Ahoy! Captain Joshua Card here at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in New Castle, New Hampshire. The leaves are turning bright colors and the nights are growing cold. I’ve got a good supply of coal for cooking and heat in the keeper’s house, and the oil house is well stocked with enough kerosene for the light to last to the spring.
Today I want to tell you about the first keeper at Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light, just up the coast in York, Maine. He started there just four years after I came here to Portsmouth Harbor.
Nathaniel H. Otterson was born in Hooksett, New Hampshire, in 1826. He and his wife, Judith Ann (Johnson) Otterson, had a son, John, and a daughter, Mary Jane. Otterson made the pages of a newspaper called the Mirror and Farmer on May 1, 1875. According to the brief story, Otterson tracked two raccoons through the woods for two miles and cornered them in a hollow tree. He cut the tree down and bagged his game, according to the newspaper.
Otterson sent half of one of the raccoons to his cousin, General Nathaniel “Natt” Head. The animals were “remarkably fat and made rich dinners,” according to the Mirror and Farmer.
Otterson had no experience as a lighthouse keeper, and it isn’t clear whether he had any sort of maritime experience. He was, however, the cousin of Natt Head, who began a term as governor of New Hampshire on June 5, 1879—less than a month before the lighthouse at the Nubble went into service. It’s quite possible that Governor Head’s influence led to Otterson’s appointment. Otterson’s gift of raccoon meat to Head a few years earlier might have helped “grease the skids.”
In any case, Otterson was appointed keeper at the end of June 1879 at $500 yearly—plus an allowance of $30 for fuel. According to some sources, a temporary keeper served for a few days until Otterson arrived on July 5.
Nubble Light was a tourist attraction from the very start. Just two months after the light went into service, a writer in a Concord, New Hampshire, newspaper reported that he had been part of a group that had visited the Nubble. “Our party was courteously received,” he wrote, “and shown over the premises. The outlook from the lantern of the lighthouse is grand.”
It appears that Otterson tried to take advantage of the lighthouse’s status as a tourist draw, as some later keepers also did. An item in the August 7, 1880, issue of the Portsmouth (NH) Journal announced, “Visitors are not allowed to visit the lighthouse at York Nubble between the hours of 6 P.M. and 10 A.M.; but at other times the son of the keeper will row you over and back in his boat for ten cents.”
When Otterson resigned following six years at the Nubble, a local newspaper reported that his leaving was “much to everyone’s regret.” Nathaniel Otterson lived out his years in his hometown of Hooksett. He died in 1891 and is buried at the town’s Head Cemetery.
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