Motivated by my son’s interest in the paranormal, we joined a “haunted lighthouse tour” at Fort Constitution in Newcastle, N.H. on a recent summer evening. The tour of the Fort and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse was led by ghost hunting expert Ron Kolek, of New England Ghost Hunters, and lighthouse historian/author Jeremy D’Entremont.
Although we didn’t see any ghostly figures or detect any spirits with the electro-magnetic field (EMF) devices and dowsing rods provided by Ron (although we possibly had contact with one spirit in the powder magazine), I enjoyed visiting the fort from the ghostly perspective. The sunset view over the Piscataqua River from the top of the lighthouse was an added bonus.
Fort Constitution is a New Hampshire state park located within the grounds of an active Coast Guard station. The Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses now own and maintain the lighthouse, which was operated by civilian and then Coast Guard personnel until it was automated in 1960. The Lighthouse was turned over to the Friends in 2000.
I’ve been to Fort Constitution before, both to visit the lighthouse and to explore its ruins. The fort has always struck me as a neglected treasure, with few interpretative signs or exhibits explaining its history. For the past several years, the Friends have been working on developing exhibits focused on the lighthouse, and these wall-mounted posters now offer a detailed history of both the lighthouse and the personalities who operated it.
The point of land on which the Fort is located has been the site of a fort since the 1600s and was rebuilt, upgraded and renovated at various times throughout the 18th and 19th century. The oldest structures on its grounds are the 1808 power magazine and a stone wall from the same time period. Like many old forts in New England, Fort Constitution offered a fairly mundane experience to most of its soldiers, with nothing much ever happening, in terms of battling the French, British or other possible enemies. (By contrast, the modern Coast Guard station is a busy operation, as it carries out numerous search and rescue operations and other missions).
While life at the fort may have been dull for the typical 19th century soldier, Fort Constitution is well-known to Revolutionary War history buffs as the reason for Paul Revere’s not-so-famous first ride, in December of 1774, when he rode 60 miles to Portsmouth to warn local Patriots that a British fleet might be en route to grab the powder and cannon stored at the fort – then known as Castle William and Mary — and take it away to Boston.
Revere’s alert mobilized the Patriots of Portsmouth. In a few days time, 400 men, led by future Governor John Langdon and others, had mobilized from Portsmouth and neighboring towns to seize the powder at the Fort. The fort was guarded by only six British soldiers who were quickly overcome, tied up, and then let go once the Patriots made off with the gunpowder was taken. One source reports that guns were fired – possibly after the fort was already taken — so that the British soldiers could say they had tried to defend the fort. The powder was later sent up the river and eventually hidden in Exeter, NH.
When Loyalist Governor John Wentworth learned of the Revere’s arrival in Portsmouth on December 13, he had tried to diffuse the situation, warning the leaders that they could be charged with rebellion, but the raid on the fort went on as planned. After the raid, according to an account by Wentworth, a committee came to him to solicit pardons and freedom from prosecution. The Governor said that he “could not promise them any such thing,” but told them if they returned the gunpowder, he would work on their behalf to alleviate any punishment. Instead, led by soon-to-be general John Sullivan, the men returned to the fort and confiscated 16 cannon and other weapons.
Within a year’s time, Wentworth had to take refuge in the Fort and eventually landed in Nova Scotia. Although I don’t want to stray too far from the ghost tour, I will add that like many “Loyalists” of the Seacoast, Wentworth was not a stick figure King’s lackey, but a man trying to do his best to prevent an outbreak of hostilities. His account of the incident suggests that he went all out to use his negotiating and diplomacy skills to find a solution to the crisis. (I’ll write more about him another time).
Fort Constitution saw no further action during the Revolution, but 33 years after 1776, on July 4, 1809, the fort’s lawns and walls were stained with blood and scattered with human flesh. On this celebratory day, just after renovations and upgrades to the fort had been completed, a small crowd had gathered on its grounds to celebrate Independence Day with a dinner party at the home of Revolutionary War veteran and fort commander Colonel Walbach.
Suddenly, the fort was shaken by a violent explosion, as 350 pounds of gunpowder accidently exploded, with the blast ripping through soldiers and visitors. Fourteen people were killed that day or died later, with some bodies flung across the fort and limbs strewn throughout the grounds. According to a report of the July 5, 1809 New Hampshire Sentinel,
“To give some idea of the force which attended the explosion, we have only to inform our readers that a leg and foot actually penetrated through a double door in the captain’s house, and made its way to the inner parts of the room, almost every window in the fort was stove in and in the house occupied by the commandant the doors were taken from their hinges, the windows broken, the shelves in the closets torn down, the ceiling much injured; in short, the building is almost in ruins.”
Because of the chaos caused by the explosion, what definitively happened was and is hard to determine, but most accounts suggest that two soldiers had taken the gunpowder out of the new magazine because it was damp and needed to dry in the sun. Somehow, the powder was accidentally ignited.
Today, Fort Constitution has a firm reputation within the Coast Guard for paranormal activity, with reports of wandering dark figures, oily footprints and voices. Some say the tragic explosion accounts for the alleged supernatural activity, although many “hauntings” are not specific to people who were living at or visiting the fort that summer day.The New England Ghost Hunters group has conducted several investigations at the
Fort,but rely on the Coast Guard personnel, who man the fort 24/7, for most reports of paranormal sitings or activity. In 2008, Fort Constitution was the focus of an episode on the Ghost Hunters television series (see link below), although the most dramatic moment of the episode was provided by the sudden discovery of two big spiders.
During the 1.5 hour haunted tour, we poked around the fort, climbed up to the top of lighthouse, listened to stories of various supernatural encounters, looked at ghostly photos and listened to recordings of “EVPs,”(electronic voice phenomenon) possibly generated by spirits within the lighthouse.
I’m not a ghost hunter myself and am inclined to be skeptical but curious. I was intrigued by the accounts of supernatural activity at the fort and interested in the human history. Ghosts seem to prefer darkness to dusk – we took the 7 p.m. tour – so in a future summer, maybe we’ll try the 10:30 p.m. tour.
My greatest fear that evening was that the tour would result in a middle-of-the-night visitor to my bedroom – not a spiritual one, but a tween-aged human — and that similar sleep interruptions would continue for weeks to come. But the family ghost hunter slept soundly. Faint thumps and one or two yowls disturbed me throughout the night — a common phenomenon at the house — so I put in ear plugs to diminish the noise. The following day, in their chosen corners, the cats slept like dead men.
P.S. While I do my best to fact check and verify all information in my posts using a variety of sources, I also welcome additional information and corrections via the moderated comment box. Your email does not display publicly when the comment is posted.
Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. The Fort Constitution tours will be offered again in 2012 on August 25 and September 29. Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse is also open to the public on Sunday afternoons through October 7. All of these events are fundraisers for the organization.
Ghost Hunters Season 4, Episode 28: Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Aired December 10, 2008. The official site provides a recap of the episode.
New England Curiosities Walking Tours. Author/historian Roxie Zwicker also offers some intriguing tours and tales of Portsmouth, including her “haunted theater” tour.
Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse Ghost Hunters episode (unofficial, in two parts).
Fort Constitution. Access Genealogy. Includes excerpts from Governor Wentworth’s correspondence that provides an account of the Patriot raid on Castle William and Mary.
Fort Constitution. North American Forts. New Hampshire/Maine.
Fort William and Mary, Fort Constitution, Fort Point. New Hampshire Genealogy Trails. Includes excerpted account of explosion from July 5, 1809 New Hampshire Centinel (sic)