NEW CASTLE — Two recent January storms caused extensive damage to the base of the historic Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and an adjacent 1903 oil house.
The storms hit almost back to back on Jan. 10 and Jan. 13 and threw around huge slabs of the lighthouse’s base — which dates back to 1804 — like they were “grains of sand,” according to Jeremy D’Entremont, a longtime member of Friends of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. He has volunteered for the group since 2001.
The flooding from the storms knocked down a section of sea wall at the site, which is also home to Fort Constitution.
The damage done by the recent storms — stemming from what D’Entremont and others believe are intensifying storms caused by climate change — are putting a piece of history in danger.
The image of the iconic lighthouse was used in Portsmouth’s recent 400th anniversary celebration.
He agreed it’s fair to say that the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse — which was built in 1878 — could be lost during a future major storm.
The threat from more storms
“Keep in mind at this point we don’t know how much water is getting in and how far it’s getting in,” D’Entremont said during an interview Wednesday near the lighthouse as a cold winter wind blew. “More storms of that kind could seriously undermine the lighthouse.”
He said structures like the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and others along the New England coast are in particular danger from flooding because they were built so close to the water, in this case the tidal Piscataqua River.
“They were put where they could be the most advantageous to navigation, which was to be at those dangerous points where water meets land, and that’s why they get the worst of the storms,” he said.
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D’Entremont believes the intensity and frequency of the storms hitting the lighthouse, which is located at the Coast Guard station in New Castle, will keep increasing as the climate changes.
Climate change impacts history
“To me one of the most telling things is the fact the four biggest floods, the highest water I’ve seen in 20 years or more I’ve been here, have all been in the last three years. And the worst one was this last one,” D’Entremont said. “That says a lot to me. That base held up since 1804 and then this happened.”
He explained the base was used to hold a wooden lighthouse that was built in 1771 and then replaced by the existing one.
A storm that hit two days before Christmas in 2022 destroyed a foot bridge that took visitors out to the lighthouse, he said.
The Coast Guard, which owns the lighthouse, has been planning to replace the footbridge since that time, he said. There’s still a pile of supplies for the footbridge piled up neatly outside.
“It’s probably fortunate that they hadn’t rebuilt it because it would have probably been destroyed in the storms, too,” D’Entremont said.
“I couldn’t be more concerned,” D’Entremont said about the future of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. “To me the whole issue of climate change has been for years a 1,000-pound gorilla in the room for lighthouse preservation. Lately the gorilla broke loose from its chains and is rampaging now.”
How can the lighthouse be protected?
Michelle Shaw is president of Friends of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse’s Leadership Committee.
She visited the site during the last storm and saw for herself the power of the flood waters that damaged the lighthouse’s base.
“What was even more amazing to me was those big pieces of timber on top of the base, those were around the outer edges of the base before the storm hit,” Shaw said. “But the waves just threw them around.”
Shaw cried when she saw the damage to the base and oil house, and fears what may happen to the historic lighthouse.
“If we continue getting these storms like we have during just the last two years, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “How are we going to protect the lighthouse? I just don’t know.”
Her biggest concern right now is “that the lighthouse structure has been undermined under its right side.”
“You can see underneath it where the base was destroyed,” she said.
Shaw, who frequently volunteered to give tours of the lighthouse before the footbridge was washed away, acknowledged she’s “very concerned about the future of the lighthouse.”
“It’s just so important to keep the history alive and keep Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse safe and secure,” she said. “It’s sad to think this could go away.”
Bob Trapani is the executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation. He visited the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse shortly after the latest major storm hit.
“That was some of the most riveting damage that occurred on the coast of New Hampshire or Maine,” he said. “It was an eye opener. The power of the sea is just amazing. When you see these giant granite blocks, and you see the foundation of the lighthouse in upheaval, along with the wall of the oil house just being smashed, it always gives you pause.”
Trapani said he too believes coastal storms “are becoming more frequent and more intense with climate change.”
“That oil house for it to survive is going to have to be moved because it’s in harm’s way now,” he said.
No cheap solutions: Will lighthouse be moved?
Trapani believes it may be possible to protect or strengthen the lighthouse itself.
“But the options are going to be expensive and they’re going to require hiring a marine engineer,” Trapani said. “We love that lighthouse. We want it to remain there but it’s going to be inundated from time to time, and in just a few hours the destruction can be amazing.
“I do think the lighthouse itself can be protected into the near future but for the long-term it may need to be moved, too,” he added.
If the lighthouse Friends group has to raise the money for repairs or enhancements, he acknowledged “time is not on our side.”
“It’s one thing when you can raise money over time and the environment is stable, it’s even harder when we could face more storms,” he said.
Trapani said the effort to save the lighthouse is worth the fight.
“Anybody who lives in the Portsmouth area knows how much the lighthouse means to a lot of us,” he said.
D’Entremont explained while the lighthouse and oil house are owned by the Coast Guard, the Friends group has a license to maintain both structures.
“We’ve put over $100,000 into this place since we’ve been involved,” he said, adding that the large majority of that has come from modest fees for tours of the lighthouse.
But they couldn’t offer the tours last year because the footbridge was destroyed, and tours may not be possible again this year, he said.
The group has not yet heard from the Coast Guard or received any estimates about how much it will cost to repair the lighthouse base, he said.
“Their top priority is keeping the station in good working order,” he said. “We may have to raise that money ourselves, that’s unclear at this point. In the meantime we have to hope there’s no more storms like we just had.”
To learn more about the lighthouse or to donate to the Friends group, visit portsmouthharborlighthouse.org.