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Portsmouth Harbor
This Region:
Seacoast, NH

Isles of Shoals Lighthouse
(White Island Lighthouse)

White Island lighthouse

Rye, New Hampshire
Built in 1821



On White Island about six miles from the Portsmouth shoreline. Island is not for public access. Views of the lighthouse can be seen from nearby Star Island where the public is allowed to explore.

Latitude: 42° 58' 02" N
Longitude: 70° 37' 24" W


Historic Stories:

The Isles of Shoals are a group of nine islands located about six miles off the seacoast of New Hampshire and southern Maine, with ownership of the islands split between the two states.

The first lighthouse in the Isles of Shoals was established on White Island in 1821 as a stone tower.

Isles of Shoals light 1821 construction

Isles of Shoals Light
1821 Construction
Courtesy US Coast Guard

The first keeper was Clement Jackson who was a local merchant but resigned in 1824 after his requests for a raise was denied when he found himself paying for a helper on his own. He was succeeded by a native of the Isles of Shoals or "shoaler", shipmaster Benjamin Haley. However, Haley was only 33 years old when he died in 1829.

Keeper Thomas Laighton and His Daughter Celia

In 1839, Thomas Laighton (also spelled as Leighton) became keeper at isolated White Island Light. He came with his wife Eliza, four-year old daughter Celia, and newborn son Oscar, and left for the Isles of Shoals. He was once a selectman and New Hampshire State Senator, but was unable to get reelected, and he was a former newspaper editor. During a severe gale storm that same year the vessel Pocahontas was wrecked on a nearby sandbar and all aboard perished. The keeper was unable to venture out for any rescue due to the perilous conditions.

Being also an entepreneur, he and his brother Joseph had bought four of the islands in the Isles of Shoals including the largest, Hog (later known as Appledore), and Smuttynose. A few years later, the Laightons moved to nearby Smuttynose Island where Thomas Laighton helped establish the Mid Ocean House to accommodate guests on Smuttynose Island nearby, and later a hotel on Appledore Island. Over the years, the Laightons transformed the Isles of Shoals into a favorite destination for artists and tourists alike. His daughter Celia Laighton, establishing herself as a poet and author, married Levi L. Thaxter, who had been her father’s business partner. They settled in Massachusetts, but each summer she returned to Appledore Island, helping to manage the hotel and entertain prominent literary guests, as Celia Thaxter became a famous author and poet. One of her poems written in 1868, involves the incident she remembers when she was four at the lighthouse, "The Wreck of the Pocahontas."

isles of shoals with new tower

Isles of Shoals Light
1859 Construction
Courtesy US Coast Guard

A new tower was built in 1859 to replace the original which was deteriorating from the constant storms.

Temporary Keeper Becomes National Hero

In 1855, John Bragg Downs was temporarily acting as keeper os the lighthouse, with a friend as his assistant as the new keeper was gathering supplies and his family on shore. During this time a severe blizzard with blinding snow and heavy seas pounded the island. In the evening, a misguided Russian brig ship wrecked on the rocks nearby. A lone sailor was able to make it over the rocks towards the keeper's house. He frantically started knocking on the keeper's door. When the surprised keeper opened the door, the sailor was covered in blood and begging for help for his comrades as the storm raged on.

Downs, with the help of his assitant, was able to carefully secure himself onto a ledge and managed to get a line to the rest of the crew on the vessel. Using his body as an acnhor, he was able to rescue every crew member, bringing them to safety from the sinking ship in the violent storm.

He became a national hero for his valiant efforts.

early image White Island (Isles of Shoals) Lighthouse with new tower

Isles of Shoals Light
(White Island Light)
New Tower Built 1859
Courtesy US Coast Guard

Note: For more details regarding this famous story, select the link "Temporary Keeper Becomes Hero" Blog at the top of the page to be directed to my Lighthouse Stories section.

Isles of Shoals (White Island) light overlooking rocky shore

In 1873, one of the islands, Smuttynose, attracted media attention when two young women were brutally murdered there with an ax. The culprit was caught and hanged in front of the public. It was also believed to be the site of Black beard’s pirate’s treasure buried on the island, although it has never been found. Celia Thaxter’s gift to write about the islands’ gardens, and her writings about murders, ghosts, and shipwrecks on the islands spawned much media attention to the area. Even today, the Isles of Shoals remain a major tourist attraction.

Keeper James Burke was a Portsmouth native and is known for successfully rescuing sixteen women from an overturned boat, another three persons from an overturned craft, and rescuing four sailors found drifting at sea among other rescues during his tenure as keeper. In 1911, a severe winter storm found Keeper Burke on the island without his assistant Gordon Sullivan, who had gone on leave. Burke's wife became very sick from pneumonia as he also caught the dangerous illness. He persevered in his duty to keep the light lit during the storm, at times crawling on his hands and knees to reach the tower, for six exhausting days. When Sullivan returned from his leave, the keeper and his wife were in rough shape. He contacted Captain Joseph Staples on Appledore Island to get medical help for the Burkes, as a tugboat was sent out from the lifesaving station to carry the Burkes to the mainland for medical assistance. The keeper's bravery and diligence in keeping the light burning made local headlines as both he and his wife recovered.

In the "Blizzard of 1978," giant waves were crashing over the island, sweeping the boat house into the sea, and sending a 300-pound rock smashing through the wall of the keeper's cottage. Luckily the covered walkway still remained steadfast as Coast Guard officers escaped to the lighthouse tower.

The many years of constant storms were taking a toll on the lighthouse. A nasty storm on October 1991 washed away the walkway from the tower to the house, as well as the old fog signal tower. This inspired a group of seventh grade students calling themselves the “Lighthouse Kids” in North Hampton, New Hampshire, along with their teacher to try to raise money to save the lighthouse. They raised funds with a check for $110,000 to help with the restoration of the lighthouse, matched with federal funds. Most of the main restorative work was completed during the summer of 2005.

Isles of Shoals (White Island) light



Places to Visit Nearby:

Although New Hampshire’s seacoast is only 18 miles long; there are plenty of parks, beaches and tours for visitors to enjoy. Hampton Beach is New Hampshire's longest beach with plenty of concerts at the Hampton Casino Ballroom. Each week you’ll find plenty of events, festivals, fireworks displays, attractions, amusements, and restaurants. There is also a concert amphitheater for local shows and concerts.

sand castles at Hampton Beach

Sand Sculpture Festival
at Hampton Heach

Among many festivals, in the middle of June is the world-class Sand Sculpture Event.

Visitors can attend in the middle of September the Annual Seafood Festival.

The Rye Harbor State Marina offers plenty of fishing, lobstering, and whale watch expeditions, along with beaches nearby. You can also enjoy some views of coastal Victorian and 20th century mansions in Hampton, NH.

The Isles of Shoals are nine islands split between the New Hampshire and Maine borders, located six miles off the New Hampshire coast. They have been a popular destination for tourists, writers and artists alike for centuries, especially the largest, Star Island. White Island (Isles of Shoals) lighthouse can be easily viewed from Star Island. Here, daytime visitors can schedule a lunch during the summer at the Victorian Era Oceanic Hotel.

They can explore the island and its timely stone cottages and church, built to withstand the harsh weather. stone chruch on Star Island
Star Island Cottages
and Stone Church.

Island Cruises offers tours to the Isles of Shoals Islands and the lighthouse, it is actually the daily mail boat that goes out and passes close by White Island out of Rye Harbor. It offers daily stopovers to Star Island, the next island over, for a few hours or for the day. The teacher who founded the "Lighthouse Kids" organization, is still involved and operates Island Cruises on board the Uncle Oscar each summer. Stop by and say hello, and thanks. Other boats out of Portsmouth Harbor provide tours to Star Island as well.


Directions to NH Seacoast Marinas

Directions to Rye Harbor State Marina


Directions to Portsmouth Docks

From Route I-95:


Local Boat Tours

Boat cruises mentioned below may offer many types of cruises, but also provide lighthouse narrated cruises.

Island Cruises
Provides a mailboat out to the islands along the Isles of Shoals. Provides close up views of White Island (Isles of Shoals) lighthouse. Provides also a stop over for visitors to eat at the Oceanic Hotel and explore Star Island. The founder of the “Lighthouse Kids” who raised funds to help the Isles of Shoals Light, Sue Reynolds, owns the boat. 
Rye Harbor State Marina
Rte 1-A Ocean Blvd
P.O. Box 66
Rye, NH 03870
(603) 964-6446


Isles of Shoals Steamship Co.
Provides narrated history of Portsmouth Harbor, nature, and weekly Isles of Shoals cruises that will drop you off and pick you up at Star Island for half and full day excursions. They have one of the largest vessels in the region, and provide dinner and nightlife cruises.
315 Market Street,
P.O. Box 311
Portsmouth, NH 03801
(603) 431-5500
(800) 441-4620


Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses
Besides offering weekly tours of the tower of Portsmouth Harbor light, and haunted lighthouse tours, they also organize during the summer season special narrated sunset lighthouse cruises that pass by Portsmouth Harbor light, Whaleback light, and White Island (Isles of Shoals) light.
P.O. Box 8232
Portsmouth, NH 03802-5092
Phone: (603) 534-0537


Portsmouth Harbor Cruises
The Isles of Shoals Cruise covers all nine islands and provides close views of White Island Light.
64 Ceres Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801
(603) 436-8084
(800) 776-0915


Sail NH
Sailboat charters to the Isles of Shoals and Portsmouth from Rye Harbor.
Contact: Captain Rick Philbrick
188 Bunker Hill Ave
Stratham NH 03885
Phone: Cell 603-380-3804


Granite State Whale Watch
Besides daily whale watching tours, they a narrated tour of all nine islands of the Isles of Shoals which includes White Island, providing close up views of White Island lighthouse.
1870 Ocean Blvd
Rye, NH 03870
(603) 964-5545


Cove Runner Coastline Cruises
Private intimate trips (up to 6 passengers) along the southern coast of Maine to destinations of your choice, in a smooth riding 23’ power catamaran. Cooler (BYOB), Bluetooth sound system, comfortable seating and a full-sized head provided. Enjoy seal sightings and other wildlife. Departs out of Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.

Captain Bob Spencer
(207) 216-2844


Books to Explore

book of the rise and demise of the largest sailing ships

To order a signed paperback copy:

Available also from bookstores in paperback, hardcover, and as an eBook for all devices.

my ebook on apple books

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 eleven giants of sail were 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. These true stories include competitions, accidents, battling destructive storms, acts of heroism, and their final voyages.



Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of coastal attractions and tours near each beacon, and contact info to plan your special trips.

In the book, you'll find the story of the heroism of islander John Bragg Downs, mentioned above.

Look inside!

book northern New England lighthouses and local coastal attractions





New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales

This image-rich book contains over 50 stories of famous shipwrecks and rescues around New England lighthouses, and also tales of hauntings.

There are more details and imagery provided in the story of John Bragg Downs rescuing survivors of the Russian ship in a winter storm.

You'll find this book and my lighthouse tourism books from the publisher Schiffer Books, or in many fine bookstores like Barnes and Noble.


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