Located at the southern tip of Plum Island, Sandy Point State Reservation is part of the Town of Ipswich but is owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
In 1962, a storm shipwrecked Jack Helfant’s houseboat on Sandy Point. The Revere native decided to stay on the island, creating a shack using driftwood, canvas and parts of his houseboat covered with salt hay, including an underground quarters. Over the years Jack and his pet collie Prince became permanent fixtures on the island.
In a 1963 interview with the Newburyport Daily News, Jack said, “I’m not shutting myself off from the world, but I do like living alone. I’m not here by squatter’s right but as one who has given 19 years to the army and that entitles me to a little consideration as to where I wish to reside.” The Ipswich selectmen gave him clearance to remain on the island, but in June, 1966 the Massachusetts State Department of Natural Resources officers served him notice under eminent domain and burned Helfant’s shack to the ground. He died in Chelsea the following November at age 49.
Jack Helfant, 49, Hermit of Plum Island
Jack Helfant, 49, of 123 Addison st., Chelsea, the former “Hermit of Plum Island,” died Monday at his home. Helfant resided in a makeshift shack of driftwood and debris on the Ipswich end of the island from June 1962 until he was evicted by the government in 1966. The ex-Army career man arrived at Rowley Wharf, Rowley, in 1962, in the first of a fleet of three cabs loaded with boxes, battered suitcases, yards of used canvas and tarpaulin, pots, pans, nails, boards and firearms. Half his equipment was lost when a makeshift raft, used to carry the load along the Plum Island River, floundered and his tired rowboat began to sink.
Helfant began construction of his tent-house immediately and, with his mongrel collie, Princie, began a four-year term of residence marked by controversy and legal action.- ‘ Because his furniture included two rifles and a shotgun and because Princie’s bark was far from friendly, he had few visitors other than the three grocery boys who delivered his food each week.
In 1963, Ipswich selectmen gave him clearance to remain on the island following a series of complaints by summer residents protesting the hermit’s presence on the island as creating unsanitary conditions. The State Department of Natural Resources in 1965 acquired leases for 83 acres of the land, including that occupied by Helfant. Helfant received notice that Summer to leave his squattings to make room for a recreation area. But wind, cold and snow of three Winters weren’t enough to discourage him, and neither was the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He said he had squatter’s rights because he was “shipwrecked” on the island when his raft capsized.
During the next year, Helfant built a houseboat of driftwood and oil tanks. He had built three such vessels previously, all of which ended up as firewood. In June, 1966 State Department of Natural Resources officers, armed with a bulldozer, gasoline, matches and an eminent domain title, moved in and burnt the shack to the ground. Helfant waded out, climbed aboard his houseboat and rode out 40 feet until he ran aground on a sandbar. Officials tried, but were unable to launch the mired craft. He stayed on the boat off Sandy Point until January, when he was admitted to Chelsea Naval Hospital with a heart condition and the latter-day Robinson Crusoe was forced to return to the quiet life.
He was born in Chelsea, graduated from Chelsea High School in 1936, and served in the Army Medical Corps for 20 years. He retired from service as a staff sergeant after serving in World War II and Korea. He leaves two brothers, Eli of Groton and Myer of Revere; and a sister, Mrs. Lillian Simonelli of Chelsea, with whom he made his home. Services will be at the Torf funeral chapel, Chelsea. Burial will be in Everett.