Captain Joshua Card here, down at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in New Castle, New Hampshire. We’re looking forward to a new paint job for the tower this spring. Thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about a colorful character who was a contemporary of mine down in Rhode Island, John Mullen—better known as Captain Jack.
Captain Jack was hired in April 1886 to be the keeper of two small lights on the Providence River, Fuller Rock and Sassafras Point. These little structures barely qualified as lighthouses. They were twin hexagonal pyramids, only about 14 feet tall, with small cast-iron lanterns. They were both put into operation in 1872. Fuller Rock was in the middle of the main shipping channel to Providence, while Sassafras Point was about a mile north near the river’s western shore. The lights never had keepers’ houses; instead, the government hired local men who row to the lights to care for them.
A Providence Journal article by Wilfred Stone later described “Captain Jack” as a “character of the old school.” At social gatherings, he was a master of clog dancing, “keeping hop to the pick of the banjo when he was scores of years older than most dancers.”
The article described a harrowing accident that befell Captain Jack while he was a lighthouse keeper in the 1890s. It was brutally cold and windy on New Year’s Eve one year as Mullen sailed in his yawl from one light on the Providence River to the other. Luckily, he was dressed warmly in many layers. “It was tough pulling,” wrote Stone, “but his lights were burning at sunset as his orders called for.”
On his way home after “lighting up,” Mullen’s small boat overturned near Kettle Point on the east side of the river and he found himself “struggling to gain a toehold on the bottom.” Fortunately, nearby resident Ed Grogan saw the keeper’s plight. Grogan launched his own boat and soon rescued the cold and soggy, but no doubt grateful, Captain Jack.
The day after his near-death experience, Mullen had a conversation with a devout female acquaintance. “Surely the Lord was with you when you were in the water,” said the woman. “He certainly was on my side,” replied Jack. When asked if he was thinking of the Lord throughout the experience, Mullen surprised the woman by answering in the negative. “Why, what else could you have been thinking of?” she asked. “How in blazes I was going to get ashore,” said the always-practical Captain Jack.
Sassafras Point Light was removed in 1912. Late in the morning of February 5, 1923, a crew aboard the lighthouse tender Pansy arrived to install new acetylene tanks at Fuller Rock. The men first removed the empty old tanks, and then installed six new ones, each about six feet long and weighing about 300 pounds.
After lunch, the men went back just to make sure everything was in proper order. Just as the crewmen were boarding the pier next to the light, there was a terrific explosion that could be heard a mile away. Five men were sent hurtling through the air onto the sharp rocks below. There were no fatalities, but the men’s injuries ranged from facial burns to broken legs. The lighthouse structure was completely destroyed by the fire that resulted from the blast.
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