A rocky romance with the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse
They’re no longer needed for navigation — GPS changed that — but people are still loving lighthouses
It takes some oomph (just check out those circular stairs at right), but getting to the top of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse is worth it. “I think it’s the best view on the Seacoast,” says Jeremy D’Entremont.
He should know. D’Entremont has climbed the stairs many times since he founded the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses in 2001. Its goal — to help preserve the lighthouse, gather its history and share it with the public. The mission also includes nearby Whaleback Lighthouse, which is on a rocky island with treacherous currents and not yet accessible.
The Friends were granted a license to care for the lighthouse by the Coast Guard, which took over the management of the country’s lighthouses in 1939. When marine GPS navigation systems were developed, the role of lighthouses was less critical. And, without funds for preservation, D’Entremont says the Coast Guard has been gradually getting out of the business of caring for the structures. Now, nonprofit groups like the Friends, and government entities like cities and towns and the National Park Service do the preserving.
What they’re preserving is a rich history that goes back to 1771. That’s when the first harbor lighthouse, lit with an iron lantern, was built in New Castle. ( It would be rebuilt twice, the last iteration in 1878. ) As an indication of how thriving the Portsmouth area was at the time, it was the first one built in the colonies north of Boston. It stood as a sentinel in 1774 during what is considered one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War — the colonists’ raid on nearby Fort William and Mary (now called Fort Constitution).
The lighthouse had resident keepers until 1948, when the Coast Guard took over its operation. Those keepers are a large part of D’Entremont’s long-standing fascination with lighthouses. “Lighthouses took over my life years ago,” he says. “They’re beautiful, and they have a mystique. But for me it mostly comes down to the human history, what it was like for the keepers who lived there, how hard they had to work.”
One of the keepers, Joshua Card, there from 1874 to 1909, is said to haunt the lighthouse. D’Entremont says he’s never seen Card’s ghost, but he’s pretty sure he heard him: “At the top of the stairs, I heard a voice say, ‘Hello.’ My wife heard it too. His spirit is very much with us, either literally or figuratively.”
Haunted tours are one way the Friends raise money to continue to preserve the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and (hopefully soon) to implement their plans to restore the Whaleback Lighthouse. For more information, visit portsmouthharborlighthouse.org.