White Island Light was proclaimed the “most endangered lighthouse in New England” in these pages not so long ago, and it was no exaggeration. The brick tower’s web of deep cracks was growing wider and deeper with each winter storm. You can now scratch it off the “Doomsday List." New Hampshire’s only offshore lighthouse is looking gleaming and new, thanks to five years of dedication by the group known as the Lighthouse Kids, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, and their supporters.
The present White Island Lighthouse, also known as Isles of Shoals Lighthouse, was built at the rocky archipelago’s southern end in 1859 to replace an earlier (1821) tower. The Coast Guard left White Island in 1986 after the station was automated. A few years later, ownership of the island was transferred to the state of New Hampshire, under the management of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Because of the battering it takes each year from high winds and ice, the 58-foot brick tower developed severe problems. The keeper’s house suffered, too, although it’s been utilized in recent years by a diving school operator and the Audubon Society of New Hampshire.
A local science teacher got the restoration ball rolling about five years ago. The North Hampton School is located near New Hampshire’s short 18-mile seacoast, just a few miles from the fabled Isles of Shoals. Besides teaching at the school, Sue Reynolds operates a tour boat from nearby Rye to the Isles of Shoals. Her concern for the deteriorating lighthouse led her to inaugurate the Lighthouse Kids as a seventh grade community service project, with the goal of raising awareness and funds for restoration. The Kids later became the only youth chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation.
Each year, the seventh graders of the Lighthouse Kids have spoken to rotary clubs and other community groups, and they’ve been featured on many TV shows and in numerous newspapers and magazines, locally and nationally. They’ve addressed two committees of the New Hampshire legislature. They’ve written countless fundraising letters, sold T-shirts and applied for grants. Most importantly and impressively, they’ve raised about $120,000 and also secured a matching $250,000 grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program.
This past June, the Lighthouse Kids presented a check for $110,000 to the state’s governor and executive council. That amount, combined with the matching funds from the federal grant and some state funding, has paid for more than $300,000 worth of restoration. Some of the state funds came from sales of conservation license plates.
In 2003, a historic structure report on the lighthouse was written by Turk Tracy and Larry Architects of Portland, Maine.
Tom Mansfield, an architect for the state of New Hampshire, using that report as a basis, prepared the specifications for the restoration. The contractor hired for the restoration was Ricci Construction of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Rob Kenney, a carpenter and custom homebuilder who also runs a charter vessel (Captain Rob’s Dive Charters) based in Rye, NH, supervised the project. Kenney also provided transportation for all who worked on the project aboard his 30-foot boat Giant Stride.
There are no longer any facilities for landing a boat at White Island, so workers had to transfer supplies to a dinghy, then carry them ashore. According to Butch Ricci of Ricci Construction, getting materials to the site was the hardest part of the job. He says the weather was very cooperative and only a few days of work were lost due to bad weather or harsh sea conditions.
The tower stands on an uneven granite outcropping that made setting up staging precarious, but extra care was taken and there were no mishaps. The work on the outside of the tower was done by personnel from J.B. Leslie, a masonry contractor from South Berwick, Maine. Owner Jim Leslie agrees that the tricky boat access made the job a challenge. “Every day, boatloads of bricks, cement and lime were taken out there,” says Leslie. “They were long days — 12-hour days. It was hard work.”
Bill Hoffman was in charge of the work on the tower
for J.B. Leslie, but Leslie himself went to the island two or three times a week. He says he has a great sense of pride about the project and wanted to make sure everything was done exactly right. He told his workers, “You’ll probably never work on another lighthouse again. You’re really a part of history.” In addition to their work on the tower, the J.B. Leslie workers did some repairs on the chimneys of the keeper’s house.
The exterior of the tower was repaired and repainted, with more than 1,000 bricks replaced. The tower was also strengthened with the addition of a system of stainless steel ties — from a company based in England called Helifix — that bind the brick courses together. The entire surface was then coated with stucco to help protect it from the elements.
Workers from Ricci Construction replaced the tower’s glass block windows with windows similar to the original ones. The tower’s interior iron surfaces, including the entire cast-iron spiral stairway, were repainted by a worker from F.A. Gray of Portsmouth, a company that’s been in business since 1902. The same worker painted the interior ceiling in the lantern and the exterior domed lantern roof.
There wasn’t enough funding to cover a complete restoration of the keeper’s house in this phase, but much work was done. Personnel from Ricci Construction replaced the roof and some windows, making the house weather-tight. It had suffered from leaks and water damage in recent years. Some of the house’s clapboards had to be removed, revealing rotting wood underneath, and similar problems were also encountered in the roof. Much of the house’s deteriorated wood, including corner boards and sills, was replaced where needed, and the exterior of the house was also repainted.
The roof of a small pump house near the keeper’s house was replaced, and the exterior of the building was stuccoed. A generator building was also coated with stucco to make it more weather-tight.
The work was originally scheduled to be finished next spring, but it took only about nine weeks and was in September. Butch Ricci cites the cooperation of all the parties involved, and says that state officials were extremely helpful and cooperative. Ricci, a Portsmouth native who had never been on the Isles of Shoals before, says getting the job done well became a source of pride with all involved. He adds, “It was a
great experience which gave me a good historical perspective. And God bless those kids!”
Tom Mansfield, now public works project manager
for the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, says he is very pleased with what’s been accomplished this year. “They got more work done than I had dared hope,” he says. He also cites Sue Reynolds as a key player in making things happen at White Island. “Not only did she start the Lighthouse Kids,” says Mansfield, “but she also facilitated transportation to the island in her
boat whenever it was needed.”
Reynolds herself couldn’t be more thrilled. “When I went out by the lighthouse — two or three times a day — this summer, and I narrated while viewing the progress, I got tingles every time,” she says. “It’s just really incredible to me. We couldn’t have accomplished this without the support of many local people and organizations. The bottom line seems to be that the public believed in and got behind the Kids, and the Kids — with a little guidance — made a difference.” Near the end of the restoration project, Reynolds took some of the Lighthouse Kids out in the Uncle Oscar to view the progress.
According to Mansfield, there has been discussion about the possibility of overnight stays on White Island being available to the public at some point in the future. The proceeds from such a program would help pay for the upkeep of the buildings.
About $200,000 is needed to complete restoration of the keeper’s house and other buildings, so the job of the Lighthouse Kids — and the state of New Hampshire — is far from finished. But all the Kids and everyone who has contributed to this project should be proud that their long slog has produced such glorious results. Along with the lighthouse, lots of people along the New Hampshire seacoast are beaming these days.
This story appeared in the
November 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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