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. This house was also one of the two featured in the movie “Where are the children” surrounding Squeteague Harbor. A Falmouth school teacher, Freddie Douglass, was the taxi driver in that movie based on the 1975 novel of the same name by Mary Higgins Clark..

    • FRED DOUGLASS says

      Actually, I have never driven a taxi in my life! My family WAS, however, involved in the movie—-Buster, my immense Coon Cat, can be seen scaling (lumber-jack-style) an old elm on my front lawn during the scene where Jill Clayburgh (Sp?) is hysterically viewing a child’s jacket floating in the water to the SW of my house. On a more serious note, I fear that the gorgeous Egypto-Revival Tomb is in grave danger under new ownership. Let’s rally in its defense!

      • ART THORNE says

        GRAVE DANGER, you say, having played as a child on the mausoleum and the whole island wondering what concerns you want to rally about?

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