30. Friendly Edifices: Piscataqua Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation 1771-1939

by Jane Molloy Porter

Friendly Edifices, Lighthouses, Portsmouth Marine Society

  • Nubble Light, York, ME
  • Boon Island Light, ME
  • Whale’s Back Light, Kittery, ME
  • White Island Light, Rye, NH
  • Fort Constitution Light, New Castle, NH

Lighthouses have long fascinated more people than just the mariners for whom the lights were built. The sight of a light shining through the coastal blackness seems to lend comfort and reassurance even to people who are safely ashore. Worldwide, lighthouses stir the imaginations of artists, poets, and writers.

The five lighthouses of the Piscataqua region of New Hampshire and Maine are among the most admired structures of their type in America. Nubble Light in York, Maine, is perhaps the most photographed light in the world. And Boon Island Light, just offshore from Nubble, captivated readers of Kenneth Roberts’ tale of shipwreck and cannibalism in the early 1700s.

American impressionist Childe Hassam painted White island Light at the Isles of Shoals numerous times, inspired by his friend and fellow artist, the poet Celia Thaxter who spent her childhood at the lighthouse. New Castle’s Fort Constitution Light dates back to the time of John Wentworth, New Hampshire’s last royal governor As the American Revolution began, Wentworth spent his last days in New Hampshire sheltered in the fort beneath the light’s shadow.

For author Jane Porter, these tales of tragedy, beauty, and intrigue are only the tip of the story that begins with politicians and building contractors, and continues on the lighthouse keepers and their families. The construction of a lighthouse is not a simple matter. In addition to being able to project a warning light, the structure also must be able to withstand the foul coastal weather, especially here where the North Atlantic brings crashing waves and strong winds. Before a lighthouse could be built, funds had to be authorized usually from public sources, and politicians, whether local or state or national, had to be convinced that the expenditure is warranted.

After lighthouse specifications were written, contractors had to carry out those plans. Bricks, wood, iron, and steel have supported the local lights for centuries, although four of the five lighthouses have been replaced at least once.

Finally, the lights had to be maintained, a task originally charged to a keeper and often his family lived with him. Local lighthouses had resident families for many years and often the whole family was required to assist the keeper in lighting the lamps and cleaning the protective glass. Celia Thaxer’s strongest memories were of helping her father on White Island. The romance of island living could vanish quickly when a storm threatened to extinguish the light and crashing waves sometimes shook the very structure. Now all the keepers are gone and the lights are electrified, powered directly from the shore or by solar panels on the islands. In the current era, the lights themselves have nearly become redundant because modern vessels of all sizes carry detailed charts, radar, and other navigational equipment that usually makes a visual sighting of a light unnecessary. Today lighthouses are prized more for their historical importance and pictorial beauty then for their value to mariners.

In addition to the extensive details about lighthouse construction, maintenance, and operation, the author also discusses the design and placement of various aids to navigation, such as the river and ocean buoys that protect mariners from hidden rocks and ledges, fog signals, and breakwaters that created safe harbors.

7×10, Hardcover, 568 pages, 168 illustrations, ISBN 0-915819-36-8 $35

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