Keeper Joshua Card Stays on Duty at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse
One of the most famous lighthouse keepers, in life, and afterwards, was Joshua Card. His father was a mariner, and of course Joshua would follow his father’s footsteps starting out 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 a position as Keeper of Boon Island lighthouse, which 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 longest 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 would constantly ask him what the letter stood for, he would reply, “Why Captain of course.”
Keeper Card, along with many other truly dedicated lighthouse keepers, rarely took any time off as he loved being at 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 lighthouse 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 afterwards in 1911. One newspaper writer wrote that Card’s manner was of high intelligence, 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 still seems to be involved in many of the ghost stories of the area as well. 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 his death 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 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 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 where a woman visiting the lighthouse reported seeing a figure in broad daylight standing on the wooden walkway on the front of the lighthouse, wearing an “old-fashioned” keepers uniform. She reported thinking “wow … a guy is giving tours in costume” and 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 very interesting evidence.
Most of the experiences seemed to happen inside the lighthouse. Two of the three teams heard strange noises in the lighthouse; such as the sounds of footsteps walking on the stairway while the team members were all up in the tower. Two female members of the team were even able to communicate with whatever entity was making the noises by knocking (“cut and a shave” sequence), with the entity responding back. Evidence of the sounds of the knocking response 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 in the fort, there were some different noises heard, but nothing that could be identified as possibly paranormal.
With this interesting 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, and 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, that borders between 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 not only observe Portsmouth Harbor lighthouse, but also 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 located 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 a 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. You’ll also find haunted Portsmouth area, and lighthouse tours in the fall. There are actually 5 forts you can also explore that surround 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 tourists paradise with outdoor theater at Prescott Park, Strawberry Bank museum of buildings from the 18th century, and lots of arts and events.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special 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 lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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