To me, lighthouses are synonymous with coastal New England.They are places of mystery surrounded by legend and light. They represent safety and strength against an angry sea. Recently, I’ve read Lighthouse Ghosts and Legends by Nina Costopoulos and Lighthouse Families by Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts. These books gave me real insight into the lives and responsibilities of lighthouse tenders and their families.
It takes a very special kind of person to endure the isolation and responsibility involved in operating a lighthouse. That light can never be allowed to go out. Some of the interesting facts I learned from these books include:
The lighthouse keepers and assistants are unsung heroes, they did more than keep the light burning, even though that could be a monumental task in itself. They kept watch from the towers for enemy ships and submarines during various wars. When a shipwreck or other sea disaster was spied from the light tower or nearby keeper’s cottage, the keepers were often the first, or the only, form of assistance available, launching small vessels in stormy seas at great peril to themselves, in an attempt to rescue survivors.
Not all lighthouse keepers are men; NE has its share of notable women keepers as well.
Many lighthouse keepers served for decades, showing unimaginable dedication to the job.
When lighthouses had space for the family of the tenders, those family members had significant related responsibilities as well. This lifestyle forevershaped the lives of all those associated with the lighthouses
Last summer, we visited 2 lighthouses in the Portland Maine area. Portland Head Light and Spring Point Head Light. We were able to tour the interior of one and the exterior of both of these. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse built in 1878, situated at the Coast Guard Station, located at Fort Constitution in New Castle NH. This lighthouse was the third lighthouse built on that site since 1771. It is only open to visitors on some Sundays during the summer. I was fortunate to catch an open house event. (Check their web site for exact dates, portsmouthharborlighthouse.org ) It was a glorious sunny day with a breeze off the ocean, perfect for sightseeing. The lantern there is still operative and continues to light Portsmouth Harbor between dusk and dawn.
A short line formed at the base of the cast iron exterior, lined with brick, structure. Just 6 visitors were allowed inside at a time. The guides generously allowed us to go to the top, all the way to the lantern room, which only holds 6 visitors and one interpreter snugly. While we awaited our turn, a volunteer explained that the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses has worked since 2001 to protect and preserve the 50-foot high lighthouse, and to make it available to the public. The ‘Friends’ is an entirely volunteer organization and they only request a modest donation from visitors. This money is all used for upkeep of the lighthouse structure.
Our guide brought our attention to 3 other buildings about one mile in this distance.
We observed 80 foot high Whaleback Lighthouse built in 1872 and nearby Wood Island Lifesaving Station built in 1908. The ‘Friends’ organization hopes to be able to raise sufficient funds to restore Whaleback and to make it available to the public someday. It’s an incredible undertaking and I wish them well in this.
Wood Island Lifesaving Station was built in 1908 and was used by the Coast Guard until the current Coast Guard Station was built inland at Fort Constitution. Wood Island Station is now abandoned and owned by the town of Kittery, Maine.
When it was our turn to enter Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, we walked up the spiral steps to the first stage, the observation room. This afforded us a 360-degree view of the surrounding land and ocean. A guide in this portion of the light explained about some of the jobs associated with ‘keeping’ a light and told us about some of the more notorious keepers of this particular light. One in particular, was a keeper of this lighthouse for 35 years. The last keeper remained at this light until it was automated in 1960 eliminating the job of the keeper there forever.
The last keeper’s wife Connie Small, wrote a book entitled, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife about her days at this and other lighthouses she’d lived at with her husband Elson Small during his career. A copy of this book is available through the Association and other resources.
If you have any interest in lighthouses, I strongly suggest you visit one near you that is open to the public. A list of these are available at the web site for the American Lighthouse Foundation, www.lighthousefoundation.org It is a special treat to be able to tour a lighthouse. Those who have worked so hard to preserve them when so many other lighthouses have been lost to history, deserve all the support we can give them.I hope you put this on your to-do list soon !