Wentworth By the Sea, a historic grand resort on the tiny island of New Castle just across from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sits in the midst of history. New Castle island, was one of the earliest settlements in the state, and Portsmouth, I discover, is like a jewel box containing pure treasure.
Driving to Wentworth By the Sea, on the only road that rings the island, I pass a sign that says, "Lighthouse tours today," so I make a beeline back before it closes - and a good thing, too, because the tours are offered by volunteers only on Sunday afternoons (1-5 pm) from Memorial Day-Columbus Day.
Nestled within the US Coast Guard Station and only open to the public during limited times, the Portsmouth Harbor Light, I discover, has played an important part in the nation's history going back to the founding. In fact, it is contained within what was Fort Constitution, which dates back to colonial times and was renamed in honor of the newly adopted document.
It's always so exciting exploring lighthouses - there is mystery and a certain amount of physicality and even a small measure of dizziness as you walk up the 44 steps of the winding stair, up the 48-foot high tower. We have to wait on the landing for the previous group to open the hatch and come down before we can ascend the 7-step ladder and crowd around the fourth-order Fresnel Lens.
From here, we gaze out into the harbor, to another lighthouse, Whale Back, across the way, now totally automated because it is extremely difficult to reach. The system of forts and lighthouses that surround Portsmouth harbor, still New Hampshire's only deepwater port, is evidence of how important a port Portsmouth was in colonial America, how important it was to protect even during World War II, when German U-Boats would try to come in.
Portsmouth was founded in 1623, just three years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock The colonists had been clamoring for a lighthouse here for years and finally, in 1771, the Royal Governor John Wentworth had the lighthouse built. Construction of a wooden lighthouse at Fort William and Mary on Great Island (now the town of New Castle), about a mile from the mouth of the Piscataqua River began in April and the tower was first lighted by early July of 1771.
The shingled tower was about 50 feet tall and topped by an iron lantern with a copper roof. The light was produced by three oil lamps made of copper, and it was up to John Cochran, the commandant of the fort who became the first keeper, to make the trek twice a day to light and snuff out the light.
Remarkably (considering the modest setting and little fanfare surrounding this harbor light), the Portsmouth Harbor Light was the first light station established at a military installation of the British colonies of the present United States. It was only the tenth of 11 light stations established in the colonies before the American Revolution, and the first lighthouse in the American colonies north of Boston, notes at the website read.
In what may well be considered one of the first battles of the American Revolution, 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. Ammunition taken from Fort William and Mary was used against the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill. (www.lighthouse.cc/portsmouth/history.html)
During the Revolution, the light tower served as a lookout post in the defense of Portsmouth, though it was not lit from 1774 to 1784, when the tower was renovated and relighted.
In 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth and the deciding state to ratify the Constitution. A few years later, the state gave the land where Fort William & Mary stood to the federal government. It was repaired and renamed Fort Constitution.
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 48-foot cast-iron lighthouse tower was erected in 1878 on the same foundation as the previous tower.
The light was electrified in 1934 and automated in 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.
During World War II, submarine netting was placed across the harbor, and several German U-boats did come into the harbor.
While we wait on the landing, Jeremy, the volunteer giving the tour today, tells us about the keepers - there have been 20 different keepers in its history, their photos on the curved walls.
The keepers lived in a small brick house beside the light - which was considered a luxury since it was connected to land. The keepers would come up at sunset to light and come up against a sunrise to put it out.
Joshua Card, served the longest – 35 years Card grew up in New Castle, and went to sea on a fishing boat when he was 12.
He became a lighthouse keeper at Boon Island Light, where he had to row 8 miles each way to get supplies. It was such a hazardous post, he was the highest paid keeper at $860 a year.
But in 1874 he took the job at the Portsmouth Light at $500 – because it was safer for family. He worked until 86, when he had a stroke.
Elson Small, with his wife Connie, was the last keeper.. Before he came here, every place they lived required that you get there by boat and they never had electricity.
Connie said that she went on an electric binge because she found it so odd to just flip a switch to get light.
When she was 85, Connie (who lived to 103) wrote a book, "Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife," “Always look up, never look down.”
The light is now automated and controlled by the US Coast Guard. It comes on/off by itself – it has light sensor and a fog horn. (It is strange when you arrive at Fort constitution, how you have to walk a blue line set by the Coast Guard so you don't inadvertently interfere with anything.)
The light, which is concentrated so it doesn't seem so bright as we stand next to it, can be seen for 12 miles.
This was the first lighthouse in the country to use kerosene oil, which gives off nauseating fumes and soot. As a result, vents have to be open, even when it is 10 degrees below zero.
Today, though, it is extremely hot out, and Jeremy says that earlier in the day it was 104 degrees in that small lighthouse tower; while we are gathered there, it has cooled off to 86 degrees.
There are hooks for a curtain to prevent sunlight from hitting the Fresnel lens. Otherwise, it would act like a magnifying glass and would heat the kerosene. The keeper had to take the curtains down to light the light.
There is a “Galley” that rings the tower, so that the keeper could clean the windows from the outside.
As we look around from this high point, we can see that there are actually a network of forts: The lighthouse is actually at Fort Constitution.
Leaving the light house, we explore a bit more, and I go within the walls of Fort Constitution, where there is a small building that was built in 1901 to store underwater mines and today is a seawater research lab.
New Castle is a tiny place, and I stop for a short visit in what serves as the town center, with a beautiful Town Hall and an interesting historic cemetery, but then I am off for the short drive across a small bridge back into Historic Portsmouth.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has really taken my breath away - like discovering a magnificent jewel.
Everywhere you turn, there are interesting structures, markers, and sights.
I am surprised to learn about the critical a role Portsmouth played in the history of the nation. Founded in 1623, just three years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Portsmouth has always lived and worked side by side with the sea. Not only have generations of fisherman called Portsmouth their home port, she has played a significant role in the history of the US Navy, most notably being John Paul Jones’ choice for the construction of the first ship of the line, Ranger.
You can tour the John Paul Jones House (1758), a National Historic Landmark where Capt. Jones lived while supervising the building of Ranger. The house is now the headquarters for the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum and is collection of artifacts including a photograph of a veteran of the American Revolutionary War.
You can appreciate three centuries of how life evolved for the everyday Portsmouth boatbuilder and fisherman at Strawbery Banke’s 10-acre waterfront neighborhood of historic houses and workshops (see story).
I get a sense of Portsmouth's rich naval tradition in a cemetery at St. John’s Church on Chapel Street, one of the oldest in Portsmouth (the Queen chapel was organized in 1732; the church was destroyed in 1806 and Trinity church in New York city in1807 provided $1000 to build a new one). Among the interesting (and sad) tombstones is a huge memorial to Enoch Greenleaf Parrott, a Rear Admiral of the US Navy, etched with the naval sectors: Africa 1832, Mexico 1840, Port Royal 1861, Fort Fisher 1865, Charleston 1865, Asiatic Squadron 1873; died May 10 1873, 63 years.
Those of us who love historic houses will find scores among the pleasantly walkable streets of Portsmouth. Among the highlights include two houses owned and operated by the renowned Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, two more National Historic Landmarks – including the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion, just across Little Harbor from the Wentworth resort hotel – plus the Wentworth Gardner House (1760) once owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fortunately, instead of being dismantled and moved to Central Park, this beautifully restored house, one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in America, has remained in Portsmouth.
Strolling about, though, I come upon the Moffatt-Ladd House, where there is a marker describing the Horse Chestnut tree planted in 1776, after William Whipple (1730-1785) returned home from Philadelphia after signing the Declaration of Independence (MoffattLadd.org).
And here I find myself on the Portsmouth's Black Heritage Trail (see next).
Wentworth By the Sea, a grand historic resort on New Castle island, makes a superb hub - and sets the mood - for exploring Portsmouth rich heritage and cultural treasures, and for venturing along New Hampshire's Seacoast.
For more visitor information, 603-431-1925, www.PortsmouthNH.com.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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