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Home » HISTORY » CONNECTICUT » The Seafarer’s Beacon
New London Ledge Light
The Seafarer’s Beacon

Part 1 - Connecticut’s Lighthouses

By Kate Romani | November 16, 2010

In this three part series, ONE will explore Connecticut’s numerous iconic lighthouses that nestle on our shoreline, many of which date back to the early 1800’s.

Historically, these structures have served the important navigational function of warning sailors of dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals and reefs, and lighting their way to safe entry into harbors.   Although this role has been, for the most part, superseded by global positioning systems, radar, and other modern electronic guidance systems, many of these graceful and romantic towers and buildings remain today.

A Fresnel Lens

In the 19th century, several coastline towns located along Connecticut’s Long Island Sound, from New London to Stonington, served as busy centers of whaling, shipbuilding, fishing and trade - and some of these cities transitioned into active industrial hubs in the 1900s.   Because it was critical to the success of these businesses for boats to effectively navigate the dangerous ledges surrounding port entrances and maneuver safely into the rivers and harbors, several lighthouses were built along this stretch of coastline.

New London alone has three magnificent structures: New London Harbor Light, New Ledge Light and Avery Point Light.   Just a few miles up the coast, a treacherous stretch of reef located at the east end of Fishers Island Sound is marked by Latimer Reef Light.   Closer to the shoreline, Morgan Point Light and Stonington Harbor Light serve to guide mariners into the Mystic River and the harbors of Noank and Stonington Borough.

How did these lights function? Technology has come a long way from the earliest lighthouses - which were simple bonfires built on hillsides to guide ships.   Typically, a series of oil lamps were used to light the way until they were replaced in the mid 1800s by the Fresnel lens (pronounced: Fruh-nell) . . . a specially designed lens which increases the power of a light and focuses it in one direction.   And, of course these lights, and the lighthouse, had to be maintained by key individuals: the keepers.

It took a certain type of individual to be suited to the solitary life in a lighthouse.   Because of the varied responsibilities of keeping the facility operational at all times, without easy access to help or materials, self-reliance and creativity appear to be important qualities of a keeper’s personality.

Latimer Reef Light

The number of women keepers surprised me - and, true to the social and political climate of the times, when female keepers are mentioned in the histories of lighthouses, their housekeeping skills (or lack of) were carefully noted.   Male keepers’ prowess in that regard was never reported.   I discovered one interesting concession to male behavior traits: the Coast Guard lighthouse keeper crews always consisted of three men, rather than two.   The rational: in the event that a fight broke out between two of the men, the third man would be available to break it up.

As I talked with several Connecticut shoreline locals about lighthouses, they shared some fun stories about their fairly routine visits to nearby sites - and told me about their exciting adventures involving bringing homemade food items and a welcome bit of human contact to these stalwart lighthouse dwellers.   One keeper at the Latimer Reef Light learned to paint in his spare time, and later made his living as an artist.   He would also row ashore on Saturday nights to play saxophone in a jazz band.

The solitude and beauty of a lighthouse keeper’s lifestyle has obviously been an attraction to many individuals.

“After a week ashore, I can’t wait to get back here,” quoted one keeper, but he recognized that it wasn’t for everybody as he added, “this might be an ideal place for a loner, but it would drive whoever lives with him up a wall.”

His simple conclusion?

“You get a lot of time to think.”

In Part 2, we look at the surprisingly different architectural designs of lighthouses and explore the very first lighthouse built in Connecticut.

Lighthouse Details:

New London Harbor Light

New London Ledge Light

Avery Point Light

Morgan Point Light

Latimer Reef Light

Stonington Harbor Light

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