CREDITS: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont for providing much of the history one can find on this site. He is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England. For a story on Jeremy or to visit his site (New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide), use the corresponding link in the right hand information bar under "Related Links".

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I have set up this site as a means to share my photographs of lighthouses. Since retiring and finding more time to study photography, my interests have expanded a little. For some of my work other than lighthouses please enjoy my Facebook page at, John Shaw Photography. Come visit, enjoy, and 'LIKE' if you wish.

Also, for your enjoyment, I have provided a slideshow of our journey. To view it please use the link on the right under 'Site Navigation Tools'.

I sincerely hope you enjoy my efforts and use my site not only for information and education but also to provide directions for many enjoyable, inspirational visits to the beacons along our beautiful coas.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

    The large, well-protected harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the Piscataqua River, was an important port in colonial America. It remains New Hampshire's only deep water port. As early as 1721 some concerned citizens of Portsmouth petitioned for a lighthouse, but repeated efforts failed. Royal Governor John Wentworth told the Provincial Assembly in April 1771:,,"Every future expiring cry of drowning mariner upon our coast will bitterly accuse the unfeeling Recusant that wastes life to save a paltry unblessed shilling."

     A wooden lighthouse was soon established at Fort William and Mary on Great Island, in what is now the town of New Castle in Portsmouth Harbor, about a mile from the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Construction began in April and the tower was first lighted by early July of 1771. The shingled tower was about 50 feet tall and was topped by an iron lantern with a copper roof, with the light produced by three oil lamps made of copper.

      It was the first light station established at a military installation of the British colonies of the present United States, the 10th of 11 light stations established in the colonies before the American Revolution, and the first lighthouse in the American colonies north of Boston. A lantern on a mast had been proposed at first but was deemed "impracticable."

     In December 1774, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth from Boston to warn the colonists of British plans to reinforce Fort William and Mary. The colonists raided the fort and successfully made off with supplies. This is considered by some to be one of the first battles of the American Revolution. Ammunition taken from Fort William and Mary was used against the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

     The fortifications became known as Fort Constitution after the Revolution. The lighthouse has been known by various names: Portsmouth Harbor Light, New Castle Light, Fort Point Light and Fort Constitution Light.

     It appears that the lighthouse was not lit from 1774 to 1784, although it did serve as a lookout post in the defense of Portsmouth during the Revolution. In 1784, the tower was renovated and relighted. The lighthouse was transferred to the federal government in 1791, and in 1793 President George Washington ordered that the light be maintained at all times, with a keeper living on site.

     A new 80-foot octagonal wooden Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse was constructed in 1804, 100 yards east of the 1771 tower on a spot called Pollock Rock. The contractor was Benjamin Clark Gilman, a native of nearby Exeter, New Hampshire, who was said to have "remarkable mechanical ability."

     The keeper had a difficult time with soldiers stealing his supplies and the sound of cannon fire from the fort breaking the dwelling's windows.

     In 1826, a fire started in the lighthouse lantern and spread quickly. The blaze was extinguished by the soldiers. The U.S. Treasury Department paid $20 to the company for replacement of their fire-damaged clothing.

      Engineer I.W.P. Lewis visited Portsmouth Harbor Light in 1842 and reported that the lighthouse was "an excellent piece of carpentry, and will bear favorable comparison with its more modern neighbors." Lewis also offered the opinion that the "height of the tower might be advantageously reduced to 30 feet." He pointed out that the light was not as important as it once was since the establishment of Whaleback Light in 1831. The tower was shortened to 55 feet in 1851.

     The keeper's house was relocated in the 1850s to a location near the remains of the Walbach Tower, a structure built in 1814 (near the present public parking area outside the gate to the Coast Guard staton).

     The present house was built in 1872 on the foundation of the previous house, and it has been moved twice to make room for Battery Farnsworth (1897) and Battery Hackleman (1906). Since 1906 it has been within the granite Civil War-era walls of Fort Constitution.

      A new 48-foot cast-iron lighthouse tower was erected in 1878 on the same foundation as the previous tower. In fact, the new lighthouse was actually assembled inside the old one, which was eventually removed.

     The cast-iron lighthouse was still rare in New England when the Portsmouth tower was built. The present tower is a handsome example of the durable, low-maintenance brick-lined cast iron lighthouses developed by the Lighthouse Board.

     According to a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places:  "Distinctive ornamental features not found on pre-1870s lighthouses are the Italianate hoodmolds projecting above arched window openings and the brackets supporting the iron-balustraded platform for the lantern which houses the light."

     The lighthouse was painted a reddish-brownish color until 1902, when it was painted white. Apparently for a time in the early 1920s it was again painted reddish-brown. Since then it has been white.

     The 1903 oil house was abandoned for some years,but it was renovated in May 2004. The $5600 renovation was paid for by the New England Lighthouse Lovers.

     The light was electrified in 1934 and automated in 1960.  The characteristic has been fixed green since 1941. Before the cylinder was installed, the light was produced by a green bulb.

      The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation and is part of the Fort Constitution Historic Site, adjacent to an active Coast Guard Station.

     In 1998 the lighthouse was made "environmentally friendly" at a cost of over $73,000. The Coast Guard had all the lead paint removed from the exterior and interior of the tower, and it was then repainted. 

     In early 2000 the American Lighthouse Foundation was issued a license to care for the lighthouse. A chapter of the foundation, the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, was founded in 2001 to care for the lighthouse, the oil house, and the wooden walkway. 

     Directions:  From I-95 or U.S. Route 1, take the waterfront exit and/or follow the signs to the Strawberry Banke area.  Follow Marcy Street (RT 1B) through this area toward New Castle;  the road becomes New Castle Avenue.  Continue on 1B into New Castle to Wentworth Avenue.  Turn left  (Ft. Constitution Historic Site sign), then bear right to the parking area.  The light can also be seen in the distance from Ft. McClary in Kittery, Maine.

          The grounds of Fort Constitution are open to the public during the day, and there is a good view of the lighthouse from the fort. Visitors are not allowed into the area near the lighthouse, except during open houses held by the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

Jeremy on Duty
      Portsmouth Harbor Light, the only mainland lighthouse on New Hampshire's 18-mile seacoast, can also be viewed from tour boats leaving Portsmouth.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Whaleback Lighthouse

      The Whaleback lighthouse marks the approach to Portsmouth harbor in New Hampshire. While it has frequently been referred to as a New Hampshire lighthouse, it is in Maine waters by about 1500 feet. It is located about a half -mile south of Gerrish Island which is part of the town of Kittery, Maine. The ledge, which is completely underwater at high tide, is actually a continuation of the southern point of Gerrish Island.

     Portsmouth, on the Piscataqua River, was an important port for shipbuilding and trade before the American Revolution. The first federal shipyard in the United States was established on the Kittery side of the Piscataqua River in 1800.  It was noted that ship wrecks occurred around the mouth of the river with sickening regularity.

      The first Whaleback Lighthouse, erected in 1829 and 1830, was so poorly built due to an unscrupulous contractor’s corner cutting that keepers often wondered during storms if the entire building would collapse into the sea. Amazingly, the structure somehow survived intact for over forty years.

     The lowest bid for the contract to build the original stone lighthouse tower and pier was $20,000 – several times what similar lighthouse in the area had cost, and in 1829 dollars more than enough to build a structure strong enough to withstand the worst of conditions. By law, Congress was forced to accept the lowest bid with no regard to the bidder’s qualifications or competence, and the building of Whaleback Ledge Lighthouse would not be the only time that this law would come back to haunt them.

      When the first stones were laid for the foundation, the contractor didn’t bother to level the ground underneath, instead filling in gaps with smaller stones. As soon as the first storm hit the lighthouse, all the small stones were washed away, leaving the foundation with no underpinning. The foundation pier, constructed of rough split granite blocks, was forty-eight feet in diameter at its base and twenty-two feet high. Atop the pier, a sloping stone tower was built to a height of thirty-two feet. The first keeper, Samuel E. Hascall, quickly discovered that the building was so leaky that he was soaked every time a wave hit the lighthouse. The tower was later cased over with wood “to prevent the keeper from being drowned out by the sea washing through all the crevices.”

     In 1837 and 1838, Congress appropriated a total of $20,000 to build a breakwater on the east side of the foundation for protection. However, after Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the founder of West Point, and noted Boston architect Alexander Paris were asked for their opinion of the lighthouse and proposed breakwater, they advised tearing the whole thing down and starting over, as no breakwater could secure the present structure. Their suggestion of an allocation of $75,000 for a new lighthouse went unheeded for over two decades, and the appropriation of $20,000 went unspent.

     In 1839, a local journal carried the following description of life at the lighthouse: “…such was the effect of the sea, that the assistants of the keeper could not hear each [other] speak when in the lantern, on account of the noise produced by the shaking of the apparatus in the lantern, when the sea struck the foundation of the light house…The reader may form some idea of the unenviable situation of the keeper…during the late storm from the fact that the building is situated on a ledge of sunken rocks, only visible during low water and about a mile from the nearest human habitation.”

     In 1842, a civil engineer named I.W.P. Lewis was commissioned to survey a number of New England lighthouses. He described the pier at Whaleback as “rudely and fraudulently constructed,” and that large swells shook the lighthouse “in the most alarming manner. The keeper asserted that the vibration was so great as to move the chairs and tables about the floor.” He went on to point out that “the advantage of employing professional men of reputation in these public works, instead of selling the contracts to the lowest bidder, cannot better be illustrated than by contrasting the construction of the light-house on Whales’s Back rock with the Saddleback tower.”

     For each year that passed and the tower somehow survived, bureaucrats in Washington became less convinced that all that money needed to be spent on a new lighthouse. They even installed a new fourth-order Fresnel lens and lantern in 1855. Iron clamps were put in place to secure the stones in the foundation pier, but they snapped off one by one. After some particularly severe storms in March of 1868, large cracks developed in the foundation. Later that year, an “iron band of six inches by two” was placed around the upper course of the stone pier, hoping it would help the structure survive the winter. An impassioned plea was also sent to Congress for funds for a new lighthouse, and Congress responded with $70,000 on July 15, 1870. The new lighthouse was to be in the style of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse, which was built to withstand conditions out in the middle of the English Channel.

      The construction site for the new tower was covered by water except at low tide, and there were entire days when the weather prevented any work being done. The new tower was built of huge granite blocks, dovetailed together and bolted to the ledge. The base of the tower was solid to a height of twenty feet above the low-water mark, and the new tower’s beacon shone at a height of 68 feet above sea level. Finished in 1872, it was built near the old pier and tower, where the keepers continued to store their boat. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was apparently transferred over from the old tower.

      But even the new tower could not resist the power of the sea; an 1886 storm broke a window in the lighthouse and almost drowned the keeper in the waves that poured in. The broken window was replaced by a solid block of granite. A metal structure was built in the lee of the tower in 1878 to house a fog signal. The old stone tower was finally removed in 1880, and “a pair of wrought-iron cranes” were attached to the west side of the fog signal building for storing the keeper’s boat. During the winter of 1888, the fog signal was in operation for about 974 hours, consuming 16,895 pounds of coal.

     Currents can be complicated and tricky in these parts – for forty years author and historian Edward Rowe Snow flew his small plane over New England lighthouses at Christmas time and air-dropped presents for the keepers. One year, Snow dropped his package at Whaleback and saw that he had missed, and the presents had fallen into the sea. He went back and made another pass, this time successful. But six weeks later, someone walking on the beach at Cape Cod found the first package washed ashore – it had traveled almost 90 miles in a straight line across Massachusetts Bay!

    The Whaleback Lighthouse was automated in 1963, when its Fresnel lens was replaced by revolving aerobeacons. In 2002, a VRB-25 optic was installed that could operate on solar power.

     In October of 2005, Whaleback Light was licensed to the American Lighthouse Foundation. This organization is working with the town of Kittery, Maine to preserve the stone tower, which still warns mariners away from its dangerous ledges with two white flashes every ten seconds. The town of Kittery is also planning on restoring the Wood Island Life Boat Station, which is located near the Whalback Ledge Lighthouse, and turning it into a maritime/lighthouse museum and education center.

     In June 2007, Whaleback Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities and was awarded to the the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in November 2008. Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF, manages Whaleback Lighthouse and is raising funds for its restoration.

      In October 2009, the Coast Guard installed a radio-activated foghorn and a modern VLB-44 light emitting diode (LED) beacon at Whaleback Lighthouse. When mariners require the assistance of the foghorn, they can tune their VHF radio to channel 79 and key their microphone five times. This action will activate a relay that powers the horn for forty-five minutes. Installation of the new beacon was prompted by the failure of tower's submarine electrical cable. The efficient LED beacon consumes less power than the VRB-25 it replaced, allowing a compact array of solar panels and batteries to power the light.

Directions:  From I-95 or U.S. Route 1 in Kittery, take ME 103 east.  Continue on ME 103 past the entrance to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the entrance to Ft. McClary.  Pass the intersection with Hoyts Island Road, bear right to the park entrance.  Or:  From I-95 or U.S. Route 1, take the waterfront exit and follow the signs to Strawberry Banke area.  Follow Marcy St.  Turn left (Ft. Constitution Historic Site sign), then bear right to parking area.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

White Island (Isles of Shoals) Lighthouse

        The Isles of Shoals are a small group of nine islands six miles off the New New England coast, straddling the border between Maine and New Hampshire. The islands were divided up in 1629 between Captain John Mason, who owned New Hampshire, and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who owned the Province of Maine. Maine ended up with five of the islands and New Hampshire the other four. The Isles of Shoals Lighthouse sits atop White Island, the most southerly of the islets.

      Although the Isles of Shoals are mostly barren and sparsely populated today, they have a lively history. They were originally named the Smith Islands, after the famous Captain John Smith who helped settle the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607. Smith had spent a number of years exploring the coast off Maine, mapping the coastline and naming many of the islands. However, these islands were the only ones he decided to put his own name on – apparently their beauty earned them a special place in Smith’s heart. Early fishermen changed the name to Shoal of Isles, reportedly because the islands resembled a shoal of fish. Later, the name became Isles of Shoals. 

       In 1623, a fishing settlement was started on the islands, and within five years there were enough people living there to support two taverns. Maine’s first church followed a few years later in 1640. Some of the resident fishermen thought the islands should be an all-male preserve. In 1647 Richard Cutt, a settler on Hog Island (now more elegantly named Appledore Island), filed an official complaint: “John Reynolds has brought his wife hither with the intention that she live and abide here, contrary to an act of court which says that no woman shall live upon the Isles of Shoals…he has also brought upon Hog Island a great stock of goats and swine which spoil the spring water…our petitioners therefore pray that the Act of Court be put in execution for the removal of women inhabiting here.” The courts ordered that the goats and swine be removed, but allowed the women to stay. 

      In 1702, the captain of a visiting French ship estimated the population of the islands to be around 500 people. During the Revolutionary War, the residents of the islands were thought to be mostly loyal to England and were forced to leave. After the war, the islands former inhabitants had settled down elsewhere and did not return to reclaim their homes.

     The first lighthouse and accompanying dwelling on the Isles of Shoals were built of rubblestone in 1822. The tower stood forty feet high, and its copper-domed birdcage lantern an additional ten feet or so above that. White Island is mostly barren rock with a very steep and rugged southern face rising eighty feet above the water. The lighthouse is located on this side of the island at the highest point above the water. Even so, the storms at this location are so fierce that the covered walkway connecting the tower to the keeper’s quarters has been completely washed away three times.

      In the election for governor of New Hampshire in 1839, Laighton applied to be keeper at the lighthouse, and was appointed in 1843 at a salary of $600 a year. Laighton had previously purchased four other islands in the group (Appledore, Smuttynose, Malaga, and Cedar Islands). Laighton’s wife, children, and hired hand did most of the actual lighthouse keeping, while Laighton attended to business on the mainland.

      In 1841, Winslow Lewis had outfitted the White Island Lighthouse with an updated lantern and lighting apparatus. The new optic consisted of a triangular frame that supported five lamps and reflectors on each face. One of the faces was covered by red glass to produce a white-red-white flashing characteristic as the frame made one revolution every three minutes and fifteen seconds. Keeper Laighton’s daughter would later become the well-known poet Celia Thaxter, who drew upon her early life at the lighthouse for some of her most inspirational work. The tower’s light was thus described by Celia in the poem “The Wreck of the Pocahontas”: 
"I lit the lamps in the lighthouse tower,
For the sun dropped down and the day was dead.
They shone like a glorious clustered flower, -
Ten golden and five red."

      After constructing a hotel on Appledore, Laighton resigned his lighthouse post in 1849 and moved his family into the hotel. Following Laighton’s death, his sons continued running the hotel until it burned down in 1914. Most of the Laighton family is buried in a family cemetery on Appledore Island, and their graves can still be seen today.

     Exposed to the full fury of the Atlantic, the original stone lighthouse began deteriorating quickly, and in 1843 it was covered in wood and shingled in an attempt to protect the stone exterior. This measure bought some time, but a replacement brick tower was built in 1855. A second-order Fresnel lens, which produced a flashing red and white light visible for 15 miles, was housed atop the new tower. 

       John Downs was serving as acting keeper at the lighthouse while the head keeper went ashore, when a gale struck one March. Late one night, when the storm had been raging a week, Downs’ friend, who was stranded with him at the lighthouse, joked, “Well, John what would you think if somebody was to knock on the door just now?” John replied, “I should think it was the devil himself, for no human being could land alive on the island tonight with that storm raging.” Shortly thereafter a rap, rap, rap at the door startled the two men. After summoning enough courage to open the door, they found a bleeding and drenched sailor who announced “Brig Ashore, sir! Right near the tower!”

     The sailor had volunteered to be lowered from the bowsprit of the grounded Russian brig and attempt to reach the lighthouse keeper. Though pummeled by waves that threatened to draw him off the rocky shore, the sailor somehow managed to claw his way to the dwelling. Downs, his friend, and the keeper succeeded in rescuing the entire crew of the brig by serving as an anchor to a line they had tossed to the vessel. 

      The original stone keeper’s dwelling was in such disrepair that the Lighthouse Board’s annual report for 1876 described it as “…so much decayed that it is scarcely habitable.” Two years later, a new wood-framed one and a half story duplex was completed for the keeper and his assistant. The old stone house was remodeled and used for storage.

     The station was equipped with a fog bell from the beginning, but it had little effect in such a location, since the strong winds on all sides masked the sound. In 1896 a larger bell was tried, but it too was deemed inadequate. An automated fog bell was installed in 1906 before a 1st-class air siren was finally placed on the island.

       The Coast Guard removed the 1878 duplex in the 1950’s and constructed a modern residence on the site of the original dwelling. Following a three-month-long automation process, Coast Guard personnel were removed from White Island in 1986. A few years later, the tower’s Fresnel lens was removed in favor of a modern beacon. 

      In 1993, White Island and a couple other islands in the group were transferred to the New Hampshire State Parks system. The station had fallen into disrepair by the start of the new millennium, but a group of local students at North Hampton School, known as the”The Lighthouse Kids”,  took on the mission of raising funds to restore the lighthouse. In April of 2003, their efforts were rewarded with a $250,000 Save America’s Treasures Grant. Through their own projects, they raised additional money, and in 2005, the tower was repaired and covered in a fresh stucco coating. At that same time the dwelling received a much needed new roof.

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