Butler’s Toothpick May Be Restored

Tuesday April 09, 2024

Butler's Toothpick

REGIONAL – Since 1873, ship’s captains, fishermen and recreational boaters have used an odd looking, wooden triangle on the Salisbury side of the Merrimack River as a daytime navigational marker.
Nicknamed Ben Butler’s Toothpick after the Civil War general, Massachusetts governor, congressman and founder of the America’s Cup yacht races, the navigational aide has become a icon for Salisbury. Open the town’s web site and the image you see is Butler’s toothpick.
But today, the Coast Guard-owned navigational aide, known officially as the Black Rocks Day Beacon, is falling apart. Over the decades, the wind and salt spray have taken their toll on the wood structure and its stone base. The red paint on the wooden slats is fading and the wood is probably rotting. There are holes in the mortar that needs to be repointed, Hellwig said.
The town’s Historical Commission has been talking with the Coast Guard about restoring the Toothpick. The Coast Guard would license the beacon to the town for 10 years while the commission, headed by its chair Connie Hellwig, raises the estimated $65,000 to rebuild the beacon.
“The Coast Guard is enthusiastic. It would like to have the Toothpick restored,” said Hellwig, who has been talking with Coast Guard officials up and down the East Coast for six years. “I have a solution, a plan.”
The commission’s plan is to rebuild the Toothpick to its original height of 35 feet and 20 feet wide.
The sticking point is insurance. The Coast Guard is insisting that the town of Salisbury buy liability insurance to cover the construction of the new Toothpick. The SelectBoard would also have to approve the project.
Town Manager Neil Harrington said he is favor of restoring the Toothpick, but called it “a little too premature for me to make any definitive statements about what might happen at this time.”
Hellwig is meeting with Harrington, SelectBoard Chair Ronalee Ray-Parrott and member Michael Colburn about the project.
It would not be the first time the Toothpick has been rebuilt. In 1957, a storm washed away the beacon. It was rebuilt, but not to its original height. Its current dimensions are 20 feet high and 15 feet wide.
Hellwig has talked with Riverside & Pickering Marine Contractors in Newington, NH about restoring the concrete base.
And in one of the most intriguing aspects of the restoration, Hellwig has also talked with Graham McKay at the Lowell Boat Shop about building a new superstructure.
McKay, who was out of town and could not confirm the historic boat shop’s interest in the project, has told Hellwig the superstructure might be built in Amesbury and floated on a barge downriver to the beacon site on Salisbury beach.
Butler was a colorful historical figure. Born in Deerfield, NH in 1818, Butler grew up in Lowell, where he developed an empathy for the local mill workers. When he served as a state legislator, a congressman and governor of Massachusetts, he championed the 10-hour workday.
He became a successful manufacturer in Lowell, producing the first American wool bunting used in making flags. He presented the first American-made wool flag to President Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, he was named a general and became an important player in the fight against slavery. He declared that captured slaves, when seized by the northern army, were contraband. Thus, Yankee soldiers did not have to return the slaves to their southern owners.
For his efforts, Confederate President Andrew Johnson ordered Butler to be executed if he were ever captured.
As governor from 1883 to 1884, Butler appointed the first African American and Irish Catholic to be judges and Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, the first woman to serve in the governor’s office.
Butler owned a Rockport marble quarry, where it is believed the original stones for Toothpick’s base came from. And for 20 years, Butler owned the yacht America and entered it 28 times in races, winning five. That was the beginning of the America’s Cup races.
After being lobbied by the influential Butler, the federal government erected the navigational aid on the Merrimack in 1873. According to legend, it gained the nickname Butler’s Toothpick because of Butler’s big mouth.
“Everyone loves the Toothpick,” Hellwig said. “It’s very cool.”

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