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”:
For the sun dropped down and the day was dead.
They shone like a glorious clustered flower, -
Ten golden and five red."
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.