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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  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.

  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

  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.

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