Keeper Joshua Card Stays on Duty at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse
One of the most famous lighthouse keepers in life, and afterward, was Joshua Card. His father was a mariner, and of course, Joshua would follow in his father’s footsteps, starting as a cabin boy on a schooner with his father as First Mate at the age of 12. He became a hardened sailor until he turned 27. When his father left to sail in the late 1840s for the gold fields of California, Joshua decided to work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for good pay. He later started an express teaming business between New Castle and Portsmouth after work was slackening at the Navy Yard. With a growing family, he later accepted the keeper of the Boon Island lighthouse position, where he stayed for six years. He became tired of the isolation at Boon Island and missed the active life around New Castle and Portsmouth.
In 1874, he was offered the position of Keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Hampshire, which he graciously accepted. He loved life around the fort near the lighthouse, the lighthouse itself, and his neighbors in New Castle and Portsmouth. He was a longtime resident of the area and served for 35 years, from 1874 to 1909, one of the most extended stays for a keeper at the same lighthouse. Card was also known to have a great sense of humor. As part of his uniform, Card would wear a cap with the letter “K” surrounded by a wreath. When visitors or locals constantly asked him what the letter stood for, he would reply, “Why Captain, of course.”
Keeper Card and many other genuinely dedicated lighthouse keepers rarely took any time off as he loved attending the lighthouse and tending to its needs. He would maintain the light for years without taking a single day off. He stayed at the lighthouse for over 35 years and became the seacoast’s oldest keeper. It is reported that in that span of 35 years, from 1874 to 1909, he only failed to light the lamp 11 times. This was quite a feat of dedication. He died a short time afterward, in 1911. One newspaper writer wrote that Card’s manner was knowledgeable; he was punctual to the minute, had a kindly humor, and was always courteous to his neighbors and visitors to the lighthouse.
Joshua Card Still at Portsmouth Lighthouse After Death
Joshua Card also seems to be involved in many of the area’s ghost stories. Although he had retired due to an apparent stroke, and some have written he retired against his will at the age of 86, his ghost has been seen and heard for many years since he died in 1911. Recently reported sightings of Card’s ghost range from personnel stationed at the nearby Coast Guard building observing a “shadowy figure” roaming the grounds at night to an incident that occurred when one of the caretakers of the Friends of Portsmouth Lighthouse, while painting in the lighthouse’s lantern room heard a voice say “How are you doing?” When the caretaker yelled down, he observed no one around. Another experience involves a group taking a nighttime tour of Fort Constitution. One of them snapped pictures of the lighthouse that was displayed in a few of the finished prints, a “greenish mist” coming in and circling the area with no light observed from any cars or nearby buildings.
One event occurred when a woman visiting the lighthouse reported seeing a figure in broad daylight standing on the wooden walkway in the front of the lighthouse, wearing an “old-fashioned” keepers uniform. She reported thinking, “Wow… a guy is giving tours in costume,” then she said he just vanished. Quite shaken, when she walked over to the nearby Coast Guard Station to describe her experience, she noted photos of Keeper Card and identified him as the one she saw in uniform.
These stories attracted the ghost-seeking team from the program “Ghost Hunters” in October 2008 to come out and film any strange occurrences and to help explain any strange activities perceived. As the ghost-seekers investigated and videotaped throughout the night inside Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, the Fort Constitution area, and the keeper’s quarters, which were all closed to the public for the investigation, they got some fascinating evidence.
Most of the experiences seemed to happen inside the lighthouse. Two of the three teams heard strange noises in the lighthouse, such as footsteps on the stairway, while the team members were all up in the tower. Two female team members could even communicate with whatever entity was making the noises by knocking (“cut and a shave” sequence), with the entity responding. Evidence of the knocking response sounds and footsteps were easily caught on video.
In the keeper’s quarters, in the basement, that team heard some voices and a slamming of a door, with no wind drafts to cause the incident, also captured on tape. Outside the fort, some noises were heard, but nothing could be identified as possibly paranormal.
With this compelling evidence, it seems there may be more investigations forthcoming. The ghost of Keeper Joshua Card seems to enjoy the attention while he’s still visiting the lighthouse on some nights, making sure the light is tended to and helping to guide mariners home.
Exploring Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and Surrounding Area
The lighthouse is located on New Castle Island, connected by road to Portsmouth, on the New Hampshire side of the Piscataqua River, which borders New Hampshire and Maine, with lots of shipping traffic going by, which you can watch from Great Island Common Park, right next door. Here, you can observe Portsmouth Harbor lighthouse and the stone tower of Whaleback Lighthouse across the river in Maine. and If you have a chance to visit Portsmouth’s lighthouse and inside the historical Fort Constitution, the surrounding scenery is well worth the trip (I’m a bit partial to this area as I live a short distance away). It is on an active Coast Guard station, so follow all guidelines and rules.
During the summer months, you can take tours inside the tower of the lighthouse for scenic views of the fort and Portsmouth Harbor, and there are boat tours like Isles of Shoals Steamship Company out of Portsmouth Harbor that pass by the lighthouse and can take you out to the Isles of Shoals. The haunted Portsmouth area and lighthouse tours will also be found in the fall. You can also explore five forts surrounding the lighthouse area: Fort Constitution right outside the beacon, Fort McClary, Fort Odiorne (Odiorne Point Park), Fort Stark, and across the river at Fort Foster in Kittery, Maine. Portsmouth is a tourist paradise with outdoor theater at Prescott Park, Strawberry Bank museum of buildings from the 18th century, and many arts and events.
Here are some photos I’ve taken of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides extraordinary human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale-watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and even lighthouses where you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses where you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions, like the story mentioned above about Joshua Card of Portsmouth Harbor Light.
Included is the story of Portsmouth Harbor Light’s famous Keeper, Joshua Card, along with over 50 other stories in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales. This image-rich book also contains vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
Join, Learn, and Support The American Lighthouse Foundation
Copyright © Allan Wood Photography; do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved.