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.
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.
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
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org