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.

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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