Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #3

I thought you might like to hear a little about my good friend, William Converse Williams, who was one of the most respected lighthouse keepers in Maine history. During the years I was at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Hampshire, he was just up the coast at remote Boon Island, a miserable little pile of rocks six miles off the southern Maine coast.

William C. Williams and his wife, Mary Abbie. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

Williams (I always knew him as Willie) was a native of Kittery, Maine, and he went to Boon Island as second assistant keeper in 1885. He advanced to first assistant in late 1886, and then became principal keeper on November 21, 1888. He went on to serve 23 years in the position, earning $760 yearly without a single raise.

Williams, who worked in construction as a young man, married Mary Abbie Seaward of Kittery. They had three children: Charles, Lucia Mabel, and Bertie (who died in childhood). A 1926 newspaper article described Williams: “He was a tall, spare, man, dignified, and a refined gentleman of the old school. He had a soft, low voice, and his language was marvelous for its simplicity and purity. He had an optimistic disposition, nothing ever worried him and he never got excited. He was neat and methodical even in performing the simplest task.”

William C, Williams in the keeper’s house at Boon Island. Courtesy of Jim Claflin.

At the age of 90, Captain Williams recounted his experiences at Boon Island to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them. Williams had many pleasant times at Boon Island, but he recalled the danger of the job:

There were days when I first went on the station that I could not get away from the idea that I was the same as locked up in a cell. . . . All we had was a little stone house and a rubblestone tower. When rough weather came we didn’t know as it would make much difference as to whether we went into the tower or not, for a safe place. The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes. It was a funny feeling to be on a place and know you couldn’t get off if you wanted to, and tidal waves was all the talk in the early days. I was a young fellow and had never been placed in such a situation. When the terrible seas would make up and a storm was in the offing, I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away.

Williams described the experience of keeping watch in the tower during bad weather:

There was no lounging place at the top of the tower, only an old soap box or camp stool for a seat. As you set there [sic] just watching your light, all the enjoyment you got was hearing the wind making a cottonmill din around the lantern. With such a noise and being so many feet up from the ground, the seas battering the rocks down below is utterly drowned out. . . . One can hardly believe that after a storm you would find the big plate glass windows of the lantern covered with salt spray, at that distance in the air. After some storms the spray on the glass would be so thick and dimmed with bird feathers it would require a whole day to clean things up before lighting-up time.

Boon Island is nothing more than a barren jumble of rocks, just a few feet above sea level. The 1855 granite lighthouse, at 133 feet, is the tallest lighthouse in the New England region. (Collection of the author)

In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the lighthouse tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous Portland Gale of November 1898 was “just a breeze.” In a January 1896 storm, Williams and his wife again took shelter in the tower as high seas completely surrounded the dwelling.

The Portsmouth Herald published vivid details of another gale that began on January 31, 1898. The temperature was two below zero, and thick ice formed on the lighthouse and other buildings. The ice was so thick that the fires in the stoves inside the dwellings had to be extinguished for a time because the chimneys were blocked. For nearly 24 hours the winds blew at 75 to 100 miles per hour. The seas moved two water tanks, each weighing approximately four tons, about 75 feet. “It was the hardest night we ever passed,” said Williams, “and no one slept on the island the entire night.” Williams called the unusual sight of the island completely encased in ice “one of the grandest sights” he had ever witnessed. The oil house belfry that held the fog bell was so clogged with ice that it took several hours of chopping with axes to get the bell working again.

In my next column I will tell you more about Captain Williams’s amazing adventures at Boon Island.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, March 19, 2018.

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #2

I ended my previous column with my resignation as keeper of Boon Island Lighthouse in 1874, as I came to the realization that retaining the position on that tiny, vulnerable pile of rocks was not worth endangering the lives of my family.

Captain Joshua K. Card at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in the early 1900s. (Strawbery Banke Museum)

A short time later, I was informed that the keeper position at my hometown lighthouse, Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, New Hampshire, had become vacant. Although the salary ($500 per year) was far less than I had made at Boon Island, it looked to me like an ideal opportunity, and I snapped it up.

Located on the mainland in a sheltered spot on the Piscataqua River, the station would be a safe place for my family. Since I had lived most of my life in New Castle, the lighthouse was like an old friend.

You can see the keeper in front of the keeper’s house at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in the 1870s. The structure to the left is the Walbach Tower, a War of 1812 gun emplacement. (National Archives)

The lighthouse in those days was a 55-foot octagonal wooden tower, standing outside the perimeter of Fort Constitution. The keeper’s house was several hundred feet away, outside the fort. The job necessitated lots of walking back and forth, via a long wooden walkway along the shore.

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, circa 1859. The first lighthouse on the site was built in 1771. This one was built in 1804; it was originally 80 feet tall and was later shortened to 55 feet. (National Archives)

I was at the station for the rebuilding of the lighthouse tower in 1878, and for two moves of the keeper’s house–in 1897 and 1906. Some people found the new cast-iron lighthouse tower strange. One local writer called it “a corpulent length of stove pipe,” but I liked it just fine. When it was built, it was the first American lighthouse to be built with lighting apparatus designed to use kersosene (we called it mineral oil), and the government largely relied on my opinion of the new system. I liked it much better than the finicky lard oil we had been using, and kerosene was eventually adopted for all our lighthouses.

Another big change in my years at Portsmouth Harbor was the addition of a fog bell in 1896. I had to wind up the bell’s striking mechanism every couple of hours in thick or foggy weather.

1896 copy
Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and fog bell, circa 1896. (Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses)

I had a great fondness for my light station, and I always enjoyed showing visitors around. I got to know many of the local summer people, who were always sure to stop by for a visit. By 1908, when I was 85, I had been away from the lighthouse only 11 nights in 34 years. In early 1909 I had a stroke that left me partly paralyzed, and I had to retire. I didn’t want to retire, I can tell you, and they practically had to drag me out kicking and screaming.

I died in June 1911 at the home of my daughter. Then how can I be writing this, you ask? Chalk it up to the magic of modern technology and this thing they call the “internet,” I guess you could say.

After I died, a local newspaper reported:

“During a long lifetime, Capt. Card was a conspicuous figure in the town – the most remarkable man, I should say, in that little community. . . . He possessed a huge stock of common sense; was an acute observer, and a shrewd, yet fair minded, judge of his fellow man.

“During a long stretch of years Captain Card was in charge of the New Castle light. In the performance of this exacting duty he acquitted himself with honor. . . . No man stood higher in the estimation of the Lighthouse Board, at Washington, than the keeper of Portsmouth Light.

“Every man, woman, and child in New Castle knew and respected Capt. Card. He loved the town, and the townspeople loved him. His remains rest upon the bank of the beautiful river, the ebb and flow of whose tides for many a long year had entered into the daily routine of his useful and honorable life.”

If you are in the New Castle area, please stop by and visit me at the Riverside Cemetery. I enjoy the company.

Keeper Card Marker_Group
Volunteers and staff of the American Lighthouse Foundation and Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses with friends and supporters for a dedication of a Lighthouse Service marker at Joshua Card’s gravesite in September 2016.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, March 8, 2018

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #1

Joshua K. Card at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, NH, in the early 1900s. (Portsmouth Athenæum)

Greetings and ahoy! Captain Joshua Kenney Card here. The nice people at the U.S. Lighthouse Society asked me if I could write some stories about what life was like at New England lighthouses, and I am more than happy to oblige.

First things first. You are probably wondering about the title of the column and why the words begin with “K.” When I was a keeper, I wore the typical U.S. Lighthouse Service uniform, with the letter “K” on the lapels signifying that I was the principal keeper. When people asked me what the “K” stood for, I liked telling them it stood for “captain.” Hence my nickname, Kaptain Kard.

At the risk of seeming immodest, I’m going to start my new column by telling you a little about my life and my 41 mostly happy years at lighthouses.

My father, John Card, was born in New Castle, New Hampshire, just as the American Revolution was getting started. After some time as a prisoner of war in Halifax during the War of 1812, he married Deborah Kinney. I was their eighth and last child, born in 1822 in an old house literally hanging over the waters of the Piscataqua River, just a short distance from the lighthouse that would later be my home.

I first went to sea at the age of 12 as a cabin boy on the fishing schooner Hope, of which my father was first mate. During that four-month voyage, my most important duty was to keep the fireplace in the cabin supplied with wood. I spent about 15 years at sea, mostly on fishing voyages, sailing as far as Cuba. When my father headed west for the Gold Rush, I decided to take a position at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. I also successfully ran my own teaming business for a number of years. My stagecoach was the first express transportation between the town of New Castle and the larger neighboring city of Portsmouth. I enjoyed operating the New Castle Express, but I sorely missed having daily interactions with my first love—the sea.

In 1867, I was informed that there was an opening for a keeper at Boon Island Lighthouse. Although Boon Island had two assistant keepers, I was offered the position of principal keeper. This was because I was older than the assistants and had plenty of maritime experience along with a proven ability to manage a business and employees.

Map of Boon Island circa 1850 (National Archives)

A local writer once called Boon Island “the forlornest place that can be imagined,” and that is an entirely accurate description. It is nothing more than a low-lying jumble of rocks some seven miles off the south coast of Maine, and it was the site of one of the most famous of all New England shipwreck tales—the tragic, harrowing story of the Nottingham Galley back in 1710. The lighthouse, built of granite blocks in 1855, is New England’s tallest at 133 feet.

My wife, Dolly, was very apprehensive about my taking the job, but we couldn’t refuse the offer of a steady paycheck that was significantly more than I had been earning. And so Dolly and I moved to the island with the four youngest of our five children. There was just a one-story dwelling on the tiny, rocky island, and we had to share the house with an assistant keeper. I must have been doing something right, because after a few years my salary was raised to $860 per year. That made me the highest paid lighthouse keeper in the United States, in recognition of the harsh conditions at Boon Island and the fact that it was frequently difficult or impossible to get on or off the island in periods of heavy seas or poor visibility.

Boon Island Lighthouse in 1859 (National Archives)

One day in November 1872, my wife happened to be looking out to sea when she spotted an approaching wave that towered above all the others. We quickly realized it was a tidal wave, and all of us rushed as fast as we could to the lighthouse tower—the safest place to be in times of high seas. We watched from the lantern room as the wave engulfed the island, washing away everything that was moveable. Our house was flooded to a depth of two feet, and when the seas subsided we found that most of our belongings were ruined. It was then that we decided (or perhaps I should say, more accurately, that Dolly decided) that no salary was worth endangering the lives of our children and ourselves. I resigned my position a short time later.

As luck would have it, the keeper’s position opened up at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle just a bit after that. In my next column, I will tell you about my long career at my hometown lighthouse.


Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, February 26, 2018