Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Jeffrey's Hook Light - "The Little Red Lighthouse"

This week's lighthouse is slightly outside the New England region, but I'm including it as a preview of my new book, The Lighthouse Handbook: Hudson River & New York Harbor, published by Cider Mill Press. After many years specializing in New England lighthouses, it was fun for me to visit and learn about a new set of lighthouses. Because of a popular children's book, this one might be the best known of the surviving lighthouses on the Hudson River.

This is a condensed version of the section on Jeffrey's Hook Light in the book, The Lighthouse Handbook: Hudson River & New York Harbor.

The point of land known as Jeffrey’s Hook is on the west side of Manhattan Island, on the east shore of the Hudson River and about 12 miles north of Upper New York Bay. As shipping traffic increased in the vicinity in the late nineteenth century, a navigational light was needed to help warn mariners away from a treacherous reef near Jeffrey’s Hook. In 1889, a 20-foot-tall red stake was erected with two red lanterns, one hanging ten feet above the other.

In 1918, officials of the Bureau of Lighthouses decided that an extant lighthouse tower, built in 1880 and previously in use as the North Beacon at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, would be relocated to Jeffrey’s Hook. On October 10, 1921, the tower was reassembled in its present location. A 1,000-pound fog bell was mounted on the lower part of the lighthouse. A local caretaker or “lamplighter” wound the clockwork mechanisms that sounded the bell and rotated the lens.

The massive George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931. The suspension bridge spans the river from the sites of Fort Washington on the New York side to Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. At the time of its dedication, the bridge had the longest main span in the world at 3,500 feet. The bright lights of the bridge rendered the lighthouse virtually obsolete. It was still in operation in 1942 when Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward wrote the popular children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

In the beginning of the book, the lighthouse is proud of its role in navigation: “It felt big and useful and important. ‘What would the boats do without me?’ it thought.” When the bridge is completed in the story, the lighthouse is left feeling small and insignificant.

But one foggy night, the bridge tells the lighthouse that its light and bell are still needed, that it is still “the master of the river.” The lighthouse calls, “Look out! Danger! Watch me!” Its place in the world was secured.

Despite the popular book and public affection for the lighthouse, the Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1948. When plans were announced to auction the lighthouse, a flood of letters from fans of the children’s book and other concerned citizens convinced the government to make other plans. On July 23, 1951, the lighthouse was given to the City of New York.

In 2002, a 300-millimeter lens was installed, and the lighthouse was relit as a private aid to navigation. The relighting came at the annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival on September 19, 2002.

The only lighthouse on Manhattan Island may be reached by driving or taking the “A” train to West 181st Street. Walk west on 181st Street toward the river, cross a pedestrian footbridge and follow the path to Fort Washington Park and the lighthouse. City park rangers lead school tours and conduct tours of the lighthouse for the public on occasion in summer. For the schedule and more information, call (212) 304–2365, or write to Urban Park Rangers, Inwood Hill Park, 1234 Fifth Ave., first floor, New York, NY 10029.

Tour Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse!

The first open house of the season at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH, will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. The lighthouse is off Route 1B at Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor adjacent to Fort Constitution.

No reservations are needed. Tours are on a first-come, first-served basis. No children under 42 inches tall are permitted to climb to the top and adults are not permitted to carry children up the stairs. Visitors get to climb to the lantern room to enjoy the view and to see the fourth-order Fresnel lens up close.

Volunteers will tell visitors about the history of the light station and there will be souvenirs for sale. To climb the lighthouse, a donation of $2 for adults and $1 for children is suggested. There are 44 stairs to the watch room and a 7-rung ladder to the lantern room. Flat shoes (not sandals or flip-flops) are required to climb the ladder into the lantern room.

The lighthouse will be open every Tuesday afternoon from June 2 to Sept. 1. For a complete schedule, visit

United Way & Russound Pitch In at Portsmouth Harbor Light

On Wednesday, May 13, a group of five volunteers from Russound in Newmarket, NH, gave a big helping hand (ten hands, actually) to the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse (FPHL). The effort was part of the United Way's Spring 2009 Day of Caring.

(Above, L to R: Bob Hancock, Ryan Bartosiewicz, Andrea Renz, Jon James, Dan Charest, and Ross Tracy.)

On this day, about 1000 volunteers spent the day making a difference on the New Hampshire Seacoast.

At Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH, the Russound volunteers were supervised by FPHL Chairman Ross Tracy, who is also an IT manager at Russound. The camaraderie and friendship of all the participants helped the day go smoothly.

The volunteers applied stain to the 84-foot walkway that leads to the lighthouse. The walkway was built in the fall of 2006, and had never gotten a full application of stain before. This time, every inch of the pressure-treated wood, including the underside of the walkway, was given a protective coating.

The group also helped rebuild a stairway that leads from the walkway to a rocky beach and a 1903 oil house.

It was a beautiful day to be outside, and a great deal was accomplished. FPHL will gladly take part in more Days of Caring in the future.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Schooner J&E Riggin Helps Maine Lighthouse Museum

I just received the following news from Elizabeth Poisson, Shore Operations Manager for the Schooner J&E Riggin :

The Schooner J&E Riggin has seven Maine Lighthouses and Lobster cruises they will do throughout the 2009 season. All the profits from the June 4-9 trip will be donated to the Maine Lighthouse Museum.

With over 60 lighthouses in Maine and over 20 in our sailing grounds of Penobscot Bay, we will see as many Maine lighthouses as possible during our each of our trips. And, of course, passengers will enjoy plenty of lobster too – at a beachside lobster bake as well as lobster worked into a few other meals during the trip.

You can visit this link ( for more information on the cruise, or call us at 800-869-0604 for more details.

Fair winds,
Elizabeth Poisson
Shore Operations Manager
Schooner J&E Riggin

136 Holmes St, Rockland, ME, 04841

AND -- I just found out that they are also offering a 20% discount on the June 4-9 cruise. Hats off to the owners and staff of the J&E Riggin!

A Rockland Museum Fighting to Keep Its Doors Open

More on the possible closing of the Maine Lighthouse Museum on the WABI-TV site.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Economy puts lighthouse museum in jeopardy

PizzaFest Raises Funds and Spirits

The first-ever "PizzaFest" benefit for Whaleback Lighthouse on Saturday evening, May 16, at the Kittery (Maine) Lions Club was a great success. Nearly $1700 was raised and a good time was had by all.

Pat Heffernan entertained with his Irish
music and witty storytelling.

Ownership of Whaleback Lighthouse, located a short distance offshore from Kittery, was conveyed to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in November 2008. One of ALF's chapters, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse (FPHL), is managing the restoration of the historic beacon. Since 2001, FPHL has cared for Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH. This year, the group will open Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse for nearly 30 public open houses; check for the schedule.

FPHL plans to commission an historic structure report of Whaleback Lighthouse at a cost of $7000. The report will serve as a guide as restoration moves forward. Full restoration is likely to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and could take a few years to complete. Ultimately, FPHL plans to open the tower for limited public tours, which will access the lighthouse by boat. The present difficult landing conditions will have to be improved, along with the deteriorating interior of the lighthouse, before public access becomes feasible.

FPHL board members Jackie Maurice and
Joanne Yeaton volunteered at "PizzaFest."

At the PizzaFest event on May 16, attendees got to enjoy pizza donated by a dozen restaurants in the area: Badger Island Pizzeria, Jitto’s, Hap’s, Darleen’s, Momma D’s, Rosa, Bread Box, Flatbread Company, Dominos, Pizza Factory, Joe’s NY Pizza, and Pizza Hut. Along with the pizza, there was salad and soda, courtesy of Shaws Supermarkets. And for dessert, there were delicious cookies and brownies made by several FPHL volunteers.

Sharon Mills, secretary of FPHL,
staffed the merchandise table at PizzaFest.

Along with the delicious food, there was foot-tapping, singalong entertainment provided by Pat Heffernan. Heffernan has been performing Irish and folk music for years, usually as one half of Shannachie. On this night, he was pressed into solo duty as his musical partner, Patrick Keane, was under the weather. Heffernan, who's also on the board of directors of FPHL, performed two lively sets that had the entire audience clapping along between bites of pizza.

Shannachie also donated CDs and a free performance for the evening's raffle. Other raffle and silent auction items included tickets to the Ogunquit Playhouse, a signed book by Jimmy Buffett, photography by John Bedard, a haircut and manicure at the DuDa Spa, lobster dinners at the Weathervane restaurant, and more.

Left, Bob Trapani, executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation, with Joel Shelburne, creator of New Hampshire Lighthouse Week (first week in June).

Jim Pope, one of the last Coast Guard keepers at Whaleback Lighthouse before its 1963 automation, entertained the audience with his memories of life in the offshore tower. FPHL presented Pope with a lifetime membership in recognition of his role in keeping lighthouse history alive.

It was a great night. Special thanks also to the Kittery Lions Club, gracious hosts of the event.

L to R: Jeremy D'Entremont, operations manager for FPHL; Jim Pope, one of the last keepers of Whaleback Lighthouse; Ross Tracy, chairman of FPHL.

Volunteers helped serve pizza

Donna and John Bedard, members of FPHL, donated original photography for the event.

Ann Trapani, right, associate director of the American Lighthouse Foundation, volunteered at PizzaFest along with daughters Nina and Katrina.

L to R: Pat Heffernan, Sharon Mills, William Marshall, Jackie Maurice, Joanne Yeaton, Jeremy D'Entremont, and Ross Tracy of FPHL.

Photos by Bob and Ann Trapani.

Friday, May 15, 2009

PizzaFest with Music by Shannachie: A Benefit for Whaleback Lighthouse

Saturday May 16, 2009, at 6:00 p.m.
Kittery Lions Club, 117 State Rd. (Route 1), Kittery, Maine

Join the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse for a unique and tasty event! Try the best offerings from pizza restaurants in the Portsmouth/Kittery area. More than a dozen restaurants will be taking part. Along with pizza, there will be salad, soft drinks, and cookies. There will also be a silent auction with great prizes, including tickets to the Ogunquit Playhouse and gift certificates to local restaurants.

Irish music by Shannachie will enliven the evening. Pat Heffernan (guitar, vocals, songwriter, shennanigans) and Patrick Keane (bass, banjo, vocals, and "ham") make up Shannachie. Since 1995, they've been having fun entertaining people with Irish pub singalong songs all over New England.

Proceeds benefit the restoration of Whaleback Lighthouse.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors (65 and over) and $10 for children (12 and under).

You can buy tickets online at www.portsmouthharborlighthouse/pizzafest.html, or you can send a check made out to: Whaleback Committee of FPHL, to: Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, P.O. Box 8232, Portsmouth, NH 03802-8232. Be sure to include your address.

Advance tickets are recommended. If space is still available, tickets will be available at the door.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Maine Lighthouse Museum Looking for Support

The museum housing the nation's largest collection of Fresnel lenses and other important lighthouse artifacts may soon have to close its doors due to a lack of revenue. Click here for the story in "Village Soup."

The Maine Lighthouse Museum has its roots in the collection amassed by the late Coast Guard officer Ken Black, known far and wide as "Mr. Lighthouse." Many lighthouse buffs recall the humble Shore Village Museum in Rockland, tended lovingly by Black for years.

Lots of small private donations would be a shot in the arm for the museum, but what's needed even more is substantial corporate support. Everyone loves lighthouses, and it could be a huge PR coup for any Maine company that lends major support to the museum. Not that it has to be a Maine company -- the museum is really America's Lighthouse Museum.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Newport Harbor Light, Rhode Island

This lighthouse is one of the easiest in Rhode Island to visit, as it's located on the grounds of Newport's Hyatt Regency Hotel. It's relatively small and unassuming, but it has a rich history.

The deep, protected harbor at Newport was the key to its development from the start. By the early 1820s, it became clear that a lighthouse was needed to help guide vessels into the harbor, and on March 23, 1823, Congress appropriated $2,500 for that purpose.

The original lighthouse exhibited a fixed white light, visible for 14 nautical miles. Keeper Samuel Watson first illuminated the multiple oil lamps in the lantern on January 1, 1824. The 20-foot octagonal freestone and brick tower was fraught with problems almost from the start.

According to a report by Lt. George M. Bache of the U.S. Navy in 1838, the tower was “in a very bad condition, owing to its faulty construction.” He also found much wrong with the six-room stone keeper’s dwelling, which he said was badly built.

A dangerous reef extended out from the northern end of the island, and vessels often went aground there. In the late 1830s a breakwater was constructed over the reef. It was planned at first that the lighthouse would be relocated to the end of the breakwater. Instead, a new 35-foot granite tower was erected on the breakwater. The Army Corps of Engineers completed the breakwater in 1842. The old lighthouse remained in use until December 18, 1842, when the new tower was lighted for the first time.

At first, the keepers continued to live in the original dwelling. The original lighthouse tower was relocated to Prudence Island in 1851 and remains in operation there today. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the state.

John Case spent a decade (1853–63) as keeper. The next man to take the position, John Heath, died on September 24, 1868, and his wife received the appointment to replace him. Mary Ann Heath remained keeper until 1873, when Henry Crawford succeeded her.

Having a comfortable two-story house attached to the tower certainly made life easier for the keepers and their families, but Mary Ann Heath must have had quite a scare when a tremendous storm on September 8, 1869, carried away about a third of the slate roof and damaged her boat, which parted its moorings.

In 1869, the Secretary of War authorized the U.S. Navy to take over Goat Island for a new Naval Torpedo Station. The station was an important center for experimentation with various torpedoes and mines, for training of personnel, and eventually for the manufacture of torpedoes. During World War II, the station became the largest employer in the state, with more than 12,600 employees. Eighty percent of the torpedoes used in the war were produced at Goat Island.

Charles Schoeneman would become such a fixture as keeper that locals often simply referred to the lighthouse as Schoeneman’s Light. Keeper Schoeneman spent a remarkable 39 years at the station. An article on the occasion of Schoeneman’s retirement recalled the famous Portland Gale (the steamship Portland sank during the storm, with the loss of about 200 lives) of November 26, 1898. The storm broke every window on the north side of the keeper’s house.

On November 9, 1921, the 155-foot submarine N-4 rammed the breakwater near the lighthouse, causing damage to the foundation of the keeper’s dwelling and signaling the end of the staffed light station on Goat Island. Schoeneman retired during the following year, and the keeper’s house was demolished. The light was electrified, and personnel from the torpedo station took over its operation. The light was automated in 1963.

The Coast Guard licensed the lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in 2000. Newport Harbor Light, known to most locals as Goat Island Light or simply “the Green Light,” continues as an active aid to navigation, its fixed green light 33 feet above the water.

There's more on this page and in my book, "The Lighthouses of Rhode Island."

Latest list for NHLPA

Under the National Historic Lighthouse Act of 2000, each year several lighthouses are being transferred to suitable new owners. If no qualified organizations apply, the lighthouses are auctioned to the general public. The latest list includes three very historic lighthouses in the Northeast:

Robbins Reef Light in New Jersey, longtime home to heroic lighthouse keeper Kate Walker.

Saddleback Ledge Light in Maine, a rugged and remote lighthouse designed by famed architect Alexander Parris.

Minot's Ledge Light (left), off Boston's South Shore in Massachusetts, one of the greatest of all American lighthouse engineering achievements and one of the world's great wave-swept towers.

For the rest of the lighthouses on the list, check Sue Clark's "Lighthouse News" site.

Hopefully, some qualified nonprofit organization -- or maybe a partnership or coalition of multiple groups -- will be interested in Minot's Ledge Light. To me, it would be a crime to sell one of our most historic lighthouses to the high bidder.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New Season for New England Lighthouse Tours

I'm now gearing up for a new season of New England Lighthouse Tours.

The tours are in a minivan, with no more than 5 passengers. My primary offering, a “Lighthouses of Portsmouth and Portland Tour,” includes the two lighthouses that are photographed more than any others in New England: Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and the Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light in York, Maine. At Portland Head, tour goers also explore the museum in the former keeper’s house.

The tours also include Spring Point Ledge Light and Portland Breakwater Light, both in South Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, New Hampshire. Participants get to climb to the top of Portsmouth Harbor Light to see the still-working nineteenth century lens up close, and to enjoy one of the most breathtaking views in the New Hampshire Seacoast region.

Lunch on the tours, included in the $99 per person ($59 for children) price, is at Joe’s Boathouse, located at the Spring Point Marina in South Portland. Also included is a shopping stop at Lighthouse Depot in Wells, Maine, renowned as “the world’s largest lighthouse gift store.” There are also smaller gift shops at Portland Head and Cape Neddick.

During the tours, I enjoy telling about the human history of the lighthouses and the keepers, but I try not to overwhelm people with endless facts and statistics. I find that the average person is most interested in what it was like for keepers and their families to live at these fascinating places.

While most of the people who have taken the tours so far have been from other parts of the country, I'm hoping this year’s tours might attract more local people. This is a great way to have a fun day out, visiting some of the most beautiful locations in the Northeast while letting someone else worry about the driving. A number of people have given my tours as birthday or anniversary presents, which I think is a wonderful idea.

The tours begin and end at the parking garage on Hanover Street in downtown Portsmouth. I've scheduled about 50 tour dates between late May and late October. You can read more at or you can call (603) 431-9155.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Dive from Minot's Light

MNOT2, originally uploaded by nelights.

This clip shows Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982), the popular New England maritime historian and "Flying Santa" to lighthouse keepers, diving from Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, off Boston's South Shore, in 1962. For more on the Flying Santa, see For more on Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, see

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Crabtree Ledge Light, Maine

Maine has been luckier than many coastal states; only a handful of its 65+ lighthouses have been lost over the years. One of the most prominent of Maine’s lost lights was Crabtree Ledge Light, which stood offshore at the entrance to Sullivan Harbor from 1890 to 1950. Named for a prominent local family, Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse is still fondly remembered by older residents of the vicinity.

The following is a condensed version of the chapter on Crabtree Ledge Light from my new book, The Lighthouses of Maine (2009, Commonweath Editions). I’ve also added some new material from an article recently sent to me by lighthouse historian Ted Panayotoff. The article by Donna Gronros concerns the memories of her Aunt Dot, whose grandfather was the first keeper at Crabtree Ledge.

By 1886, various steamers were making 15 to 20 runs daily in summer between Sullivan Harbor and the popular resort of Bar Harbor. There were also many vessels carrying lumber and granite passing through the area. Crabtree Ledge, a dangerous obstruction about a mile from Hancock Point at the entrance to Sullivan Harbor from Frenchman Bay, suddenly assumed new importance. Funds for a light and fog signal at the ledge were appropriated by Congress on August 4, 1886.

Work began in 1889, when a cast-iron cylindrical caisson, 25 feet in diameter and 32 feet tall, was put into position on the ledge, in a spot 15 feet below sea level. After the caisson was filled with concrete, it was surmounted by the cast-iron lighthouse superstructure, 37 feet tall from the base to the center of the light. A fifth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light, interrupted by a more intense flash every two minutes, went into service on January 15, 1890. A 1,200-pound bell and striking machinery were installed in 1891.

The first keeper was Charles Chester, a native of Philadelphia who had been a cabin boy at age 11 and the captain of his own ship at 19. He and his wife, Mary (Blake), eventually had 11 children, the last five of whom were born in a house at Hancock Point. Chester remained in charge at Crabtree Ledge until 1908. One of the Chesters’ granddaughters, Dot, who was born in 1903, later described her memories of the lighthouse:

As the lighthouse was a cylinder, all the rooms were round. The kitchen and living room were on the second level. The third level was the bedroom. Above that was the lantern deck. The lowest deck was the basement, where rainwater from the roof was caught in a cistern and provided the water supply. Coal was also stored there.

Most of Grandpa’s nights were spent in the lighthouse, although the house on the mainland was located so the bedroom window faced the light so he could see that all was well. If the light went out, as it sometimes did, Grandpa would dress quickly, rush down to the little boat and row out to the light. If there was a smokeout, everything would be all covered with soot and it would take all day to clean it up.

(LEFT: Keeper Charles Franklin Chester and his wife, Mary Ellen Chester, courtesy of Charles Libby. Chester was keeper at Crabtree Ledge 1890-1908.)

Chester Brinkworth of Hancock Point served as an assistant keeper beginning in 1914. In the fall of 1916, Chester’s younger brother, Leon, filled in as a temporary assistant while the principal keeper, Jerome Peaseley, was on shore recovering from pneumonia.

In late September, 18-year-old Leon Brinkworth returned from a trip to shore. According to some accounts, as he climbed the ladder on the side of the lighthouse with provisions in his arms, he slipped and plunged into the water. Other accounts report that the younger brother’s boat capsized. In either case, Chester, 35 years old, quickly dove into the water in a valiant but vain attempt to save his brother.

Both of the Brinkworth brothers drowned in the lighthouse’s worst tragedy. A reporter for the Kennebec Journal wrote of the Brinkworths, “Both were bright, able, and highly esteemed young men and their tragic death has brought shock and grief to friends and associates.” Another assistant keeper, Joseph Whitmore, also drowned just six months later.

The lighthouse was discontinued in 1933, the same year local ferry service ended. The father of Newbold Noyes, editor of the Washington Star, subsequently bought the lighthouse for a reported $115. Noyes gave the lighthouse to his three sons as a gift. The sons sold the lighthouse in 1937 to a friend, Fritz Allis, who summered at Hancock Point. Allis and some friends moved a reed organ into the lighthouse.

When Allis married Tiense Gummere, the two spent their honeymoon at the lighthouse; they were subsequently marooned there for several days during stormy weather. He never returned after that, and the lighthouse fell into poor condition until it finally collapsed into the bay in a winter storm in February 1950.