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The Crack in White Island Lighthouse

Who really owns the lighthouse, why is it in
danger -- and can 7th graders save it?

SEE: Lighthouse Saved !!
Read update on Lighthouse Kids

White Island Lighthouse by Peter Randall

One of New Hampshire's best-known landmarks is in real danger . I know because a bunch of North Hampton seventh graders told me. We held a pow-wow recently around a big table at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. The kids showed me shocking photos. They want people to know. Now I'm telling you.

White Island lighthouse is cracking. From a boat, with a good pair of binoculars, you can see the cracks spidering across the outside of the 1859 structure. New Hampshire's only offshore lighthouse is built of brick on granite and painted white. Inside the ancient cylinder the fissures are as thick as a man's thumb and the sky and sea are visible through the aging wall seven bricks thick at the base. Each year the gaps widen and spread, split by the relentless action of wind, salt, sunshine, ice and water.

The North Hampton kids want to spread the word. They want to raise money to fix the lighthouse. They're building a web site. They're calling politicians, historians, reporters and government agencies. They're worried -- and they should be.

North Hampton School Students

New Hampshire owns White Island, one of the nine Isles of Shoals . The state deeded the island to the US Coast Guard throughout much of the last two centuries. Brave lighthouse keepers kept the flames alive to warn ships off the rocky shoals. Poet Celia Thaxter grew up on White Island while her father Thomas Laighton was keeper there long before the Civil War. But there's been no keepers since 1986. The Coast Guard has automated its lighthouses and doesn't want the property anymore. New Hampshire reclaimed the island in 1993 and turned it over to the Parks and Recreation Division.

It's a funny kind of park because almost no one goes there. The rocky island is hard to access even in a boat. Build a dock and Nature washes it away. Early keepers slid boats from a boathouse down a 100-foot wooden railway and winched it back up. But the boathouse and the rails are gone. There is no well for water, no electricity. There is no sewage system. Storms wash away everything that isn't tied down. In the 1840s a storm carried off Celia Thaxter's hen house. In 1984 a three-ton boulder broke into the cottage. Hurricane Bob stole a chunk of the 1820s walkway and tossed an old cement signal tower into the sea.

For the last few years, diving instructor Donald Stevens has leased the island as a training site for divers. He repaired the roof of the 1913 caretaker's cottage and has begun renovations inside. Before that the state of NH ran a short-lived artist-in-residence program. The Audubon Society and the University of New Hampshire run a seabird reclamation program on Seaveys Island, a rocky lump that connects to White at low tide where Celia Thaxter once grazed her cow. It's a pretty sleepy place, unless you're trying to sleep. The automated Coast Guard foghorn blasts a warning every 30 seconds day and night.

Things were going smoothly until the cracks appeared two years ago. Tom Mansfield, architect for the NH Department has visited the site a few times. He says the structural cracks are getting worse. The problem is fixable, he says, but troublesome ten miles out to sea with no boat dock to offload bricks and no water to make mortar.

White Island Lighthouse

"In a real storm there's a chance that a good chunk of that could come down," Mansfield says of the lighthouse wall. "What’s most likely to happen is that a section of brickwork would fall out. We probably wouldn't lose the whole thing."

But that problem is moot for now. There's no money for the repair anyway, estimated at $150,000 to a quarter million dollars. There's no money to maintain the cottage or repair the triangular 1820 wooden walkway that leads to the lighthouse, no funds to build a boat access -- no funds at all. The Parks Dept. survives solely off fees generated by use of its parks. No one uses White Island, so funds have to come from Odiorne State Park or the Wenttworth-Coolidge House or other NH Parks facilities that often cost more money than they generate. Other states actually budget money for their historic landmarks, parks, and wildlife management -- but this is New Hampshire, after all. Live cheap or die.

Last year the Parks Dept. applied for a federal grant to fix the lighthouse cracks, but lost out. Parks director Richard McLeod says he doesn't have funds and suggests that White Island should be transferred to a government or nonprofit agency that can bear the costs.

white island lighthouse

"I just don't think this agency is the place for this property," McLeod told me when I called. He applauds the efforts of the North Hampton students in raising awareness, but isn't optimistic that his agency can find the needed funds. He says White Island was acquired by the Parks department under his predecessor Wilbur LaPage in brighter economic times.

"He was a visionary and an idealist," McLeod says. "And I am a very focused realist. I don't think anyone spent time analyzing the access problems and the maintenance problems."

It wasn't easy tracking down Wilbur LaPage. Someone said he had moved to Florida. Another said he was in Colorado. I found him teaching at the University of Maine in Orono and updated the former NH Parks director on details about poor White Light. LaPage said he had negotiated the return of the island from the US Coast Guard with the understanding that they, not NH, was responsible for maintenance of the lighthouse tower.

"I can tell you for a fact," LaPage says of his lengthy negotiation with the US Coast Guard, "that our discussion would have been very different if I had thought for a minute that we would be responsible for the tower. I am 100% sure that this was excluded from the discussion."

According to LaPage, New Hampshire was legally bound to assume responsibility for the historic island, the caretakers cottage and a couple of outbuildings. The initial 19th century deed to the federal government, he says, included a reversal clause that required, in effect, that the Coast Guard had to return the island to NH when it was finished with it. LaPage says he and then NH Govenror Judd Gregg made this clear to the Coast Guard when he learned they were trying pass the island off to new owners. The Guard maintained legal rights only to maintain the light and foghorn. Discussion centered on the caretakers cottage and the island, but never on the lighthouse. When the state created its artist-in-residence program at White Island, Lapage says, residents were informed that the lighthouse was off limits.

"If this was a state site, we ought to have had access to the tower. Why were we not given access to the tower that we own?"

"That's what we all thought," says architect Mansfield, "until two years ago."

That's when the Coast Guard first notified NH Parks and Recreation that the lighthouse was cracking and needed attention.

"We all looked at each other and said -- but that's their problem!", Mansfield notes. But the Coast Guard had a different interpretation of their quit claim deed filed in Rockingham County Court two days before Christmas in 1993.

I asked Mansfield for a copy of the deed. It says: "The light, antennae, sound signal, and associated equipment which are active aids to navigation shall continue to be operated and maintained by the United States."

Basically the Coast Guard told New Hampshire two years ago, that the federal government maintains the "light", but not the "lighthouse". The contract goes on to say that the state of NH "will not interfere or allow interference in any manner with such navigational aids…" I'm no lawyer, but it sounds to me like the state cannot use the lighthouse, but it also cannot allow the lighthouse to fall down. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Here’s what I think happened. According to both LaPage and McLeod, before NH reclaimed White Island in 1993, they briefly leased it from the Coast Guard. In the 1992 lease document, according to McLeod’s office, the lighthouse is clearly listed as an aid to navigation. Not the light, the lighthouse. By 1993 the language in the quit claim document had changed to refer only to the navigational "equipment". No mention of the tower.

Until the cracks appeared and the deed went under the microscope, NH officials assumed the lighthouse was a "navigational aid." The feds imply otherwise. The lighthouse that holds the equipment 58 feet in the air is not a navigational aid. The scenic structure and its ornate circular staircase are, to the NH Parks Dept, an inspirational setting for the enjoyment and education of the public. To the trimmed down US Coast Guard, that has been dumping coastal lighthouses by the dozen to meet its own budget, the outdated structure is simply an access point to an automated beacon.

I tried to reach a Coast Guard spokesman for a comment, but couldn’t break through the phone machine system. Would I rather have my Coast Guard saving lives in fast boats or rebuilding 19th century lighthouses? I’ll take the rescue. But whose left to rescue White Light?

Assuming the NH Parks and Rec now assumes responsibility for maintaining the lighthouse tower, we're back to square one. The agency has no money and the director McLeod wants someone else to act as steward to the island. All other islands at the Shoals are privately owned. Other lighthouses, recently dumped by the Coast Guard, have been privatized, run by towns or nonprofit agencies, but most are not miles out to sea an difficult to access. Meanwhile, people talk and cracks in White Island lighthouse widen.

white island lighthouse

So that brings us back to the 7th graders of North Hampton School. According to their teacher, Sue Reynolds, the group is about to launch their new web site to save the lighthouse. They have also prepared a dramatic slide show that they will present to kids in neighboring towns, to Rotaries and potential sponsors. It's a long haul from here to a quarter million bucks, but the kids are full of beans and ready to spread the word.

Sue Reynolds, by the way, owns a boat and has her captain's license. She and her son Pete transport a lot of people out to the Isles of Shoals in The Uncle Oscar, named for Celia Thaxter's brother who lived 90 of his nearly 100 years on the islands. Sue Reynolds learned about the cracks in the lighthouse when she transported NH officials out to assess the damage. She mentioned the situation to her students who informed their local state representatives. One of them is already drafting legislation that may help solve the problem.

White Island Lighthouse is bound to become a lightning rod for fundraisers. It’s the Seacoast equivalent of the Old Man in the Mountains. Who wouldn't want to save it? There are active lighthouse groups in the area, and – thanks to the kids in North Hampton – simply airing the problem aloud is generating hope. Donny Stevens, who currently leases White Island for his diving school, says he wants to repair the cracking tower. This week he proposed a plan to the Parks Department to stabilize the lighthouse.

What we may need is a "Friends of White Lighthouse" group modeled after Friends of the Wentworth. That nonprofit organization spent seven years searching for a company willing to restore Wentworth-by-the-Sea Hotel . It worked. I met Bill Walsh, owner of Ocean Properties last week and he plans to have the grand hotel reopen by Spring 2003.

A lighthouse, of course, is a different kettle of fish. It doesn’t generate income like a grand hotel. You can’t charge people to look at it. But it does stand for something. You can feel that in your gut. Visible from three states, it stands at the heart of maritime tradition that started New Hampshire and powered it for centuries. It stands for art, for architecture, for isolation, for bravery, for our crazy ability to build towering lights on inaccessible rocks. It stands – at least until the next big storm -- for whatever you want it to mean as you watch the light blinking in the darkness against a black night sea.

If the feds and the state can’t save our lighthouse, we’ve always got the kids.

By J. Dennis Robinson


Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

PHOTO CREDITS: Color photo of lighthouse by Peter E. Randall. Poto of North Hampton students by J. Dennis Robinson. .Lighthouse dmage photos by Sue Reynolds. Historic photos courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

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