A View from Here: Lighthouses of the Seacoast

Heidi Duncanson | Communications Assistant

New England’s rocky coastline is treacherous to navigate by boat, so for centuries, mariners have relied on lighthouses to keep them safe from shoals and other hazards as they approach land or harbors. Here at Odiorne Point State Park in Rye, we are fortunate to be able to see four different lighthouses right from our shore. In the summer season, Seacoast Science Center offers free naturalist-led programs for all park visitors to learn more about the lighthouses of the Seacoast. 

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

Looking east, the closest lighthouse we can see is Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, located within Fort Constitution in New Castle, at the entry to Portsmouth Harbor. The lighthouse here was first erected in 1771 as a 78 foot tall wooden tower topped by an iron lantern housing three copper oil lamps. It was the first lighthouse built north of Boston in the American colonies and served to protect the harbor during the American Revolution. The original tower was rebuilt several times, including in 1878 with the construction of a 48 foot tall cast iron structure that still stands today. The light was electrified in 1925 and automated in 1960. A fourth order Fresnel lens remains in use covered by a green acrylic cylinder and the light has been set as a fixed green signal since 1941.

Whaleback Light

Looking north from Odiorne Point, the next closest lighthouse we see is the distinctive Whaleback Light. This lighthouse sits at the northeast entrance to Portsmouth Harbor just over the Maine border, built on ledge from the southern tip of Gerrish Island. The original lighthouse structure here was built in 1820 as a stone tower atop a conical granite pier, with two lights to differeniate it from other navigational aids in the area. A new stone tower was built in 1872 to replace the older aging structure. The new tower was 58 feet tall and 28 feet in diameter at its base, with a revolving Fresnel lens and fog signal. The light was automated in 1963 and the lens was replaced by rotating aerobeacons that flash twice every ten seconds. This lighthouse and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse are now cared for by the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses with much more information available at www.portsmouthharborlighthouse.org/.

Boon Island Light

Continuing clockwise and looking northeast, the next lighthouse you can see from our shore is Boone Island Lighthouse located in York, Maine. This lighthouse has the distinction of being the tallest light in New England at 133 feet. It was originally built on a 300 x 700 barren shoal as a 50 foot granite tower. In 1855, it was renovated to be a much higher stone tower to better protect mariners from wrecks. The light in this tower was automated in 1978 and its white light flashes every five seconds.

White Island Lighthouse

The southern-most lighthouse seen from our shore is White Island Lighthouse, officially located in Rye and New Hampshire’s only offshore lighthouse. The original tower here was built in 1820 and was made of stone and shingles, topping out at 87 feet. It was one of the first lighthouses in the United States to be fitted with a Fresnel lens. In 1857, the aging original structure was rebuilt to be an all-brick tower standing at 58 feet tall. Its light was automated in 1987 and flashes once every 15 seconds. This lighthouse was deeded to New Hampshire State Parks division in 1993 and is now managed by the Bureau of Historic Sites.

For lighthouse aficionados, Seacoast Science Center is part of the United States Lighthouse Society and carries Lighthouse Passport booklets. At our Nature Store, you can purchase a passport and get four stamps for the four lighthouses you can see from our shore. For more information, please visit: www.seacoastsciencecenter.org/explore-and-learn/lighthouse-passport-program/.

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