Captain Joshua Kenney Card here, down at Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, New Hampshire. Saw a crocus pushing up by the keeper’s house today. Spring is just around the corner.
Today I want to tell you about a keeper down at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, whose career closely overlapped with my own. Captain Josiah Hardy served as keeper at Chatham Light Station, nestled at the cape’s southeast corner, from 1872 to 1899. Chatham Light Station, Cape Cod’s second–established in 1808–had two lighthouses in those days. The original towers were replaced in 1841.
Hardy was born in Chatham in 1822 and went to sea as a cook at the age of nine. He had a long career as a sea captain before taking up light keeping. His granddaughter Ursula Paine later recalled one of Hardy’s many sea stories. On a trip from England to Australia, a stowaway was discovered on Hardy’s ship. The man was suspected of murder, but Hardy secretly set him ashore in Australia to avoid delays. Years later Hardy visited the mayor of Sydney. Hardy didn’t recognize the man at first, but he eventually realized he was the stowaway from years before. The mayor insisted that Hardy accept a gold nugget as a token of gratitude for his earlier help.
Another granddaughter of the keeper, Grace Hardy, preserved the logs from Hardy’s years at the Chatham Light Station. Transcriptions from the logs are in the collection of the Chatham Historical Society. Many of his entries describe the rapid erosion of the bluff on which the station stood. Here are some excerpts, retaining the original spelling:
December 21, 1874: Wind NNW heavy gales Sch[ooner] draged her anchors to the SW Buoy on the common flats the Shore all along sufferd badly this gale. High tides & heavy Sea. The distance was measured to day from foot of South Tower to the edge of the bank 190 feet, 38 foot in width had been cut off since 1870.
February 8, 1875: The month of February of this year was a cold hard month for Ice Snow & Wind. On the 14th Handkerchief and Shovelful Shoal Light Ships were driven from their Stations by Ice.
September 30, 1876: from tower to Bank 126 feet from East Wall of dwelling 128 feet.
November 21, 1876: to day from the East Wall of Dwelling to Bank 112 feet.
February 28, 1877: the distance from foot of South Tower to the Bank is 95 feet.
The authorities took note of the rampant erosion and moved quickly to rebuild the station, across the road and much farther from the edge of the bluff. Two 48-foot, conical cast-iron towers were erected in 1877, along with new dwellings for the principal keeper, the assistant keeper, and their families. In his log Hardy recorded the progress of the construction of the new buildings. On July 31 he noted that the old south tower was only 64 feet from the edge. On September 6 the lenses were moved from the old towers to the new ones, and they went into service that night. Workers finished installing the brick lining of the towers a few days later. Hardy and his family moved from the old dwelling to the new one on November 7.
By September 30, 1878, the old south tower was only 26 feet from the edge of the bluff, and it was down to 19 feet by the end of the year. By September 30, 1879, the tower teetered 27 inches from oblivion.
Another two months passed, and a third of the foundation hung over the edge. Around this time some local boys found ancient coins, rumored to be pirate treasure, under the lighthouse. Fishermen placed bets on the exact time that the tower would fall. Finally, at 1:00 p.m. on December 15, the south tower tumbled to the beach below. Fifteen months later, the 1841 keeper’s house and the old north tower succumbed.
Another of Hardy’s log entries, from September 5, 1881, described an unusual phenomenon: “September 5th will be remembered as the yellow day. The wind from SW light breeze and dense thick fog all day in the afternoon it appeard as if smoke from some great fire blended with the fog and obscured everything from view a short distance off the fields meadows and grass took a deep blue color, the water a deep green & every building a bright yellow hue. It appeard as if some great fire was back of the fog that gave it such bright and singular appearance.” These odd conditions were observed throughout New England and New York State and were noted in newspapers at the time. Some have ascribed the “yellow day” to a prairie fire, but no such event was reported at the time.
In his 1946 book, A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod, Edward Rowe Snow wrote about a visit with a Chatham resident who was acquainted with Josiah Hardy.
Mrs. Harding went on with her thoughts. “There’s an interesting bit about Chatham Light I have,” she reminisced. “One day in the 1880s my husband, Herman, and Captain Josiah Hardy’s son, Samuel, were playing near the light, when the veteran white-whiskered light keeper strode over to them. He had just finished calculations for the day, and there was a pleased expression in his face. ‘I want you two boys to remember this day as long as you live,’ said the captain. ‘I have seen as many ships today as there are days in the year.’
Hardy retired in 1897 and died in late 1900, survived by his widow and four children.
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