Captain Joshua Card here, at Fort Point on the New Hampshire Seacoast. The days are getting longer and the weather’s been mostly clear. I haven’t had to wind the fog bell mechanism in more than a month. That will change come summer.
Thought I’d tell you about Benjamin Ellsworth today, another contemporary of mine who was keeper for more than 40 years down at the Ipswich Range Light station in Massachusetts. His daughter, Susan, was really an assistant keeper, although she was never paid for the position. The Ipswich station went into operation on December 1, 1837. The lights served as a range for mariners coming through the main channel into the mouth of the Ipswich River. If you’ve been to the area, you might know the area where the lighthouses once stood as Crane’s Beach.
Benjamin Ellsworth, who was born in nearby Rowley, Massachusetts, in 1813, was appointed keeper in 1861 after spending some years in the local clamming and fishing industries. Ellsworth’s wife died soon after he took the position, and the keeper’s daughter, Susan, kept house at the station. Susan was the youngest of 12 children. Three sons of Keeper Ellsworth fought in the Civil War, and all three returned safely.
Ellsworth was responsible for several rescues of shipwreck victims during his long stay. In October 1863, he went to the aid of the passengers of an English schooner that had run aground. He later said he could “scarcely help from laughing” when he reached the wreck, because the passengers thought he was there to rob them. One of the passengers, a lawyer, had to convince the others to go with Ellsworth, and they all survived.
During the cold afternoon of March 11, 1872, a small fishing schooner, the Garabaldi, went aground on a sand bar near the Ipswich station during a snow squall. Ellsworth received a citation from the Massachusetts Humane Society for the rescue of the men from the Garibaldi. Later, in 1892, he performed a daring rescue a few miles the coast from his light station in high wind and waves. For his heroism, the keeper received a bronze medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society.
Ellsworth was interviewed for a newspaper article in 1897, when he was believed to be the oldest keeper employed in the United States. His daughter Susan—known as Susie—was still assisting him, as was a son, Jason.
Another article in 1898 described the station:
“About the house are several beautiful shell pictures, the result of Miss Susan’s skill and artistic taste, and the house also contains the government circulating library. This is replenished every year by the lighthouse tender Verbena, when she brings the supply of oil, chimneys, wicks and coal for the station. A plank walk, 400 feet long, leads from the keeper’s dwelling to the lighthouse, and from there to the ‘bug light’ near the beach, is another plank walk, 1000 feet in length.
“Like his own home, everything about the lighthouse shows the nicest of care, and is the very acme of neatness… Mr. Ellsworth is still hale, hearty and ruddy with the health-color that comes from the brisk sea-breezes that have whistled about him for nearly 40 years of life at the beach. He is one of the prize packages of Ipswich.”
A 1902 article praised Ellsworth: ‘As long as things go on properly he will probably never be removed. The family, and especially the old man himself, are so deeply rooted there at the light it would be hardly possible for them to be happy elsewhere.” The writer described Ellsworth cracking delectable Ipswich clams for his cats, and emphasized the many contributions of his daughter Susan:
“It is Miss Susan Ellsworth who has tended the light. As a vestal virgin of old Rome fed the sacred fire on the altar, that it should never die out, or as a nun watches over the altar lamp and keeps it ever shining brightly, so this New England daughter of a lighthouse keeper has tended, with almost reverential feeling, this great light… ‘It is my life,’ declared Miss Ellsworth recently, and as she said it, softly, and with shining eye, a flush crept across her face, such as is seen on the face of a maiden when her lover’s name is spoken.”
Benjamin Ellsworth died soon after the 1902 article, at the age of 89. His daughter Susan would live to be 104, surviving her 12 brothers and sisters. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, a local newspaper reported:
“Miss Ellsworth helped her father keep the great lamp in the lighthouse glittering. She performed such chores as cleaning the glass reflectors, polishing the metal and trimming the wicks so that seafaring men could rest assured of safe voyage, at least near the Ipswich Light.”
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