Isles of Shoals, a cluster of nine islands located several miles off
the seacoast of New Hampshire, were described by Robert Thayer Sterling
in Maine Lighthouses and the Men Who Keep Them as
"a low lying group apparently composed of masses of tumbled granite
bleached white by the unceasing beating of the storm king and the glare
of the blazing sun."
The islands were frequented by European fishermen
for years before Capt. John Smith explored them in 1614. Smith named
the islands "Smith's Isles" after himself.
According to some accounts, fishermen named the
islands after their resemblance to a school, or shoal, of fish. Others
say the name originated beacuse of the "shoaling," or schooling, of
fish, especially mackerel and herring, around them. The area remained
an important fishing center for
In May 1820, Congress authorized $5000 for a lighthouse
in the Isles of Shoals. The local customs collector, Timothy Upham,
surveyed the islands with some local ship captains in the following
Upham wrote a letter to Stephen Pleasanton, who was in
charge of the nation's lighthouses:
After examining carefully all the islands, rocks and shoals, it was the
opinion of the gentlemen present that White Island, the
southwestern-most of the group, laying in a direct line between Cape
Ann (the most prominent headland on this coast) and Portsmouth harbor,
was the most suitable, and in fact, the only proper place on which to
erect a lighthouse. This island is uninhabited and belongs to New
The first lighthouse in the Isles of Shoals was subsequently built
on White Island in 1820, and it went into service in January 1821. It
was a stone tower, later encased with wood
called for the builders, carpenter Jonathan Folsom and mason William
Palmer, to construct a 40-foot tower of "undressed stone, laid in good
lime mortar," with a diameter at the base of 22 feet and 10.5 feet at
the top. Winslow Lewis installed the original wrought-iron lantern and
lighting equipment, which consisted of 15 lamps arranged in a
triangular framework. The lighthouse's original characteristic was
unusually patriotic, with red, white, and blue flashes. The blue flash
was discontinued in the 1830s because of its relatively poor
The colored lights were originally produced by the use of colored
liquid in "globe tubes." That system was replaced by colored glass
panels in the lantern by sometime in the 1830s. The original lantern
was replaced by a new octagonal iron lantern in 1836. The work was
again performed by Winslow Lewis.
The nation's first fog bell, at West Quoddy Head in Maine, had just
been established a few months earlier. White Island received a fog bell
that was mounted with striking machinery inside the lighthouse tower.
The 806-pound bell was cast by Joseph W. Revere, the son of Paul
Revere. The bell could not be heard above the thunderous surf, so it
was discontinued in 1823.
The first keeper was Clement Jackson, a local merchant. Jackson had to
pay a helper, and his requests for a raise went unheeded. When he
resigned in 1824, Jackson was succeeded by a native Shoaler, shipmaster
Benjamin Haley. Haley was only 33 years old when he died in 1829.
Joseph L. Locke of Rye, New Hampshire, was the keeper from 1829 to
1839. Locke and his wife
had six children when they moved to the island, and three more were
born during Locke's decade as keeper. He sometimes hired other people
to help with the lightkeeping duties, and there were complaints that
the keeper was often away on the mainland.
I received the following message from Joe Kenick Jr. in July 2011:
now 101-year-old Mom has taught us that a White Island light keeper in
the 1830s was William Randall. His wife, Eliza G. Randall, died
at age 40 in September 1836 leaving him with a very young baby.
told he rowed her body over to Star and wrote in his journal, "There
isn't enough dirt on White Island to bury a mackerel." She is
next to one of the young Caswell women and has head and foot stones
that match several of the Caswell ones.
Randall turned his infant son over to his (or Eliza's, I'm vague on
this) sister who was married into the Waldron family. That baby, known
as Benjamin Franklin Waldron became the father of Mina Waldron Frost
Fifield, who became the mother of my Mom, Pualine Fifield Kenick.
I visit the Shoals I visit her grave, bring flowers and pray
In 1838, this was nearly one of the first American
lighthouses to have a Fresnel lens installed, but it was decided that
the tower was too low for a satisfactory test of the lens.
In October 1839, Thomas Laighton (1805-1866) became
keeper. He and his brother Joseph had bought four of the islands in
the Isles of Shoals including the largest, Hog (later known as
Appledore), and Smuttynose. Laighton was a former selectman and New
Hampshire state senator.
White Island Lighthouse, circa late 1850s
Laighton and his wife, Eliza,
moved to White Island with their two children, Oscar and Celia. In 1841
a baby, Cedric, was born to the Laightons at the lighthouse.
On his arrival, Laighton wrote in his journal:
The internal apparatus
and machinery of the Lighthouse require some attention. The reflectors
are so much worn and otherwise injured that I should think quite one
half of the light from the lamps is absorbed . . . The machinery for
turning the apparatus connected with the lamps is cumbrous and
constantly liable to disorder. . .
lantern and lighting apparatus were installed in late 1840 by Winslow
Lewis. In 1842, engineer I.W.P. Lewis
inspected the station and reported, "The whole construction of the
apparatus bears the mark of rude workmanship." The lamps and reflectors
weren't replaced by a more efficient Fresnel lens until 1855.
Laighton's daughter, Celia, later gained
widespread fame as Celia Thaxter, poet and author. In her book, Among
the Isles of Shoals,
she described the family's arrival at White Island:
It was at sunset in autumn that we were
set ashore on that loneliest, lovely rock, where the lighthouse looked
down on us like some tall, black-capped giant, and filled me with awe
and wonder. At its base a few goats were grouped on the rock, standing
out against the red sky as I looked up at them...
Some one began to light the lamps in
the tower. Rich red and golden, they swung around in mid-air;
everything was strange and fascinating and new.
She wrote about an evening visit to the water's edge:
High above, the lighthouse rays streamed out
into the humid dark, and the cottage windows were ruddy from the glow
within. I felt so much a part of the Lord's universe, I was no more
afraid of the dark than the wave or the winds.
Storms frequently swept over White Island. One
particularly severe gale struck in December 1839. During the storm, the
was wrecked on a nearby sandbar and all aboard perished. The memory of
this incident inspired Celia Thaxter's poem, The Wreck of the
Pocahontas, which read, in part:
- I lit the
lamps in the
- For the sun dropped down
and the day
- They shone like a
- Ten golden and five red.
- Like all the demons
loosed at last,
- Whistling and shrieking,
wild and wide,
- The mad wind raged, while
- Rolled in the rising
- The thick storm seemed to
- To show us, staggering to
- The fated brig. We had no
- To look, for naught could
When Whig William Henry Harrison was elected president in
1840, Laighton, who was an active Democrat, lost his job. Joseph
Cheever served as keeper from 1841 until Laighton was re-appointed in
1843. During that time, Laighton and his family lived on Smuttynose
Island. Richard Henry Dana,
author of Two Years Before the Mast,
visited during Cheever's tenure in August 1843 and wrote in Vacation Rambles:
took me over to his lighthouse, and as the weather looked rather
threatening, I consented to spend the night. His wife is a very pretty
young woman, under thirty, and he has three children. . . He has taken
great pains to perform his duties well, and being an intelligent,
temperate man . . . has filled his place better than it has ever been
filled. . . His salary is $600 per annum, out of which he has to pay
for an assistant whom he is obliged to keep always on the island in
case of sickness or accident to himself, and to support his family.
Lately the collector of the customs at Portsmouth, by whom he is
appointed, had him removed and a Tyler man put in his place. Cheever
now trembles in his shoes and is urtterly at a loss to know what to do.”
Laighton was back as keeper a short time later. In times of
rough weather, the residents of White Island
were frequently cut off from the mainland. A pilot boat brought mail
and supplies every week or ten days. Once a year Eliza Laighton
traveled to Portsmouth to buy materials to make clothing for her
family. A few times a year the lighthouse inspector would come,
bringing oil for the lamps and other supplies, sometimes including a
barrel of pork.
Celia's brother, Oscar Laighton, wrote about his
childhood on White Island in his book, Ninety Years at the
Isles of Shoals:
Many people have said, 'You must have been
very lonely at the Light.' They did not know that where our mother
dwelt there was happiness also. I am sure no family was ever more
united and contented than the Laightons on White Island.
As a young girl, Celia
learned to help her father light the lamps and polish the reflectors
and lantern glass. The Laightons eventually moved to the much larger
island of Appledore, where they operated a hotel for many years. The
hotel's guests included Longfellow, Emerson, and Whittier. Levi Thaxter
tutored the Laighton children; he and Celia eventually married.
author Nathaniel Hawthorne visited White Island with Celia Thaxter's
husband, Levi Thaxter, on September 9, 1852. The keeper at the time was
L. H. D. Shepard. Hawthorne's description of the visit appears in his American Note-Books:
Thaxter rowed me this morning, in his dory, to White Island, on which
is the lighthouse. There was scarcely a breath of air, and a perfectly
calm sea; an intensely hot sunshine, with a little haze, so that the
horizon was indistinct. Here and there sail-boats sleeping on the
water, or moving almost imperceptibly over it. The lighthouse island
would be difficult of access in a rough sea, the shore being so rocky.
On landing, we found the keeper peeling his harvest of onions, which he
had gathered prematurely, because the insects were eating them. His
little patch of garden seemed to be a strange kind of soil, as like
marine mud as anything; but he had a fair crop of marrow squashes,
though injured, as he said, by the last storm; and there were cabbages
and a few turnips. I recollect no other garden vegetables. The grass
grows pretty luxuriantly, and looked very green where there was any
soil; but he kept no cow, nor even a pig nor a hen. His house stands
close by the garden,--a small stone building, with peaked roof, and
whitewashed. The lighthouse stands on a ledge of rock, with a gulley
between, and there is a long covered way, triangular in shape,
connecting his residence with it. We ascended into the lantern, which
is eighty-seven feet high. It is a revolving light, with several great
illuminators of copper silvered, and colored lamp-glasses. Looking
downward, we had the island displayed as on a chart, with its little
bays, its isthmus of shingly beach connecting two parts of the island,
and overflowed at high tide; its sunken rocks about it, indicated by
the swell, or slightly breaking surf. The keeper of the light-house was
formerly a writing-master. He has a sneaking kind of look, and does not
bear a very high character among his neighbors. Since he kept the
light, he has lost two wives--the first a young creature whom he used
to leave alone upon this desolate rock, and the gloom and terror of the
situation were probably the cause of her death.
The second wife,
same kind of treatment, ran away from him, and returned to her friends.
He pretends to be religious, but drinks. About a year ago he attempted
to row out alone from Portsmouth. There was a head wind and head tide,
and he would have inevitably drifted out to sea, if Mr. Thaxter had not
we were standing in his garden-patch, I heard a woman's voice inside
the dwelling, but know not whose it was.
A new 58-foot brick lighthouse tower was built on
White Island in 1859. The new tower was fitted with a second-order
A duplex keeper's house built in 1878 was removed
by the Coast Guard in the 1950s. When the dwelling was built, the
original keeper's house was converted into a storage building.
There was an amazing rescue at White Island one winter
mid-1800s. John Bragg Downs was temporarily acting as keeper,
with a friend as his assistant. The two men were at the lighthouse when
a severe blizzard hit, with blinding snow and heavy seas covering the
island. One night, much to their shock, there was a knock at the door.
Light c. 1870s
When they opened the door, the men discovered a
lone sailor, dressed in tattered rags and bleeding from many wounds.
The man had somehow come ashore from a brig wrecked on the rocks.
After a great deal of effort, Downs ventured out
on a ledge and managed to get a line to the rest of the crew on the
vessel. He then tied the line around himself. Downs wedged himself into
a crevice, and every man managed to get ashore from the sinking ship.
The fog bell at White Island was replaced by a
new bell and striking machinery in 1906. The bell was replaced later by
powerful air siren.
James Burke, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire,
was the keeper from 1894 to 1912. Burke was credited with many rescues
during his years at White Island. He once helped 16 women whose
pleasure boat had capsized near the island. On another occasion, he
saved three persons whose boat was sinking fast. He also rescued four
crewmen from the Bangor schooner Medford
after they had drifted for four days in an open
Keeper Burke's wife shared some thoughts in a
newspaper article in May 1905:
am feeling much better since the beautiful springtime has come. The
mornings are delightful here now, the birds are giving their morning
songs, and that seems to put new life into one; while the sun, as it
peeps out of the sea so early these fine mornings, seems to bring new
strength to go forward to aid life's duties.
- James Burke
Coast Guard photo
through the short days of winter I was kept busy, as we had the
assistant to board with us, and my daughter Emma, being away this
winter, made more steps for me to take. Since that time I have had
three men sent by the government to repair what the sea washed to
pieces in the heavy storms of winter. The storms were beautiful to
watch from the windows, but little [daughter] Lucy was so afraid that
she cried with fright, and I kept her in the sitting room, busy cutting
out paper dolls, until the storm subsided. Sheets of salt water would
strike the windows and sound like the fiercest hailstorm.
Keeper Burke made local newspaper headlines in January
1911 when he kept
the light going for six nights through extraordinary circumstances. His
wife was ill with pneumonia and the assistant keeper, Gordon Sullivan,
was away on shore leave. Burke fell seriously ill, but he crawled to
the lantern on his hands and knees to keep the light going each night.
Burke tried to signal for help, to no avail. When
to the island and found the Burkes in a dire situation, he alerted
Captain Joseph Staples of the lifesaving station on Appledore Island. A
tugboat was summoned and the Burkes soon received medical attention on
lighthouse station's kitchen, circa 1950.
Shoreliner, September 1950.
Left: Notice to Mariners concerning a chnage in the light
characteristic in March 1931.
Larrabee was the officer in charge in the early 1950s
Coast Guard keepers John Parks and Bill Cannon in
After the Coast Guard took over at White
Island, three men were assigned to the station. Harold Roberts was one
of the crewmen in 1956-58. He later wrote the following:
winter of 1956, we
were experiencing one of those rare days
at the Isles of Shoals when the sun was shining and the sea was
placid, but it was still bitter cold. I decided to take the small
double ended peapod dinghy we used to get on and off the island and row
around to the back of the island to get close to the seals that often
on the rocks sunning themselves on such days. This day there was a
larger number of seals lying on the rocks and I hoped I could get close
to them without arousing them.
As I rowed around the back side
of the island about 200 yards out I suddenly heard a roaring noise to
my right. A huge wave, a groundswell about 20 feet high, was coming
right at me. I swung the bow of the boat into the wave but not fast
enough to prevent the boat from being overturned and me being dumped
into the ocean.
The water was
bitter cold and I was clothed with heavy foul weather gear including
heavy rubber boots. The weight of my boots filling with water pulled me
down and prevented me from using my legs to kick myself to the surface.
Judging from the pressure in my ears I must have sank at least 15 feet
before I started slowly rising to the surface. The air trapped in my
jacket saved me from being pulled down to the bottom. As soon as I
broke surface I started to sink again. My hands were so
frozen I could not unclasp the boots that were preventing me from
swimming. I knew I was in grave danger of drowning. In desperation and
fear called out to God to save me. A moment later, the capsized dingy
suddenly appeared right next to me. I was able to hold on to the boat
to stay afloat. My next and most immediate problem was the cold. I was
freezing to death. I was aware that a man can't stay alive very long
exposed to those conditions. The other problem was I was several
hundred yards off the island and no one knew I was in trouble. Charlie
Martin and I were alone on the island and he was unaware of my
I must have fallen
asleep from the cold and was not aware that the boat with me clinging
half conscious to the side had drifted to the island and a gentle swell
pushed us into the rocks. I had enough strength to climb up out of the
water and make my way to the keeper’s house. Charley Martin was in the
kitchen when I came in the door. I must have looked frozen, which I
Charlie got blankets for me to help me recover my body heat.
To this day I
believe it was divine intervention that saved my life on that bitter
cold winter day on the Isles of Shoals.
Kevin Murphy was one of the Coast Guard keepers
1982-83. In an email in
August 2009, he wrote, "While I have no horrific storm stories to tell,
we certainly had our
share of storms and there where times we would get stuck out on the
island for a month because we couldn’t get the dory off the island.
Occasionally we had to be air lifted off the island which I thought
was kind of fun!"
Murphy said he enjoyed his time on the island and
he was happy to see that local people are working for the preservation
the light station's buildings.
Glenn Young of York, Maine, was a machinery
technician when he was in the Coast Guard. He was stationed on the
island during a memorable storm in March 1984. As 35-foot waves crashed
against the lighthouse and keeper's house, the crewmen calmly watched
About once an hour, Young went to check the light.
To do so he had to go through an enclosed wooden walkway between the
house and tower. Waves were washing right over the walkway and water
was pouring through the cracks, so Young had to wait for the waves to
recede before running the length of the walkway. The storm did much
damage at the station and deposited a 3 1/2-ton boulder on the
The boat ramp and peapod
Rick Bennett and Kevin Madison
were among the last
Coast Guardsmen at White Island. In the summer, the men would visit the
inhabitants of the other islands nearby. Storms sometimes made it very
difficult for the crew to land at White Island.
Kevin Madison says that although the
automation of White Island Light was sad in a way, it was also very
interesting. The Coast Guard crew spent three months working with a
civilian crew from Portland on the automation process.
After the automation, the Coast
Guard keepers were
removed. A couple of years later, the huge Fresnel lens was replaced by
aerobeacons. The present VLB-44 LED-type optic is solar-powered.
Hurricane Bob and the ferocious
"Perfect Storm" of
October 1991 washed away the walkway from the tower to the house, as
well as the old fog signal tower.
This video was shot by
one of the Coast Guard lighthouse keepers during the blizzard of
February 6-7, 1978. It was probably shot from the keeper's house. You
can see a storage shed being moved around by the waves that are
reaching far up onto the island. Courtesy of Sue Reynolds, The
of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire conducting a tern count on
In 1993, White Island became the property of the
State of New Hampshire. The keeper's house has been used in recent
years by personnel of the Audubon
Society of New
Hampshire, who have implemented a tern
restoration project on adjacent Seavey Island.
Over the years, the lighthouse tower developed
major cracks in its exterior, mostly on the northeast side that bears
the brunt of storms.
The good news is that seventh grade students in
North Hampton, New Hampshire, along with a teacher, Sue Reynolds, have
worked to save the lighthouse. You can see the website of the "Lighthouse
On April 30, 2003, Senator
Judd Gregg of New Hampshire announced that a matching grant of $250,000
in federal funds from the Save America's Treasures program was awarded
for the restoration of the White Island Lighthouse.
On June 22, 2005, the Lighthouse Kids
presented New Hampshire Governor John Lynch with a check for $110,000.
In accepting the check, the state authorized the Division of Parks and
Recreation to expend the money for conservation and restoration of the
White Island Light Station.
of the cracks on the tower's exterior in 2002
Some of the
"Lighthouse Kids" on a trip to White Island, June 20, 2002
|The check represented
money the Lighthouse Kids raised through corporate and private
fundraising, foundation grants and merchandise sales. It was combined
with a portion of the $250,000 Save America's Treasures grant and state
funds to allow a full restoration of the tower and a partial
restoration of the keeper's house.
The work was done during the summer of 2005 by Ricci Construction of
Portsmouth, NH, J. B. Leslie Company of South Berwick, Maine, and F. A.
Gray Company of Portsmouth.
The Lighthouse Kids measured the cracks in
the lighthouse on October 10, 2002
Local businesses pitched in to help the
Kids in downtown Portsmouth, NH, April 8, 2005
The keeper's house was reroofed and painted, and
rotting woodwork was replaced. The renovations stopped water leaks that
had plagued the house in recent years.
More than 1,000 bricks were replaced in the tower
during the 2005 restoration. The brick courses were strengthened with
the addition of stainless steel ties, and the entire tower received a
protective layer of stucco. The glass block windows in the tower were
replaced by windows that are more like the original ones.
A northeast storm in mid-April 2007 did much
damage on the island. The walkway was demolished, and the solar panels
for the light were swept away.
In early 2008, the rotating VRB-25 optic that had
been in use at White Island for several years was replaced by a
light emitting diode unit (LED).
The walkway between the tower and house was rebuilt
using FEMA funds in the summer of 2011.
An aerial view of
Star Island with White Island in the background.
The lighthouse in June 2007, after the covered
walkway was demolished by a storm in April
- The walkway between the
tower and house was being reconstructed when this photo was taken in
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Jackson (1820-1824); Benjamin Haley (1824-1829); William Godfrey
(unofficial assistant hired by Haley, c. 1828-1829); Joseph
L. Locke (1829-1839); William Randall (unofficial assistant hired by
Locke, c. 1830s?); Asa Caswell(unofficial assistant hired by
Locke, c. 1832); Thomas Laighton (1839-1841, 1843-1849); Joseph Cheever
(1841-1843); Ben Whaling
(employee of Thomas Laighton, c.1839-1849); Fabius Becker
(unofficial keeper hired by Thomas Laighton, c.1846-1849); L. H. D.
Shepard (1849-1855); Richard G. Haley
(1855-1861); Otis F. Haley (assistant, 1859-1861); John Bragg Downs (c.
1850, temporary keeper); Alfred J. Leavitt (1861-1866); Jonathan
Godfrey (assistant, 1861-1863); Alonzo D. Berry (assistant, 1863-1864);
Albert S. Perkins (assistant, 1864-1866); John E. Hoyt (assistant,
1866-1867); Alonzo Wise (1866-1869); George Balch (assistant,
1867-1868); John L. Allen (assistant, 1867-1868); Wiliam H. White
(assistant, 1868-1869); Frank A. Otis (assistant, 1868-1870); Joshua
Bickford (1869); Jonathan W. Berry (1869-1874); Abram Mathes (?)
(assistant, 1869-1871); Thomas J. Varrell (assistant, 1870); George
Chaplin (assistant, 1871); ? Gray (assistant, 1870); ? A. Yeaton
(assistant, 1872); Parsons (?) Locke (assistant, 1872-1873); Charles H.
Ramsdell (second assistant, 1873); Franklin R. Bragden (assistant,
1874-1876); Israel P. Miller (1874-1876); Edwin J. Hobbs (1876-1880);
Alden W. P. White (assistant, 1876-1877, 1880); David R. Grogan
James Burke (1894-1912); Elias Tarlton, Jr. (assistant, 1884-1890);
Thomas H. Barber (assistant, 1890-1891); Walter S. Amee (assistant,
1893); John Scannell (assistant, 1893-1894); John A. Hall (assistant,
1894-1896); Wallace S. Chase (assistant, 1897); William M. Brooks
(assistant, 1897); Gordon A. Sullivan (assistant, 1909-1912); Alvah
Robinson (assistant, c. 1914?); Edwin A. Pettegrow (c. early 1920s);
Gleason Colbeth (assistant, c. 1920s); John Olsen (c. 1920s); Albert
Staples (1926-1930); Charles U. Gardner (Coast Guard relief
keeper, c, 1942-1943) ; Douglas Larrabee (c. 1945-1950); Bill Cannon
Guard, c. 1948-1950); John Parks (Coast Guard, c, 1948-1950); Charles
Martin (c. 1956-1958); Harold Roberts (c. 1956-1958); Anthony Cherico
(c. 1956-1958); Allan Petersen (USCG Officer in Charge, 1961-1962); BM1
Ira Machon (Coast Guard Officer in Charge, c. 1965-1966); ? Gordon,
USCG (1968-1970); Bruce Blanchard (Coast Guard EN2, 1968-70); Bob
Larson (Coast Guard, 1972-1974); Ron Tinkham (Coast Guard, 1972-1974);
John C. Waterman (Coast Guard, c. 1977-1978); PO1 Rick Loster, USCG
Officer in Charge (8/1983-6/1984); FN Kevin Murphy (Coast Guard,
1982-1983); PO3 Joel Wood (Coast Guard, c. 1983); Jeff Jones,
(Coast Guard, c. 1983); Scott Powell, (Coast Guard, c. 1983); Glenn
Young (Coast Guard, c. 1984); Rick Bennett, (Coast Guard, c. 1986);
Kevin Madison, (Coast Guard, c. 1986)