Portsmouth Harbor Light

Under renovation... June 2010.

Portsmouth Harbor Light, the only mainland lighthouse on New Hampshire's 18-mile seacoast, can also be viewed from tour boats leaving Portsmouth. The grounds of Fort Constitution are open to the public during the day, and there is a good view of the lighthouse from the fort. Visitors are not allowed into the area near the lighthouse, except during open houses held by the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

The lighthouse has been known by various names: Portsmouth Harbor Light, New Castle Light, Fort Point Light and Fort Constitution Light. It appears that the lighthouse was not lit from 1774 to 1784, although it did serve as a lookout post in the defense of Portsmouth during the Revolution. In 1784, the tower was renovated and relighted. The lighthouse was transferred to the federal government in 1791, and in 1793 President George Washington ordered that the light be maintained at all times, with a keeper living on site. A new 80-foot octagonal wooden Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse was constructed in 1804, 100 yards east of the 1771 tower on a spot called Pollock Rock. The contractor was Benjamin Clark Gilman, a native of nearby Exeter, New Hampshire, who was said to have "remarkable mechanical ability." The keeper had a difficult time with soldiers stealing his supplies and the sound of cannon fire from the fort breaking the dwelling's windows.

The light was electrified in 1934 and automated in 1960. A fourth order Fresnel lens (not the original one) remains in use, covered by a green acrylic cylinder. The characteristic has been fixed green since 1941. Before the cylinder was installed, the light was produced by a green bulb. The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation and is part of the Fort Constitution Historic Site, adjacent to an active Coast Guard Station.

The lighthouse was painted a reddish-brownish color until 1902, when it was painted white. Apparently for a time in the early 1920s it was again painted reddish-brown. Since then it has been white. The cast iron lighthouse was still rare in New England when the Portsmouth tower was built. John Albee of New Castle called it "hideous" and described it as a "corpulent length of stove pipe." Despite some early resistance to the style, the present tower is a handsome example of the durable, low-maintenance brick-lined cast iron lighthouses developed by the Lighthouse Board. According to a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, "Distinctive ornamental features not found on pre-1870s lighthouses are the Italianate hoodmolds projecting above arched window openings and the brackets supporting the iron-balustraded platform for the lantern which houses the light."

A new 48-foot cast-iron lighthouse tower was erected in 1878 on the same foundation as the previous tower. In fact, the new lighthouse was actually assembled inside the old one, which was eventually removed. The new tower, which was designed by Army Corps Officer James C. Duane (Lighthouse Board Engineer for Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, 1868-1879), held a fourth order Fresnel lens. The cast iron segments were prepared in a Portland, Maine, foundry.