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|
Credits: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of, http://www.newenglandlighthouses.net/, 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).