Hidden Cape Cod: The Story of Amrita Island

The Baxendale mausoleum on Amrita Island. (Photos by Chris Setterlunc)

The Baxendale mausoleum on Amrita Island. (Photos by Chris Setterlund)

Cape Cod hides many fascinating, little known hideaways, especially for a place that is only 1,306 square miles in size. Amrita Island takes up a mere .03 of those square miles, but its story and history belie its rather diminutive size.

Nestled snugly in the Cataumet section of Bourne, surrounded by Squeteague Harbor and sheltered from Buzzards Bay by Scraggy Neck, Amrita 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.

The island was originally owned by Thomas Baxendale and his wife Esther. Born on Leap Day in 1840 in Blackburn, England, Baxendale emigrated to the United States in 1867. He settled in Brockton where he met and married Esther Minerva Simmons.

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 last longer and added to the boots’ fashionable appearance.

Thomas and Esther purchased the land along Buzzards Bay in 1893 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.’ In mythology it is the name for the nectar of the gods.

The Baxendales brought in scholars and deep thinkers to deliver lectures at their estate on the western tip of the island which they named ‘Island Haven.’ They often hosted lectures on animal welfare, a subject they both cared deeply about. The couple frequently donated money to the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

Esther was dear friends with the organization’s founder Anne Harris Smith. She even wrote a book, an ‘autobiography’ of her Italian-gazelle hound, Fairy, in 1904 entitled “Yours With All My Heart.”

The Island Haven estate.

The Island Haven estate.

The Baxendales made Amrita Island more inviting for scholars by having cottages built for visiting Harvard professors. The cottages had lyrical names like Sorrento, Castle-la- Mare, and Guardian. The couple loved Harvard so much that after Esther’s death in 1927 (Thomas died in 1910) the entire island was bequeathed to the university. Shortly thereafter, Harvard donated the land to the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Until 2007 there was a summer camp for inner city children held on the island.

The camp may be gone, but the Baxendales never left Amrita Island. The couple, along with the aforementioned 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.

To get to Amrita Island, head towards Megansett Beach in Cataumet, and look for Baxendale Road. Once you turn onto this rural side street, it is clear you’ve found someplace special. Oddly placed medieval castle towers, eight in all, beckon you across a 250-foot bridge leading to Amrita Island.

The castle bridge to Amrita Island

The castle bridge to Amrita Island

The bridge structures were constructed in 1908 by Portuguese builder Manuel Brazil who was born in the Azores Region of Portugal and emigrated to Provincetown in the mid-19th century.

With no more summer camp on Amrita Island, it is important to remember that the homes across the bridge are private residences and they must be respected. That being said, I wish to extend a thank you to the husband and wife who live next door to Island Haven for allowing me to cross through their yard to get the photo you see of the Baxendale mausoleum.

– By Christopher Setterlund

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Comments

  1. Great article! As children we were never allowed to go across the bridge as a to protect the privacy of the residence so it was an interesting read.

    As a side note, the Animal Friends Summer School was a day camp and in the month of June children from Biston inner cities had the camp all to themselves. It was open to all children during the months of July and August. It was a great place for them to learn about the oropendola care and respect for all animals. It’s a shame it’s no longer running.

    • Your story in not accurate. The camp animal rescue league was not on the island. It was next to the island on adjacent compound with the red roofs. It was also not for inner city kids but for any one who wanted to attend. My self and almost every kid that live in north falmouth attended. Actually it was hard to get in, at least by 1983 the first year I went. Probably mostly privileged megansett, and north falmouth kids not inner city kids. It was the greatest camp ever. Your correct that own the land that bridge is on as visiting it was always part of the camp. I sure there is 100 others that can back me up on this as the camp was so popular in the 80s and early 90s.

      • Your story in not accurate. The camp animal rescue league was not on the island. It was next to the island on adjacent compound with the red roofs. Did you actually vist the island, because if you did it would be obvious that it was not on the island as their is no open land on the island and all the houses are atleast 100 years old. The camp was also not for inner city kids (well maybe for one week early in the season), but for any one who wanted to attend. My self and almost every kid that live in north falmouth attended. Actually it was hard to get in, at least by 1983 the first year I went. Probably mostly privileged megansett, and north falmouth kids not inner city kids. It was the greatest camp ever. Your correct that they owned the land that bridge is on as visiting it was always part of the camp. I am sure there is 100s of others that can back me up on this as the camp was so popular in the 80s and early 90s. You did a poor job research this article. There was also a movie I think it was called where are the child filmed in the house.

  2. How about you guys make your page Mobile friendly. This is too irritating to Reid. C’mon, late 2017 and you’re Capecod.com..

    • What a wonderful article 💞 I was born on Martha’s Vineyard & grew up in Hyannis, and yet this little island is as much a mystery to me as the dark side of the Moon❗😊 I will make a trip to see this beautiful island. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for that interesting story. Who knew?!

  4. ifistonthefirstdate says

    I always thought that was a local myth that there was horse buried with them in the mausoleum

    • It’s actually under the fountain. Thomas, his wife, a local priest, and their dog are buried in the mausoleum.

  5. Donna Rice says

    I lived in Cataumet lucky me, and always knew of this secret mystifying island. When I moved down Cape , my Dad still lived there in that beautiful village, I would drive my sons to the camp for 2 weeks of pure joy for them…Never forgotten, so many memories of Cataumet and hidden gems…

  6. ETHAN SCHAFF says

    So who owns the mansion w/ the mausoleum now? Is it private or public? I’ve walked along Squeteague Harbor many times and viewed its mysterious beauty so great to know this story as I always wondered….

  7. Janet Gustafson says

    A wonderful story. I will have to make a visit there

  8. When my children were little in the 80s and 90s, the Animal Friends camp was on the property to the right of Amrita Island. It has since lay empty, but you can wander there without crossing a no trespassing sign. Many beautiful views around the area, but unfortunately, so much is privately owned with huge houses blocking the views. Lovely walk to Lawrence Island gives you a good view of the mausoleum. I like the article but won’t read this site again because of all the moving wiggling ads.

  9. Lovely story, thank you.
    As an animal loving expat (50yrs) I wonder why, how it became private, where did their dream and money end up?
    Will have to go and view it.
    Thank you for sharing. Gillian.

    • Is it possible to get to the mausoleum? This is such a beautiful place and so much history!! I drove through there today just stunning!

  10. Chuck Rose says

    I went to the Camp each summer during the mid ‘60’s
    It was such a fun time. I loved the woodworking shop, the sing-a-Kong’s and the chocolate milk break. Great memories. I was sorry to see it close.

  11. Cathy Pacheco says

    My two daughters when to Friends of Animals camp in the summer of late 70’s…they loved it and learned many interesting facts about animals that have been useful in later life…one of the courses was about “trusting others”-they loved that and the course on ‘Horses”.

  12. There’s nobody in the tomb. The camp is not on the island nor was it for “inner city” kids in recent decades. Facts matter.

    • Yup your right, it was open to all and not on the island. Article is a joke so wrong. I went to it, and i am from north falmouth certainly not the inner city.

  13. Can you actually walk these places when you get there?

  14. Your story in not accurate. The camp animal rescue league was not on the island. It was next to the island on adjacent compound with the red roofs. It was also not for inner city kids but for any one who wanted to attend. My self and almost every kid that live in north falmouth attended. Actually it was hard to get in, at least by 1983 the first year I went. Probably mostly privileged megansett, and north falmouth kids not inner city kids. It was the greatest camp ever. Your correct that own the land that bridge is on as visiting it was always part of the camp. I sure there is 100 others that can back me up on this as the camp was so popular in the 80s and early 90s.

  15. Sandra Baxendale says

    Hello we are Baxendale’s from Blackburn,UK,the birthplace of Thomas Baxendale who owned Amrita Island.He came to MA as a child with his mother as his father was already there,not as an adult, we have visited Amrita and enjoyed a tour of two of the houses, beautiful,we hope to return when the world is back to normal.we are currently trying to trace ancestry, there could be a connection through one of
    Thomas’s brothers

    • Hello Sandra,
      I am the current owner of Island Haven and Trustee of the Mausoleum Trust. It would be interesting to compare notes if you are so inclined. My wife and I spent several years in England and Scotland in addition to owning our Amrita Island property for over 20 years.

      • Roger Love says

        4/25/21 Hello Jay, How might one be able to see the interior of your home. From afar it certainly is an amazing sight, and I am totally fascinated with the history of Anita Island and the Baxendale estate.

  16. Amanda Webster says

    Thank you for sharing this. My father told me the story of Thomas and Ester – his great aunt. However my family history know it to be that when Ester was an avid animal lover and that when she died (they had no children) she left the land to be an animal sanctuary rather than allow it to be developed. When the estate could not afford to maintain, it was somehow acquired and sold by Harvard to a developer. How disappointing.

  17. John Pops Noonan says

    They made a movie in that house and on that property in the late eighties I believe. It was called “where are the children “

  18. John Nelson says

    Hello Amanda,
    Any chance you are a descendent of the original Webster family who owned a house in Cataumet in the early 1900s?

  19. Romaine Welch says

    Enjoyed reading this. My family summered on “Mainland” which was the name of the former boathouse on the water, on the mainland side of the bridge, from when I was a baby until I was a tween. It was red as were the other two “Schoolhouses” on the property and a small boathouse. The “Schoolhouses” were used for the Animal Rescue League of Boston summer camp. I was there in the 50’s & 60’s and have been by since. The 4 structures are still there and still red, last I saw. Only thing missing is the dock out front. I love that place. My only disappointment was that the road into “Mainland” has been paved.

    My Mother’s family as well as she and my Dad, stayed at Island Haven. Which was about a third of the size it is today. There has been much building on Amrita but I believe some of the original “cottages” are still there. As kids we’d walk over to the island, past Fairy’s gravestone and down the steps to the mausoleum. Once, either an astronomically high tide, lapping at the mausoleum doors! There were hermit crabs scurrying around…..creepy! Do you know a horror movie was filmed at Island Haven?

    Cool place ghat few people know about!
    Romaine

  20. Romaine Welch says

    Meant to mention that “Mainland” had some remembrances of the Baxendale world travels; doubt they’re still there. Examples were large photographs of the Baxendales atop camels in Egypt and a full standing Suit of Armor. Some things, especially furnishings, would be waged out during the off-season courtesy of nor’easters or hurricanes which cause the ocean to come right in. The 1st floor of the house was basically at sea level, given that it’s first life was as a boathouse.

    Funny that I currently have a photo I took of Island Haven on 10/31/12, as the wallpaper on my iPhone.

  21. The Movie “Where are the Children” with the late Jill Clayburgh was filmed both inside and outside the house, as well as other locales. The moviue was adapted by the book by Mary Higgins Clark. I knew a former owner of the house and visited it twice, (in the 1990’s); the same owner who rented the house out for the movie.

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