When the first stones were laid for the foundation, the contractors, Daniel Haselton and William Palmer, didn’t bother to level the ledge instead filling in gaps with smaller stones. As soon as the first storm hit the lighthouse, all the small stones were washed away, leaving the foundation with no underpinning. The foundation pier, constructed of rough-split granite blocks, was forty-eight feet in diameter at its base and twenty-two feet high. Atop the pier, a sloping stone tower was built to a height of thirty-two feet. Samuel E. Haskell, the first keeper, quickly discovered that the building was so leaky that he was soaked every time a wave hit the lighthouse. The tower was encased in wood in 1837 “to prevent the keeper from being drowned out by the sea washing through all the crevices.”
Lieutenant Thomas J. Manning of the U.S. Navy surveyed the navigational aids in the first district in 1838 and reported the following on “Whale’s- back light”:
I have visited this light; it appears to be exceedingly unsafe for the keeper in a gale of wind; the force of the sea is so great that it shakes it to its foundation; it being built of stone, I think that it cannot stand long. I think to build a sea-wall for its protection would cost, at least, one hundred thousand dollars. My opinion is, that if a house were built upon an iron frame, on the hump which is about fifteen or twenty feet from the present light, and is barely covered at high tides, it would be perfectly secure.
Congress appropriated a total of $20,000 in 1838-1839 to build a breakwater on the east side of the foundation to protect the lighthouse. However, after Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the founder of West Point, and noted Boston architect Alexander Paris were asked for their opinion of the lighthouse and proposed breakwater, they advised tearing the whole thing down and starting over, as no breakwater could secure the present structure. Their suggestion of an allocation of $75,000 for a new lighthouse went unheeded for over two decades, and the appropriation of $20,000 went unspent.
In 1839, a local journal carried the following description of life at the lighthouse: “…such was the effect of the sea, that the assistants of the keeper could not hear each [other] speak when in the lantern, on account of the noise produced by the shaking of the apparatus in the lantern, when the sea struck the foundation of the light house…The reader may form some idea of the unenviable situation of the keeper…during the late storm from the fact that the building is situated on a ledge of sunken rocks, only visible during low water and about a mile from the nearest human habitation.”
In 1842, a civil engineer named I.W.P. Lewis was commissioned to survey a number of New England lighthouses. He described the pier at Whaleback as “rudely and fraudulently constructed,” and noted that large swells shook the lighthouse “in the most alarming manner.” Keeper Eliphalet Grover informed Lewis that “the vibration was so great as to move the chairs and tables about the floor.” Lewis went on to point out that “the advantage of employing professional men of reputation in these public works, instead of selling the contracts to the lowest bidder, cannot better be illustrated than by contrasting the construction of the light-house on Whale’s Back rock with the Saddleback tower.”
Lewis provided the following description of the lighthouse:
The stones composing the base are from four to six feet long, and eighteen to twenty-four inches thick; laid in alternate courses of headers and stretchers, with open joints of from one to six inches width, according to the irregularities of the beds and builds. A few iron dowels are visible within the joins, but at rare intervals. The tower is of rough-dressed granite, form conical; twenty-two feet diameter at the base, and eleven feet at the top; walls three feet thick at base, and one foot six inches at top; height above platform thirty-eight feet. Inside are four rooms and a cellar; two lower rooms, lathed and plastered; two upper rooms, walls naked; staircases of wood. A wood shed, seven by ten feet, is erected on the platform at the north side of the tower, and secured to it by a chain cable passed around both.
After each year passed and the tower somehow survived, bureaucrats in Washington became less convinced that all that money needed to be spent on a new lighthouse, and that repairing the existing lighthouse was warranted. In 1851, $875 was spent to refinish the interior of the lighthouse, and $285 was spent repointing the masonry joints of the lighthouse’s foundation. A new fourth-order Fresnel lens and lantern room were installed atop the tower in 1855.
The construction site for the new tower was covered by water except at low tide, and there were entire days when the weather prevented any work being done. The new tower was built of huge granite blocks, dovetailed together and bolted to the ledge. The base of the tower was solid to a height of twenty feet above the low-water mark, and the new tower’s beacon shone at a height of sixty-eight feet above the sea. Finished in 1872, the new lighthouse was built near the old pier and tower, where the keepers continued to store their boat. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was apparently transferred over from the old tower, as the light’s characteristic remained a fixed white light punctuated every ninety seconds by a bright flash.
Even the new tower could not resist the power of the sea; an 1886 storm broke a window in the lighthouse and almost drowned the keepers in the waves that poured in. Keeper Leander White flew a blanket from the top of the tower as a distress signal, but the ferocious wind soon ripped it to shreds. The broken window was replaced by a solid block of granite.
A metal structure was built in the lee of the tower in 1878 to house a third-class Daboll trumpet operated by duplicate caloric engines. This fog signal replaced a bell, which had been run by machinery at the station since 1863. During the winter of 1888, the fog signal was in operation for about 974 hours, consuming 16,895 pounds of coal.
The old stone tower was finally removed in 1880, and “a pair of wrought-iron cranes” were attached to the west side of the fog signal building for storing the keeper’s boat. A covered way was built to connect the tower and fog signal building in 1881. A different fourth-order revolving lens was placed atop the tower in 1898, and it, in turn, was replaced in 1912 by a new Barbier, Bernard & Turenne Fresnel lens. This new bi-valve lens had two bull’s-eye panels in each of its two faces and produced a double-flash every ten seconds.
Given the confining living quarters on Whaleback, one would think there was a high turnover of keepers, but such was not the case. Perhaps it was the station’s closeness to shore and a large city that helped it retain keepers. A newspaper in 1911 noted that Keeper Walter S. Amee had been in charge of the lighthouse for eighteen years, and that his two assistants were the longest-serving assistants in the district, with John W. Wetzel and John P. Brooks having respectively been first and second assistants at the lighthouse for twelve years! Both of the assistants had been offered promotions to other stations, but they preferred staying at Whaleback.
Currents can be complicated and tricky along the New England coast. For forty years, author and historian Edward Rowe Snow flew his small plane over New England lighthouses at Christmas time and air-dropped presents for the keepers. One year, Snow missed his target at Whaleback, and his package of presents landed in the sea. He circled back, made another pass, and was successful on his second attempt. Weeks later, someone walking on a beach at Cape Cod found the first package, after it had traveled almost ninety miles in a straight line across Massachusetts Bay!
Morgan Willis was a keeper at both Whaleback Ledge and Cape Neddick. During lonely nights at Whaleback Ledge, Willis would dial zero just to hear the voice of operator Janet St. Lawrence of Portsmouth, whom he became his bride in 1950. After his time in the Coast Guard, Willis settled in Portsmouth and dabbled in antiques before opening up Seaboard Auction Gallery in nearby Eliot.
Whaleback Lighthouse was automated in 1963, when its Fresnel lens was replaced by revolving aerobeacons. In 2002, a VRB-25 optic was installed in the lantern room.
In October 2005, Whaleback Lighthouse was licensed to the American Lighthouse Foundation, who worked with the Town of Kittery, Maine to preserve the stone tower, which still warns mariners away from its dangerous ledges with two white flashes every ten seconds. The Town of Kittery also plans on restoring the Wood Island Life Boat Station, located near Whaleback Ledge Lighthouse, and turning it into a maritime/lighthouse museum and education center.
In June 2007, Whaleback Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities and was awarded to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in November 2008. Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF, manages Whaleback Lighthouse and is raising funds for its restoration.
In October 2009, the Coast Guard installed a radio-activated foghorn and a modern VLB-44 light emitting diode (LED) beacon at Whaleback Lighthouse. When mariners require the assistance of the foghorn, they can tune their VHF radio to channel 79 and key their microphone five times. This action will activate a relay that powers the horn for forty-five minutes. Installation of the new beacon was prompted by the failure of the tower’s submarine electrical cable. The efficient LED beacon consumes less power than the VRB-25 it replaced, allowing a compact array of solar panels and batteries to power the light.