New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse (a.k.a. Fort Point Light, Newcastle Light, Fort Constitution Light) is among the oldest light stations in the U.S., dating back to 1771. The present 1877 cast iron tower, adjacent to the U.S. Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor and the Fort Constitution Historic Site, is now leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). A chapter of ALF, the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, look after the tower and run monthly open houses in summer. The old keeper’s house, located just inside the granite outer walls of Fort Constitution, is now used by the Coast Guard for offices.
In 1948 a lifesaving station on Wood Island, offshore near the mouth of the Piscataqua River, was closed down and the operations were relocated to the site of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Coast Guard crews moved into the 1872 lighthouse keeper’s house, and the Lighthouse Service era in Portsmouth Harbor came to a close. The last in the line of U.S. Lighthouse Service keepers at the station was Elson Small, who retired from the station in 1948 after about 30 years at various lighthouses, mostly in Maine. Keeper Small’s wife Connie, now 101 years old, is familiar to readers of Lighthouse Digest as the “First Lady of Light” and the author of the book The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife. Connie’s duties at Portsmouth Harbor Light included flying weather signal flags.
Portsmouth Harbor Light was not automated until 1960. So who switched the light on and off and kept an eye on things between 1948 and 1960? William H. (Bill) Johnson, Jr. of Newport News, Virginia, was the cook at the Portsmouth Harbor Lifeboat Station, as it was then called, from 1956 to 1959, and he has provided some interesting photos and details from that era.
Johnson’s memories of the station and its personnel are sharp and clear. There was a lookout tower during that period that stood near the shoreline, not far from the lighthouse. According to Johnson, the tower was “similar to the towers that are used in national forests for fire lookouts” and was approximately 50 feet high. There were two radios and a telephone switchboard in the tower. “We stood watch in the lookout tower and recorded all boats entering and leaving the harbor and monitored the radios and telephone switchboard.” Johnson explains,
About the lighthouse he recalls, “The responsibility for turning on the light fell upon whoever was on watch at the time. The person on watch also turned the light on a half-hour before sunset each day.”
There was a fog bell and striking mechanism mounted on the side of the lighthouse facing the Piscataqua River until 1972. Johnson remembers, “When it was foggy the watchstander had to hand crank the bell mechanism every two hours before it would completely unwind. The watchstander would shift the radios and telephones to the main office when he came down from the tower to turn on the light or crank up the bell mechanism. To insure the watchstander didn’t fall asleep, he was required to punch a clock every ten — or was it eight — minutes.” Today the old fog bell is displayed outside the main building of Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor.
There was also a storm warning tower near the keeper’s house “It had three red lights,” says Johnson. “They would be lit at night to warn of storms, hurricanes, and so on. Storm flags also would be flown. A long red pennant would be flown at the top as a small craft warning”
Bill Johnson would love to hear from any of the crew stationed at the Portsmouth Harbor Lifeboat Station in the late 1950s, and the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse are always looking for any material and photos relating to the history of the lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
March 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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