her share of the island to Edward Fettyplace, a town selectman, who acquired the rest of the land. In 1848, the island was purchased by David Blaney of Marblehead for $500, who then sold it to the Salem Steamboat Company in 1851 for $1,000.
The company built a 100-room hotel on the island, which was renamed “Lowell Island.” The hotel became very popular with textile workers from Lowell, Haverhill, Bradford, Amesbury, and Lawrence, thanks to its inexpensive food, variety of amusements (bowling, dancing, etc.), and wholesome family atmosphere.
In 1857, the Salem Steamboat Company sold Lowell Island to Gorham L. Pollard for $13,000. Pollard continued to operate the Island House Hotel until 1869, when Andrew L. Johnson bought the land and its hotel for $10,000. The hotel eventually went out of business, and was presented for public sale in 1877.
In 1878, the island was sold to local philanthropist Samuel B. Rindge for $4,500. Rindge presented the property to St. Margaret’s Home of Boston, to be used for the purpose of developing a sanitarium for sick children. Management of the hospital eventually passed to the Boston Community Fund. In 1946, the Fund withdrew its support of the Children’s Island Sanitarium, and the trustees returned the island to the Rindge family.
Cat Island remained unused until 1955, when the Marblehead YMCA leased it for use as a summer day camp. The camp proved so successful that the following year four YMCA directors contributed $3,000 each to purchase the island. A new pier and swimming pools were built, and the old buildings torn down. In the early 1960’s, the present “Sailors’ Lodge” and arts-and-crafts building were built.
Cat Island was officially renamed Children’s Island by petition of the Marblehead/Swampscott YMCA in 1996.