In 1623, a fishing settlement was started on the islands, and within five years there were enough people living there to support two taverns. Maine’s first church followed a few years later in 1640. Some of the resident fishermen thought the islands should be an all-male preserve. In 1647 Richard Cutt, a settler on Hog Island (now more elegantly named Appledore Island), filed an official complaint: “John Reynolds has brought his wife hither with the intention that she live and abide here, contrary to an act of court which says that no woman shall live upon the Isles of Shoals…he has also brought upon Hog Island a great stock of goats and swine which spoil the spring water…our petitioners therefore pray that the Act of Court be put in execution for the removal of women inhabiting here.” The courts ordered that the goats and swine be removed, but allowed the women to stay.
In 1702, the captain of a visiting French ship estimated the population of the islands to be around 500 people. During the Revolutionary War, the residents of the islands were thought to be mostly loyal to England and were forced to leave. The islands’ former inhabitants settled down elsewhere and did not return to reclaim their homes after the war.
The first lighthouse and accompanying dwelling on the Isles of Shoals were built of rubblestone in 1820. The tower stood forty feet high, and its copper-domed birdcage lantern an additional ten feet or so above that. White Island is mostly barren rock with a very steep and rugged southern face rising eighty feet above the water. The lighthouse is located on this side of the island at the highest point above the water. Even so, the storms at this location are so fierce that the covered walkway connecting the tower to the keeper’s quarters has been washed away many times.
One of the more colorful keepers at Isles of Shoals Light was Thomas Laighton. After losing the election for governor of New Hampshire in 1839, Laighton sold his business in Portsmouth, moved his family to the Isles of Shoals, and vowed he would never set foot on the U.S. mainland again. Laighton purchased four islands in the group, Appledore, Smuttynose, Malaga, and Cedar Islands, and was appointed keeper of the lighthouse on White Island in 1839 at an annual salary of $600. Laighton’s wife, children, and hired hand did most of the actual lighthouse keeping, while Laighton, apparently forgetting his vow, attended to business on the mainland.
I lit the lamps in the lighthouse tower,
For the sun dropped down and the day was dead.
They shone like a glorious clustered flower, -
Ten golden and five red.
After constructing a hotel on Appledore, Laighton resigned his lighthouse post in 1849 and moved his family into the hotel. Following Laighton’s death, his sons continued running the hotel until it burned down in 1914. Most of the Laighton family is buried in a family cemetery on Appledore Island, and their graves can still be seen today.
When I.W.P. Lewis inspected the lighthouse in 1842, he was not impressed with the new lantern room and illuminating apparatus installed just a year earlier by his uncle:
White Island is the southwesternmost of the Isles of Shoals, which are a dangerous obstacle to the navigation of the coast. The light is highly important as a point of departure for Portsmouth harbor, or to clear the York ledges. The present lantern and apparatus were placed on the tower in the summer of 1841, at a cost of $3,600, being the third lantern and apparatus supplied since the erection of the light. The workmanship does not square with the great cost, and the nicety required to adjust the burners exactly in the foci of their respective reflectors appears to have been totally neglected, no two being exactly in similar position when occupying reflectors of like force. There are among the fifteen reflectors four different patterns, the length of whose focal axes are respectively 2 ˝ , (one,) 3, (nine,) and 3 ˝ inches (five.) … The red light should have lamps of greater intensity, or more in number, than the white, as the colored screens absorb nearly, if not quite, fifty per cent of the light; none of the blue, yellow, or green rays being transmitted. The number of lamps on each face, however, the same; consequently, the red light cannot be seen much more than half the distance of the white, and by a distant observer might be mistaken for the revolving white light of Boston. The whole construction of the apparatus bears the mark of rude workmanship.
Nathaniel Hawthorne visited White Island in September 1852 when L.H.D. Shepherd was serving as keeper and made the following observations:
On landing, we found the keeper peeling his harvest of onions, which he had gathered prematurely, because the insects were eating them. His little patch of garden seemed to be a strange kind of soil, as like marine mud as anything; but he had a fair crop of marrow squashes, though injured, as he said, by the last storm; and there were cabbages and a few turnips. I recollect no other garden vegetables. The grass grows pretty luxuriantly, and looked very green where there was any soil; but he kept no cow, nor even a pig nor a hen. His house stands close by the garden,—a small stone building, with peaked roof, and whitewashed. The lighthouse stands on a ledge of rock, with a gulley between, and there is a long covered way, triangular in shape, connecting his residence with it. We ascended into the lantern, which is eighty-seven feet high. It is a revolving light, with several great illuminators of copper silvered, and coloured lamp-glasses. Looking downwards, we had the island displayed as on a chart, with its little bays, its isthmus of shingly beach connecting two parts of the island, and overflowed at high tide; its sunken rocks about it, indicated by the swell, or slightly breaking surf. The keeper of the lighthouse was formerly a writing-master. He has a sneaking kind of look, and does not bear a very high character among his neighbours. Since he kept the light, he has lost two wives,—the first a young creature whom he used to leave alone upon this desolate rock, and the gloom and terror of the situation were probably the cause of her death. The second wife, experiencing the same kind of treatment, ran away from him, and returned to her friends. He pretends to be religious, but drinks. About a year ago he attempted to row out alone from Portsmouth. There was a head wind and head tide, and he would have inevitably drifted out to sea, if Mr. Thaxter had not saved him.
While we were standing in his garden-patch, I heard a woman’s voice inside the dwelling, but know not whose it was. A lighthouse nine miles from shore would be a delightful place for a new-married couple to spend their honeymoon, or their whole first year.
John Downs was serving as acting keeper at the lighthouse while the head keeper went ashore, when a gale struck one March. Late one night, when the storm had been raging a week, Downs’ friend, who was stranded with him at the lighthouse, joked, “Well, John what would you think if somebody was to knock on the door just now?” John replied, “I should think it was the devil himself, for no human being could land alive on the island tonight with that storm raging.” Shortly thereafter a rap, rap, rap at the door startled the two men. After summoning enough courage to open the door, they found a bleeding and drenched sailor who announced “Brig Ashore, sir! Right near the tower!”
The sailor had volunteered to be lowered from the bowsprit of the grounded Russian brig and attempt to reach the lighthouse keeper. Though pummeled by waves that threatened to draw him off the rocky shore, the sailor somehow managed to claw his way to the dwelling. Downs, his friend, and the keeper succeeded in rescuing the entire crew of the brig by serving as an anchor to a line they had tossed to the vessel.
The original stone keeper’s dwelling was in such disrepair that the Lighthouse Board’s annual report for 1875 described it as “…so much decayed and in such a dilapidated condition that it is scarcely habitable.” Two years later, a new wood-framed one-and-a-half story duplex was completed for the keeper and his assistant. The old stone house was remodeled and used for storage.
Mineral oil replaced lard oil as the illuminant for the light in 1883, and in 1892, a brick oil house was built to store this more volatile fuel.
The station was equipped with a fog bell from the beginning, but it had little effect in such a location, since the strong winds on all sides masked the sound, and it was discontinued in 1823. A larger bell was tried later, but in 1896 the Lighthouse Board noted that it fell “far short of being adequate to the needs of commerce” and requested funds for a “more effective signal.” An automated fog bell was installed in 1905 before a first-class air siren, putting out a three-second blast every thirty seconds, was finally placed on the island. The base of the old stone lighthouse was retained when the cylindrical brick tower was built, and atop this base, was constructed a tower for the fog bell and air siren.
The Coast Guard removed the 1878 duplex in the early 1950s and constructed a modern residence on the site of the original dwelling. Following a three-month-long automation process, Coast Guard personnel were removed from White Island in 1986. A few years later, the tower’s Fresnel lens was removed in favor of a modern beacon.
In 1993, White Island and a couple other islands in the group were transferred to the New Hampshire State Parks system. The station had fallen into disrepair by the start of the new millennium, but a group of local students at North Hampton School known as the Lighthouse Kids took on the mission of raising funds to restore the lighthouse. In April 2003, their efforts were rewarded with a $250,000 Save America’s Treasures Grant. Through their own projects, they raised additional money, and in 2005, the tower was repaired and covered in a fresh stucco coating, and the dwelling received a new roof.
On April 19, 2007, a vicious storm pummeled White Island, destroying the covered walkway between the tower and the dwelling along with the station’s foghorn and solar panels. The Coast Guard promptly repaired the navigation equipment and helicopter landing pad, and the iconic covered walkway was rebuilt in 2011.
The Lighthouse Kids started a stewardship program in 2012 which allows resident volunteers the opportunity to maintain the island’s structures and welcome visitors.