If there is one universal trait that shines brighter than any other in the lighthouse preservation field, it may very well be the ‘can do’ attitude that is exhibited by so many of today’s modern day ‘keepers.’
This indomitable spirit is not only admirable – the characteristic is absolutely essential if dedicated preservationists are to rise above a sea of challenges that can besiege them during a lighthouse restoration undertaking. Nowhere is this more evident than at offshore lights, especially those towers presiding over wave-swept ledges.
Maine’s Whaleback Lighthouse, situated at the entrance to the Piscataqua River between Kittery, Maine, and New Castle, New Hampshire is one such place. The rugged 1872 sentinel is owned by the American Lighthouse Foundation and under the care of the organization’s local chapter, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses.
When it comes to offshore projects, getting there by boat, and coping with the vagaries of the sea at the same time are one challenge, but even when you get there, the act of disembarking volunteers and equipment raises a whole new set of difficulties.
This is certainly the case at Whaleback Lighthouse. Rarely is there a day when the seas are calm enough to erase the difficulties associated with affecting a landing at this location, which is fraught with rocks and constantly impacted by powerful surges and some of the fastest currents in the world that flow in and out of the Piscataqua River.
Given the realities at Whaleback, the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses have but one option if this beloved lighthouse is to be saved – to establish a safe and durable docking system at the site that can serve as a springboard for all things preservation and education thereafter.
Over the past nine months, the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses (FPHL) have been leaving no stone unturned in their quest to identify suitable options for this wave-swept location.
On February 6, 2012 Whaleback committee members, including Deane Rykerson, AIA and Duncan Mellor, PE of Waterfront Engineers, LLC, met at the offices of Rykerson Architecture in Kittery Point to discuss the most efficient manner to proceed in light of the operational and financial challenges associated with the project.
Armed with a wealth of expertise, a Historic Structures Report, drawings, photographs and valuable information gleaned from site visits, the committee came to the conclusion that a two-phase project was the best approach for establishing a boat landing and series of walkways / ramps at the lighthouse.
The consensus also agreed that before the access system (Phase II of the project) could be enacted, the east and west stone breakwaters at the lighthouse must first be repaired, which would constitute Phase I.
Over many decades, powerful storms have taken their toll on the breakwaters, and in the process, slowly dismantled them. Today much of the stonework that once comprised these protective walls has been strewn about the site to the point where the original purpose of the breakwaters has all but been rendered ineffective.
In order to repair the rock armor at Whaleback a marine company with a barge and crane – and ample experience with undertaking work at exposed locations, will be required. But before this can occur, it is necessary to identify the scope of work that will be involved in resetting the stonework for the two breakwaters back to their original positions.
The Whaleback committee determined the extent of Phase I as best as it could based on historic drawings, and photographic documentation obtained of the breakwaters from atop the light tower and at sea level, but the group desired one more vantage point before finalizing plans – from the air.
With time to complete the work and funding plans for the rock armor project at Whaleback quickly evaporating this winter, it was the ‘can do’ attitude of the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses that came shining through once again.
On February 19, 2012, Ross Tracy, FPHL chairman, Jeremy D’Entremont, FPHL operations manager, and Deane Rykerson, AIA, took to the air with a local helicopter pilot to obtain vital aerial photographs of the site during the final stages of the day’s ebb tide.
“We timed a helicopter flight over Whaleback at dead low tide, and at one of the lowest tides of the month,” said Deane Rykerson, AIA of Rykerson Architecture. “This allowed us to obtain overhead photos of the site with all of the obstructions and details of the rocks revealed, as well as the build up of sediment at the site.”
Rykerson went on to say, “With our scaled drawings of the light tower and the one-time fog signal tower, we will be able to scale a photo and bring it into a computer-aided design (CAD) program and have an accurate site plan. This will allow us to eventually design the dock and walkways with real dimensions without having to employ a land surveyor.”
After viewing the aerial photographs obtained during the February 19th helicopter flight, Duncan Mellor of Waterfront Engineers, LLC, noted, “It is really interesting to see the shoal sediment deposits. This seems to show the predominant wave direction coming from the South-southwest due to the sand, gravel and cobble having been deposited to the North-northeast of the lighthouse.”
The documentation obtained during the helicopter flight will also be included in a proposal to be submitted to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission by the American Lighthouse Foundation. Before such work can begin, it is necessary to enter into a consultation review process with the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure the project adheres to the standards of preservation.
Once the American Lighthouse Foundation obtains the approval of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, work at the site is expected to begin not long thereafter. But of course, like all things at Whaleback Light, weather and seas will have a lot to say about things before all is said and done!
Stay tuned for exciting updates on this project in spring/summer 2012.
By the way, the most recent storm that passed over the Maine coast at the start of March demonstrated why it is so important that thorough planning yields a durable docking system at Whaleback Lighthouse. For on days when a gale blows great guns, the conditions at Whaleback Lighthouse go from difficult to unimaginable as this animated GIF file by FPHL’s William Marshall shows: