The jagged ledge known as Whaleback lurks menacingly on the northeast side of the entrance to the Piscataqua River. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the Piscataqua, was established as an important port for shipbuilding and trade before the American Revolution, and wrecks occurred around the ledges at mouth of the river with sickening regularity. The first lighthouse built on the ledge in 1830 was poorly built, but it lasted 42 years and has been cited as the first successful wave-swept lighthouse in the United States.
The granite tower that still stands on the ledge today was completed in 1872. The light was automated and the station was destaffed in early 1963. Among the last Coast Guard keepers was Jim Pope, a local Maine native who was one of the crew from 1960 to 1962. He went on to a long career as a tugboat captain.
Jim is a bit of a local legend who has made a number of appearances at events for Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. Most of this episode is an interview recorded with Jim at the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum a few months ago, with special thanks to Kim Sanborn and videographer Jim White.
A Keeper’s Letter from Whaleback Lighthouse, 1957
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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