On September 30, 2017, the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses (FPHL), a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), paid tribute to two light keepers by establishing U.S. Lighthouse Service markers on the graves of Leander White and Henry M. Cuskley.
FPHL and ALF representatives, as well as family members of the lighthouse keepers themselves, gathered at Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the marker dedication ceremony, which included the sharing of stories about the keepers and relatives placing small American flags behind each marker.
FPHL chairman Jeremy D’Entremont served as the master of ceremonies for the dedication and noted at the outset how he strongly believes in the chapter’s ongoing commitment to honor keepers who tended the lights at Portsmouth Harbor and Whaleback. D’Entremont stated, “The lighthouses themselves are historic and beautiful, but it was the keepers and their families who brought them to life.”
D’Entremont emphasized the importance of keeping the human interest aspect of lighthouses alive and sharing the many keeper accounts and stories with the general public. In doing so, we not only honor the service and dedication of the lighthouse keepers, but we also enrich the experience of those who visit the lights today or learn about them through outreach programs.
ALF Executive Director Bob Trapani, Jr. remarked how this type of ceremony not only honors our lighthouse heritage, but it also connects the past with those of us in the present – and provides for a wonderful opportunity to meet proud family members of the keepers as well.
The impact of such dedications will also go well beyond the gathering of lighthouse preservationists and family members at the ceremony. Trapani stated, “From here forward, people will walk through this cemetery looking at names and gravestones, and when they do, they will see the beautiful U.S. Lighthouse Service markers and know that these two men (keepers White and Cuskley) played an important role in our lighthouse heritage.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, FPHL Operations Manager Cindy Johnson read the poem, The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders by Edgar Guest. The poem was a fitting tribute to the human aspect of lightkeeping and aptly summed things up as to why, in part, we cherish our wonderful lighthouse heritage. May it always shine bright in our hearts and minds!
FPHL Chairman Jeremy D’Entremont read the following bios of keepers Leander White and Henry M. Cuskley to those in attendance at the U.S. Lighthouse Service marker dedication ceremony…
Leander White (1844-1915)
Leander White was born in 1844 in New Castle, New Hampshire. White and his wife, Elizabeth, had two daughters, Mary and Mercedes, and two sons, Ronald and Arnold.
White began his light keeping career at isolated Boon Island Light, more than six miles off the southern Maine coast, in 1874. He served as an assistant keeper there until 1878.
White was appointed to be the first keeper of the Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light in York, Maine, before the light went into service, but he was then assigned to Whaleback Light in Kittery, instead. He served eight years (1878-1886) at Whaleback.
A winter gale in 1886 sent waves smashing through a window of the tower, flooding the living quarters. Leander White, the principal keeper since 1878, displayed a blanket from the tower as a distress signal. Days passed before the seas were calm enough for two Kittery residents to reach Whaleback to rescue White. The party’s small boat then had trouble reaching Portsmouth Harbor, as the seas were still high. They were towed to safety by a steamer.
After two years at Goat Island Light in Kennebunkport, White became principal keeper at the Cape Elizabeth “Two Lights” station in 1888, succeeding the renowned Marcus Hanna. White remained at the Two Lights until 1909.
White succeeded Joshua Card as keeper of Portsmouth Harbor Light, also known as Fort Point Light, in 1909. When he took over as keeper, a newspaper called Coast Watch reported, “Capt. White is the fourth oldest keeper in point of service in this district, having served 37 years in the lighthouse dept. He is one of the best men in this dept. of the government and has been in charge of stations at Boon Island, Whaleback, and Cape Porpoise (Goat Island) light stations during his many years of service.”
Leander White died at the keeper’s house at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in July 1915 from complications of diabetes. He was 71 years old.
Henry M. Cuskley (1874-1955)
Henry Matthew Cuskley was born in Portland, Maine, in 1874, the son of John and Jane Cuskley. He started his light keeping career when he was in his early 20s. It was through his father-in-law, Leander White, that he became interested in lighthouse keeping.
He was an assistant keeper at the Cape Elizabeth “Two Lights” station from 1897 to 1903. Leander White was the principal keeper, and Cuskley was married to Leander White’s daughter, Mary.
He then became the principal keeper at Libby Island Light near Jonesport, Maine, in 1903. He later described the 1906 wreck of the three-masted schooner Ella G. Ells to the historian Edward Rowe Snow. All hands on the schooner were lost except the captain, who drifted ashore on the roof of the ship’s cabin.
From 1912 to 1915, Cuskley was stationed at Seguin Light at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. He then began a 26-year stretch as keeper of Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in July 1915 after the death of Leander White, who had been keeper since 1909. He lived at the station with his wife, Mary – daughter of Leander White, and their two daughters.
Cuskley became very involved in community affairs, serving for a time as the chairman of the local school board and also the chairman of a school union that included seven communities in the vicinity.
Mary Cuskley was famous for her Sunday dinners and raspberry custard tarts. One neighbor later remembered that Mrs. Cuskley would go into a panic when she got word that the lighthouse inspector was coming. The neighbor said that Mrs. Cuskley “flew around wildly throwing things out the portholes, and I’d run out and catch what I wanted as it flew by. I have a small table today that I caught on the fly.”
Mary Cuskley died in July 1938. Henry Cuskley retired at the end of 1941 after 44 years in the lighthouse service and moved to a home a short distance away on Cranfield Street in New Castle. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus for more than 50 years. He died on May 29, 1955, at the age of 81.
The next keeper after Cuskley at Portsmouth Harbor Light was Arnold B. White, a native of New Castle. He was Cuskley’s brother-in-law and the son of the former keeper Leander White.
FPHL Chairman Jeremy D’Entremont read the following excerpts from The Lighthouse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) during the ceremony…
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year and year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore the quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
“Sail on!” it says, sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.
FPHL Operations Manager Cindy Johnson read the poem The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders by Edgar Guest (1881-1959) at the conclusion of the ceremony…
The light I have tended for 40 years
Is now to be run by a set of gears.
The Keeper said, and it isn’t nice
To be put ashore by a mere device.
Now, fair or foul the wind that blow
Or smooth or rough the sea below,
It is all the same. The ships at night
Will run to an automatic light.
The clock and gear which truly turn
Are timed and set so the light shall burn.
But did ever an automatic thing
Set plants about in early Spring?
And did ever a bit of wire and gear
A cry for help in darkness hear?
Or welcome callers and show them through
The lighthouse rooms as I used to do?
‘Tis not in malice these things I say.
All men must bow to the newer way.
But it’s strange for a lighthouse man like me
After forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now – will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
Plant marigolds in early Spring?