TThe oldest lighthouse in the country would have been in New England had the British not blown it up during the American Revolution. Today, Boston Light is the second oldest lighthouse in the country — and the oldest in Massachusetts.
Lighthouses and history go together like — well, ‘New’ and ‘England.’ Many of the coastal beacons predated the United States itself, but, like Boston Light, were replaced with newer, better versions.
Each New England state has multiple lighthouses. Maine, with its long coastline, has 57, while New Hampshire has only two along its 18 mile coast. Vermont actually has six.
But which are the oldest? Here, then, is a list of the oldest lighthouse in each New England state.
New London Harbor Light
Built in 1801, the New London Harbor Light is not only Connecticut’s oldest lighthouse, it is the tallest.
The colonial Connecticut legislature in 1760 decided to build the first lighthouse at New London, then one of the busiest whaling ports in the colonies. The government sold lottery tickets to raise 500 pounds to pay for building it. In 1781, Benedict Arnold led a British raid on New London and burned the town, but the stone lighthouse and keeper’s cottage survived the attack.
Connecticut ceded New London Harbor Light to the United States in 1789, and 11 years later Congress voted money to rebuild it.
Abisha Woodward, a New Londoner, built the 80-foot-tall octagonal stone tower.
Lighthouse keepers were political appointees, and Martin van Buren appointed John Munn at New London Harbor Light. Munn lost his job in 1841 after van Buren lost reelection, and before he left he blackened the reflector and trashed the lamps. His successor, a popular fisherman named John Mason, took weeks to repair Munn’s vandalism. But after Mason served only four months as keeper, Munn wrangled his job back, outraging the locals. The controversy died down when Munn passed away and Mason took his place.
The Bureau of Lighthouses automated the New London Harbor Light in 1912, and auctioned the property. Today the lighthouse remains in private hands, but New London has others. Today, you can see five lighthouses from Pequot Avenue — and learn more about lighthouses at the Coast Guard Museum.
U.S. Coast Guard Museum, 15 Mohegan Ave., New London, Conn.
Portland Head Light
You may know the Portland Head Light as the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse. The General Court of Massachusetts appropriated $750 to build it on the shores of Cape Elizabeth in 1787. Three years later, the U.S. government took responsibility for lighthouses and provided $1,500 to finish the job. President George Washington reminded the contractors the government didn’t have much money, so they should take building materials from the fields and shores.
Sixteen whale oil lamps first lit Portland Head Light on Jan 10, 1791.
One of the strangest shipwrecks in history took place at Portland Head Light on Christmas Eve, 1886. The three-masted bark Annie C. Maguire rammed right into the ledge by the lighthouse, though the crew plainly saw the light before the disaster. The keeper, Joshua Strout, along with his family and volunteers used a ladder as a gangplank to rescue all 14 aboard.
The U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned Maine’s oldest lighthouse in 1989. Today Portland Head Light, which sits next to 90-acre Fort Williams Park, has a museum within the former keeper’s quarters and a seasonal gift shop.
1000 Shore Rd., Cape Elizabeth, Maine
One would almost think Boston Light was cursed, given the trouble that befell the people who associated with it and the number of attacks it sustained from fire, lightning and warring armies.
There had been beacons on Brewster Island before to signal the approach of enemies and ships. The Boston merchant who petitioned the General Court to build Boston Light died before construction began. The first lighthouse keeper drowned. So did the second. The third lighthouse keeper had to clear his name after he was unfairly blamed for a fire in the light.
Fire broke out again and lightning struck the lighthouse several times. During the American Revolution, the Americans burned the wooden parts after the British captured it. When the British evacuated Boston, they left a time charge in Boston Light and blew it up.
A second Boston Light was built in 1783, and it is now the second oldest lighthouse in the United States. (The oldest is in Sandy Hook, N.J.)
Massachusetts gave Boston light to the federal government in 1790. In 1813, lighthouse keeper Jonathan Bruce and his wife watched the battle between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon. Just before dying, the wounded Chesapeake captain told his men, “Don’t give up the ship.” The crew gave up the ship anyway nine minutes later.
The military extinguished the light during World War II as a security precaution, and relit it on July 2, 1945. The Coast Guard decommissioned Boston Light in 1998, but it remains staffed by a keeper who acts mostly as a tour guide.
The National Park Service conducts tours of Boston Light twice daily on summer weekends.
Little Brewster Island, Boston, Mass.
White Island Light
White Island Light, also known as Isles of Shoals Light, was built in 1859, though the New Hampshire light station had been around since 1821.
Thomas Laighton famously took the job as lighthouse keeper after losing the election for New Hampshire governor in 1839. He sold his business in Portsmouth, moved his family to the small archipelago known as the Isles of Shoals and vowed he’d never set foot on the mainland again.
Laighton bought four of the nine islands and wrangled the federal appointment as lighthouse keeper. His daughter Celia wrote a poem about the island’s sandpipers, which the Atlantic magazine published. Laighton later built a summer resort on another island in the Isles of Shoals, and Celia Laighton Thaxter became one of America’s most popular writers. She maintained a salon on the Isles, hosting such luminaries as Childe Hassam, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
New Hampshire’s oldest lighthouse was built of brick with a cast iron lantern.
The island is closed to the public, but you can get close to White Island Light in an excursion boat.
White Island, Rye, N.H.
Poplar Point Light
Built in 1831 in North Kingstown, R.I., Poplar Point Light is not only Rhode Island oldest lighthouse, it’s the oldest with a wooden tower in the United States.
Wickford, R.I.’s, protected harbor off Narragansett Bay allowed the village to develop as a shipping point for trade between local plantation and international ports.
Congress agreed to spend $3,000 for a light at the entrance to Wickford Harbor, and local contractors finished it by the end of 1831. The Poplar Point Light guided sloops and schooners in and out of the harbor’s wharves.
By 1838, a Coast Guard survey concluded the light wasn’t needed, but Poplar Point Light stayed lit. By 1870, the government decided to build a new lighthouse at Old Gay Rock to guide the burgeoning ferryboat traffic. Albert Sherman bought Poplar Point Lighthouse at auction for $3,944.67. By 1932, Edith Grant owned the lighthouse and built a large house around it. The Shippee family bought the building in 1962, and has lived there since.
Poplar Point Light is not open to the public, but Rhode Island Bay Cruises and Save the Bay offer lighthouse cruises that may go near. They usually run between May and October.
Juniper Island Light
Juniper Island Light is not only the oldest lighthouse in Vermont, it’s the oldest cast iron lighthouse left in the United States. Originally a lantern on a post on Juniper Island marked the entrance to Burlington Harbor until a 30-foot-tall brick tower, the first on Lake Champlain, replaced it. That fell to a tower of cast iron in 1846. The lighthouse guided thousands of ships into Burlington Harbor, for many years the second busiest lumber port in the United States.
After 108 years of service, an automatic light on a tower replaced the Juniper Island Light. A state senator named Fred Fayette bought the island and the lighthouse in 1956. Careless campers started a fire that destroyed the lighthouse keeper’s house in 1962. Fayette’s 11 children inherited the island after his death and in 2001 began to reconstruct the keeper’s house with reclaimed bricks. They later restored and painted the tower.
Juniper Island, Burlington, Vt.
Images: Portland Head Light, By Rapidfire – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7161757; Boston Light By Dpbsmith at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1663166. This story was updated in 2023.