Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #6

Captain Joshua K. Card here. Like many of my contemporary lighthouse keepers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was sometimes accused of being a pirate. I can assure you I was nothing of the sort, in spite of my salty appearance. But there was a keeper before me down in Massachusetts who couldn’t shake the reputation of being a pirate.

William S. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812, was appointed as the first keeper of Bird Island Lighthouse down in Marion, a town in southeastern Massachusetts, when the light went into operation in 1819. The stark little island is less than two acres in size, and it was an ideal place for a lighthouse that would serve to guide mariners into Sippican Harbor and points north.

Bird Island Lighthouse in 2011; photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Persistent local legend claims that Moore was a pirate who was banished to Bird Island as punishment. Some versions of the story claim that he was left without a boat, with supplies delivered periodically. Since his boat is mentioned frequently in correspondence, this is clearly untrue. In any case, properly functioning lighthouses were vital to safe navigation, and the authorities strove to hire responsible and reliable men. They did not hire accused pirates.

Some accounts claim that Moore murdered his wife—described as a “Boston society girl”—at the lighthouse and disappeared soon after. A rifle was found, supposedly in a secret hiding place along with a bag of tobacco, when the original keeper’s house on Bird Island was torn down in 1889. The gun was believed by some to be the murder weapon. Others have claimed that Moore prevented his ailing wife from seeking medical attention on the mainland, and that she died as a result.

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The plans for Bird Island Lighthouse (National Archives)

Although she is supposedly buried on the island, there is no sign of the grave of Moore’s wife today. With the gun, a note was found, signed by Moore. The note eventually came into the possession of Marion’s longtime town historian H. Edmund Tripp.  It read:

This bag contains tobacco, found among the clothes of my wife after her decease.  It [the tobacco] was furnished by certain individuals in and about Sippican. May the curses of the High Heaven rest upon the heads of those who destroyed the peace of my family and the health and happiness of a wife whom I Dearly Loved.

Bird Island Lighthouse with its original “birdcage-style” lantern. (National Archives)

Letters from Moore to the local customs collector indicate that the keeper conducted experiments with the heating of whale oil to keep it from freezing in the winter months. He also worked on the development of “air boxes” to be stored on boats to help prevent sinking. Moore wrote that he wanted to remain at Bird Island so he could pursue his various experiments. He explained, “. . . as the keeping of a lighthouse is calculated to afford me more leisure than almost any other employment, I shall give it up with great regret.”

Another far-fetched part of the lore surrounding William Moore is that he disappeared, never to be seen again, shortly after his wife’s death was discovered.  In reality, records clearly show that Moore was assigned to the new Billingsgate Lighthouse near Wellfleet in 1822.  It isn’t clear if he was able to continue his experiments there.

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Bird Island Lighthouse was discontinued in 1933. It was a lucky thing that Keeper George Gustavus and his family left at that time, because the hurricane of September 21, 1938, swept away every building on Bird Island except the lighthouse tower. Sadly for the Gustavus family, they moved to Prudence Island Light Station in Rhode Island, and the keeper’s wife and son died in the hurricane. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The truth about Moore will probably never be completely separated from the fantastic legends concerning his life. But his wife really did die on the island, and there are those who say it has been haunted or cursed ever since. Legend has it that some later keepers were frightened by the ghost of a hunched-over old woman, rapping at the door during the night.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, May 4, 2018.

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #5

Captain Joshua K. Card here. I told you a while back about my early days as a keeper in 1860s and ’70s at Boon Island, one of the most isolated and desolate light stations imaginable. But I learned many years ago about a light keeper who had a much more miserable life on a little slab of rock in Maine’s Penobscot Bay known as Saddleback Ledge.

Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse in July 2013. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Saddleback Ledge is a wave-swept outcropping at the southern entrance to East Penobscot Bay, about four miles from the southeastern corner of the large island of Vinalhaven to the west, three miles from the southwestern coast of Isle au Haut to the east, and more than seven miles to the village of Stonington to the north. The 43-foot granite lighthouse that was built on the ledge in 1839 was designed by a famous architect, Alexander Parris. It was built to last, and it has survived through some of the most brutal storms and seas you can imagine.

The first keeper, Watson Y. Hopkins, a Maine native, moved to the lighthouse with his wife, Abigail, and seven children, ranging in age from infancy to the late teens. The large family crowded into living quarters inside the tower that consisted of a living room with a cooking stove, two bedrooms, and a cellar. Hopkins’ pay was $450 per year.

Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse circa 1859 (National Archives). The attached wooden building on the left side of the tower was added later, after Keeper Watson Hopkins had left.

In September 1843, Abigail Hopkins gave birth to a baby girl, Margaret, at the lighthouse. A week later, a boat came to the ledge to take the mother and daughter to the mainland. During the transfer to the boat, the baby was dropped briefly into the cold waves. She was quickly plucked out of the water before any serious harm was done.

Painting of Watson Y. Hopkins (Courtesy of Margo Burns)

Hopkins painted a dismal picture of the living conditions at the lighthouse for the important report to Congress by the engineer I. W. P. Lewis in 1843:

I live with my family in the tower, which is the only building on the ledge. . . . I am obliged to bring my water from shore, a distance of seven miles. . . . We are badly off for room to stow wood and provisions. I have been allowed a boat, but she is entirely unfit for this place, being nothing more than a small dory. . . . The iron railing, which was secured to the rock around the tower, has been all swept away; also, the privy, which was carried away the first storm after its erection. The windows all leak in storms, the shutters having no rebates in the stone work. . . .


A woman is hoisted onto Saddleback Ledge using the landing derrick installed in 1885. (Vinalhaven Historical Society)

It would seem that there was not a multitude of candidates fighting over Hopkins’ position at Saddleback, because he amazingly stayed in the position for a full decade, living with his family in those three little rooms.

When Hopkins and his family left Saddleback Ledge in 1849, he bought land and built a home on Arey’s Neck on Vinalhaven, within sight of the lighthouse. I doubt that he ever looked in that direction. The 1850 census identified the former lighthouse keeper as a farmer.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, April 22, 2018.





Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #4

When last we met I was telling you about Keeper William C. Williams, the longtime keeper of bleak and isolated Boon Island Lighthouse off the southern Maine coast.

A summer gathering in front of the keepers’ house at Boon Island in the early 1900s. Notice the flower garden in the foreground. William C. Williams is standing at the far right; his son, Charles is to his immediate right. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

Getting on and off the island was hard enough in calm conditions, but frequently a risky proposition when the seas grew heavy. On one occasion in April 1890, Williams and his wife, with two workmen, set out for Portsmouth in a sailboat. The vessel was overturned by a sudden squall near Gerrish Island in Kittery. The four passengers managed to cling to the boat until a schooner from Rockland rescued them. Not long after that, the government mercifully made Boon Island a “stag station,” meaning the male keepers were the only residents much of the year. The families still spent much of the summer on the island.

In an attempt to brighten up the island in summer, Williams brought barrels and boxes of soil out from the mainland every spring so that the families could enjoy a small flower garden during the summer. With the next winter’s gales, the soil would always be washed away. “I did not care so much about it myself, “ Williams said later, “but it was hard for the children who passed the vacation months and were so interested in seeing flowers in bloom.”

Keeper William C. Williams (far right) with his wife, Mary Abbie Williams, and other on the island in the early 1900s. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

The keeper’s son, Charles, served as an assistant keeper for the better part of a decade. During a shore visit in December 1900, Charles Williams described a storm that had swept the island a few days earlier. He had stood watch through the night in the tower, and he said that it seemed that the tower would topple over. The lighthouse shook, he said, with such violence that his teeth chattered involuntarily.

One of William C. Williams’s grandchildren, Mary Luther Lewis, later wrote an article about life on Boon Island. The keepers took turns keeping watch, she recalled, with rotating shifts. As a girl, Mary loved to roller-skate on the island’s boardwalks. Summer visitors from York were frequent, and her grandmother often made fish chowder for them. The family liked to sit on the rocks outside to eat their lunch, which typically consisted of lobsters and lemonade.

Mary Luther Lewis’s daughter, Eunice Lewis Evans, later wrote down some of the stories passed to her by her mother. Chores assigned to the children included dusting and polishing the brass in the house, picking caterpillars from the flowers, and killing flies. (They were paid a penny per caterpillar or fly.) Keeper Williams had a lobster trap for each of his grandchildren, and the money made from the catch was added to their bank accounts. There would be an evening church service, and everyone was in bed by 8:00 p.m. to be ready to start the next day at 5:00 a.m.

When Robert Thayer Sterling wrote about William C. Williams in Kittery after his retirement, he observed, “To walk about his front yard without risk of being washed into the sea is a pleasure, and with that comes contentment.” Williams, one of the best-known lighthouse keepers in Maine, died in 1939 at the age of 93.

The keepers’ house at Boon Island, badly damaged by a blizzard in 1978, was subsequently demolished by the Coast Guard. The lighthouse is owned today by Bobby Sager, chairman of Polaroid. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, April 1, 2018.

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.

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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.

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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