Captain Joshua Kenney Card reporting from Light Station Portsmouth Harbor here on the New Hampshire Seacoast, shortest seacoast of any state that has a seacoast. But as seacoasts go, it’s choice.
Today I’m going to tell you about some of the keepers down at Long Island Head Light in Boston Harbor. It’s not as well known as its neighbor, Boston Light, the oldest light station on the continent. But Long Island Head has had a lighthouse since 1819, and the tower erected there in 1844 was the first cast-iron lighthouse in the nation. The present brick tower was built in 1901.
The first keeper was Jonathan Lawrence, a veteran of the War of 1812. Lawrence was a local man who had served in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. At the Battle of Fort Erie in August 1814, Lawrence was struck by a bullet that grazed his head, entered his shoulder, and exited through his back. He was one of many wounded veterans of various wars who received light-keeping appointments as favors.
One Sunday in April 1821, Lawrence spotted a sailboat in distress near the island. He quickly descended the hill and launched a small boat. With the help of a man from nearby Rainsford Island, Lawrence rescued three survivors who were clinging to the overturned sailboat. Two other passengers had already drowned. A newspaper report on the incident added this editorial comment: “We have not heard that either necessity or mercy called those persons out on the Sabbath. Many lives have heretofore been lost in this way. Let these facts speak loudly as a CAUTION.” Lawrence died at the age of 45 in September 1825, apparently of complications from his war wounds.
The next keeper was Charles Beck. Beck was still in charge in 1845 when the writer James Lloyd Homer visited and observed that the keeper had the added duty of running a signal tower for harbor pilots, hoisting a black ball when pilots were needed for an incoming vessel. This system was apparently in use from the earliest days of the lighthouse. Beck was still in charge when an 1850 inspection produced the this comment: “Everything in and about these premises is just about as it should be. Keeper is a good one.”
Thomas H. Lyndon, keeper from 1881 to 1894, was born in Birmingham, England, in 1829, and came to the United States in 1860. He and his wife Mary Ann (Weston) had a daughter, Louise, the following spring. Louise Lyndon later wrote a novel called A Lighthouse Village based on her family’s years at Long Island Head Light.
On January 8, 1918, Edwin Tarr, who had become keeper in 1906, died while sitting in his chair facing the harbor. A few days later, Tarr’s funeral was held in the keeper’s house. A sleet storm arrived during the service. When the pallbearers emerged with the casket, they found the steep hill coated with a sheet of ice.
As the four men attempted to carry the casket down the path, one of them slipped and lost his grip. The coffin fell to the ice and began to slide on its own. The men, seeing no other option, jumped on the coffin in an attempt to slow it down, and they rode it down the hill like a toboggan.
The coffin came to rest just at the head of the wharf and further catastrophe was averted. One of the pallbearers, a soldier at Fort Strong, related the incident to Edward Rowe Snow, who immortalized the macabre story in his book The Islands of Boston Harbor.
After Tarr’s death, various custodians attended Long Island Head Light until 1929, when it was converted to automatic acetylene gas operation. The keeper’s house and other outbuildings were removed after automation. Ownership of the lighthouse passed to the National Park Service in June 2011.
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