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
upon our coast will bitterly accuse the unfeeling Recusant that wastes
life to save a paltry unblessed shilling.
Lighthouse in the late 19th century
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. The first keeper was the commandant of the
fort, John Cochran.
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
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
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
spread quickly. The blaze was extinguished by the soldiers. The U.S.
Treasury Department paid $20 to the company for replacement of their
Harbor Light c. 1870s
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,
and the lighthouse was fitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens three
sometime between 1872 and 1897, shows the present keeper's house in its
original location, near the remains of a War of 1812-era Martello
tower. (National Archives photo)
The keeper's house was relocated in the 1850s to
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
A new 48-foot cast-iron lighthouse tower was
1878 on the same foundation as the previous tower. In fact, the new
lighthouse was actually assembled inside the old one, which was
The new tower, which was designed by Army Corps
C. Duane (Lighthouse Board Engineer for Maine, New
Hampshire and Massachusetts, 1868-1879), held a fourth order Fresnel
The cast-iron segments were prepared in a Portland, Maine,
photo shows the present tower when it was still painted brown.
keeper's house had not yet been moved to its present location.
photo of the present (1878) lighthouse.
Notice the fog bell mounted at
the rear of the tower. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
fog bell is on display in front of the Coast Guard station. The bell
was in use at the lighthouse until it was replaced by a horn in 1972.
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:
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.
finials on the tops of the balustrades on
the lighthouse gallery show the fine ironwork on the tower. The
finial on the right was damaged by lightning.
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
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 keeper who served the longest at the station
was New Castle native Joshua K. Card, who retired at age 86 in 1909
after 35 years at the station.
When people would ask Keeper Card what the letter
"K" on his uniform stood for, he'd tell them, "Captain."
In all his years at the lighthouse, it was
reported that Keeper Card left the station for an extended period only
once. When he died in 1911, the Portsmouth Herald
reported that Card
. . . possessed
a huge stock of common sense, was an acute
observer, and a shrewd, yet fair-minded, judge of his fellow man. . . .
It was a great treat to listen to him as he talked of the men and women
of New Castle of the earlier days. . . . There was now and then a bit
of quaintness in his speech, which gave you to understand that here was
a man of rare powers of observation and expression.
Joshua Card is buried at the Riverside Cemetery in
Joshua K. Card (Strawbery Banke Museum)
Henry Cuskley became keeper in 1915 and remained
until 1941. Cuskley lived at the lighthouse with his wife and two
daughters. Mrs. Cuskley was famous for her Sunday dinners and raspberry
One neighbor later remembered that Mrs. Cuskley
would go into a panic when she got word that the lighthouse inspector
was coming. The neighbor said that Mrs. Cuskley 'flew around wildly
throwing things out the portholes, and I'd run out and catch what I
wanted as it flew by. I have a small table today that I caught on the
One day, while Cuskley was keeper, the destroyer Brooks
ran aground on the rocks near the lighthouse. It
was refloated a few hours later.
In 1946 Elson Small became keeper. His wife,
Connie, described the view from the top of the tower in her book, The
Lighthouse Keeper's Wife:
I looked down forty feet to the
white scallops of incoming tide washing over the rocks, caressing each
one lovingly. ...We could look up the Piscataqua River to Portsmouth,
with its gleaming white belfry of North Church, a landmark for sailors,
silhouetted against the sky. ...At the center of the harbor was
Whaleback Lighthouse, and ten miles out to sea from that was the
lighthouse on White Island, part of the Isles of Shoals. Both sent
their beams across the water.
Elson Small (courtesy of Connie Small)
In the video clip to the right, shot when
was 97, of Connie
remembered having electricity for the first time in 1946, after 26
years of life at offshore lighthouse.
One of Connie's duties at Portsmouth Harbor
was to fly weather signal flags, signalling mariners of storm or
In the video to the left, she recalled how she made
use of the signal flags after they had been damaged by the weather,
The light was electrified in 1934 and
1960. A fourth order Fresnel lens (not the original one) remains in
use, covered by a green acrylic cylinder. 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
and is part of the Fort Constitution Historic Site, adjacent to an
active Coast Guard Station.
Harbor Lighthouse circa 1970s
Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor. The main
building was erected in 1967.
former keeper's house is now used for Coast
The interior of the tower; right: The Fresnel
lens is encased in a green acrylic cylinder.
In 1998 the lighthouse was made
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. The work was done by Seacoast Diversified Inc., a
contractor from Dover, New Hampshire.
The chapter's name was changed in 2010 to
"Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses" to reflect the fact that it
was responsible for a second local lighthouse: Whaleback Light in
the top of the tower showing the oil house (left) and the 1872 keeper's
from the top of the tower, the MV Thomas Laighton
can be seen passing Fort McClary across the Piscataqua River in
The grounds of Fort Constitution are open to
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
Portsmouth Harbor Light, the only
lighthouse on New Hampshire's 18-mile seacoast, can also be viewed from
tour boats leaving Portsmouth.
Cochran (1771-1774); Mesech Bell (1784-1786); Titus Salter (1786-1793);
David Duncan (1793-1820); Allen Porter (1820-1839); Nathaniel Marston
(1839-1841); Edward T. Yeaton (1841-1843); Joseph E. Robinson
(1843-1846); John Kennard (1846-1849); William Vennard (1849-1853);
Thomas Marston (1853-1858); Richard R. Locke (1858-1861); Elias Tarlton
(1861-1866); John H. Campbell (1866-1874); Joshua Card (1874-1909);
Leander White (1909-1915); Henry Cuskley (1915-1941); Charles U.
Gardner (relief keeper, c, 1942-1943); Arnold White (1942-1946); Elson