Volunteers of the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, have been working since 2001 to preserve New Hampshire’s only mainland lighthouse. The chapter has also opened the lighthouse to the public for open houses each summer. New exhibits are being developed, and thanks to a recent donation, the group now has photos of every keeper of the lighthouse from 1874 to 1948.
Chuck Petlick is the building code enforcement inspector in the town of New Castle, a small community next to Portsmouth that’s home to Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor and the adjacent lighthouse. Chuck is the grandson and great-grandson of lightkeepers. In November 2005, he donated photos of four local keepers of the past.
Chuck’s great-grandfather, Leander White, was keeper at Whaleback Light, Maine for several years beginning in 1879, and later was keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light from 1909 to 1915. Between Whaleback and Portsmouth Harbor, White was keeper at Cape Elizabeth Light, Maine, for 21 years. When he took over as keeper at Portsmouth Harbor, a newspaper called Coast Watch reported, “Capt. White is the fourth oldest keeper in point of service in this district, having served 37 years in the lighthouse dept. He is one of the best men in this dept. of the government and has been in charge of stations at Boon Island, Whaleback and Cape Porpoise [Goat Island] Light stations during his many years of service.”
A storm in 1886, while Leander White was keeper at Whaleback Light, a wave-swept tower at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, sent waves smashing through a window of the tower, injuring White. He managed to hang a blanket from the tower as a distress signal, and a resident of nearby Kittery reached the lighthouse as the storm abated and brought White ashore for medical attention.
Leander’s son, Arnold White, was keeper at Whaleback Light for an incredible 20 years (1921 – 41). He then spent four years as keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light. Arnold White’s daughter (Chuck Petlick’s mother), Marion Petlick, lives today in Rye, New Hampshire. She didn’t live at Whaleback as a little girl, but she remembers visiting often in summer. She enjoyed fishing from the lighthouse, and also recalls that her father was an excellent baker. The appetizing smell of bread pudding and other desserts cooling on the windowsills often filled the lighthouse.
After his long stretch at Whaleback, Arnold White became keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light, retiring in 1946. The next keeper at Portsmouth Harbor — and, as it turned out, the last official keeper — was Elson Small, who retired in 1948. Small’s wife, Connie, gained fame in later years as the author of the book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife.
Arnold White’s sister, Mary, married Henry Cuskley, who was keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light from 1915 to 1941.
A 1985 book called Inalong, Outalong, Downalong: Reminiscences of New Castle, New Hampshire, by
Helen St. John, relates some interesting tidbits about the Cuskley family’s years in New Castle. The keeper lived at the station with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters. Mary Cuskley was famous for her Sunday dinners and her raspberry custard tarts.
According to St. John, neighbors could always tell when the lighthouse inspector was on his way to New Castle. One New Castle resident later claimed that Mrs. Cuskley would run around wildly as she attempted to straighten out the keeper’s house, throwing things out the windows to get them out of the way. During his stay as keeper, Henry Cuskley was an active member of the school board, and he was always willing to give local children a tour of the lighthouse.
In addition to photos of keepers Leander White,
Arnold White and Henry Cuskley, Chuck Petlick also
donated a fascinating piece of the light station’s history — a logbook that contains “records of absences” of keepers from 1939 to 1945. Every time a keeper left the station, even if it was just to go to church or to pick up a newspaper, they had to record it in this journal. The book contains the records of keepers Henry Cuskley and Arnold White.
For more on the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, including the schedule of open houses for 2006, visit www.LighthouseFoundation.org.
This story appeared in the
March 2006 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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